The Changing Demographics of Roman Catholics

(August 2005) The April 2005 death of Pope John Paul II and the weeks leading to the selection of his replacement stimulated much thought and discussion about who the new pope would be and in which directions he would lead the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics. Much of the debate centered on whether the next pontiff would come from Europe or from the developing world, where approximately 70 percent of Catholics live.

Indeed, the massive population growth taking place across the developing world and the slowly growing or declining population of the developed world mean that Catholicism will increasingly be a religion practiced predominantly in developing countries. The nearly 500 million Catholics who are projected to join the church between now and 2050 will come overwhelmingly from countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria.

Meanwhile, traditionally Catholic countries such as Poland and Italy will suffer large declines in the numbers of their Catholic citizens. The installment to the papacy of the German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—who became Pope Benedict XVI—continues a growing ethnic and geographic disjuncture between the European power structure of the Catholic Church and its flock.

Growth Across the Developing World

More than two-thirds of Catholics live in the developing world, and population projections clearly indicate that proportion will grow to three-fourths in the next four decades (see Table 1).1 From 2004 to 2050, Catholic populations are projected to increase by 146 percent in Africa, 63 percent in Asia, 42 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 38 percent in North America. Meanwhile, Europe will experience a 6 percent decline in its Catholic population between 2004 and 2050.

Table 1

Estimated and Projected Catholic Population by Region of the World, 2004, 2025, and 2050

Projected Catholic
Change in Catholic Population, 2004-2050
Region of world
Latin America & Caribbean
North America
Total world

Source: Author’s calculations based on data from PRB’s World Population Data Sheet 2004 and accessed at

Such divergent growth patterns will also shift the global distribution of Catholics over the next 45 years (see Figure 1). Latin American and Caribbean Catholics are still likely to account for two-fifths of all Catholics in 2050, and Africa is expected to have more than one-fifth by that year. But Europe’s share of Catholics is projected to drop from one-fourth in 2004 to one-sixth in 2050. North America’s proportion will decline only slightly, to 1 in every 13.

Figure 1
Distribution of Catholics by World Region, 2004, 2025, and 2050

Note: Percentages may not add to 100% due to rounding.
Source: Author’s calculations based on data from PRB’s World Population Data Sheet 2004 and accessed at

The Congo, the Philippines, and Mexico Likely to Lead Growth in Numbers of Catholics

Diverging regional growth patterns for Catholic populations are mirrored in projections for many of these regions’ individual countries, with Latin American and African countries leading the way. Indeed, the list of 25 countries projected to experience the greatest growth in their Catholic populations from 2004 to 2050 is dominated by Latin America/the Caribbean (with 13 countries) and Africa (with eight).

The 10 countries forecast to have the greatest numerical increases in their Catholic populations by 2050 include Congo, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, the United States, Nigeria, Uganda, Colombia, Argentina, and Angola (see Table 2). These 10 countries are expected to account for slightly more than three-fifths of the projected world growth of 495.4 million Catholics between 2004 and 2050. Only one European country (France) appears in the top 25 in terms of growth, at 22nd for the 2004-2025 period.

Conversely, European nations dominate the list of countries projected to experience declines in their Catholic populations between now and 2050. Nearly 70 percent (25 of 34) of the countries projected to sustain losses in their Catholic populations between 2004 and 2050 are in Europe, as are all 10 of the countries expected to have the greatest numerical declines in their Catholic populations (see Table 2). Poland and Italy each are projected to have 5.3 million fewer Catholics in 2050 than in 2004.

Table 2

Countries With Largest Projected Growth or Decline in Their Catholic Populations, 2004-2050

Projected Absolute Change in Catholic Population
Countries with Growth
Countries with Decline
1 Congo (Dem. Rep)
1 Poland
2 Philippines
2 Italy
3 Mexico
3 Germany
4 Brazil
4 Hungary
5 United States
5 Portugal
6 Nigeria
6 Spain
7 Uganda
7 Ukraine
8 Colombia
8 Slovakia
9 Argentina
9 Romania
10 Angola
10 Croatia

Source: Author’s calculations based on data from PRB’s World Population Data Sheet 2004 and accessed at

These expected changes in the distribution of the world’s Catholic population over the coming decades will also produce shifts in the ranks of the most populous Catholic nations. Brazil and Mexico are expected to remain the two largest Catholic countries throughout the three time periods, with the Philippines expected to displace the United States as the third-largest Catholic country in 2050.

The rise of Congo on the list is particularly noticeable: Its Catholic population is projected to triple between 2004 and 2050, which would vault it from the 11th most-populous Catholic country to the fifth-most in just 45 years. Meanwhile, European countries are projected to only constitute five of the largest 25 Catholic countries in both 2025 and 2050.

Secularization and Protestant Inroads Could Affect Catholic Gains

There are obviously many nondemographic factors that could change these percentages. For example, trends toward secularization characterize the countries of Europe and North America as well as other countries—trends that could further reduce the number of Catholics in these countries. European countries that receive substantial numbers of non-Catholic immigrants who have higher fertility rates than white Europeans could also see their percentages of Catholics fall even more.

In addition, Latin America and the Caribbean—regions whose residents were almost exclusively Catholic at the beginning of the 20th century—have experienced significant reductions in the percentage of their inhabitants who identify themselves as Catholics. Over 20 percent of people in Guatemala, Venezuela, Honduras, and El Salvador now are Protestants. Five other Latin American countries have populations that are at least 15 percent Protestant.2

Fundamentalist and evangelical Protestant religions have also made major inroads among Latino immigrants to the United States. For example, the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life (HCAPL) national survey conducted in 2000 revealed that 70 percent of Latinos in the United States identified themselves as Catholic, while 23 percent reported they were Protestants. Further rifts between traditional Catholicism and liberation theology in Latin America could also reduce the attachment of Latin Americans to Catholicism.

The Church’s Potential Responses to its Changing Demography

The Catholic Church has several options in responding to the demographic shift of its flock away from Europe and toward the developing world. One option would be devoting greater energy to issues that affect the lives of Catholics in the developing world—issues including poverty, hunger, AIDS, inequitable access to health care, economic inequality, and war.

The Church might also take more aggressive measures to ensure that priests from the developing world attain positions of ecclesiastical power, including the papacy. In addition, the institution might increasingly have to rely on youth from the developing world to fill the ranks of priests and nuns. Finally, the Church also could adopt a laissez-faire approach about its demographic disjunctures. These potential routes are of course not mutually exclusive. But regardless of its next steps, the Catholic Church will face major challenges in balancing the needs of its growing developing-world population and those of its traditional but declining population from the developed world.3

Rogelio Saenz is professor of sociology at Texas A&M University and author of Latinos and the Changing Face of America (New York: The Russell Sage Foundation, 2004).


  1. Due to the absence of historical trend data across countries regarding the prevalence of Catholics in the populace, this analysis must assume that the percentage of the population that is Catholic in each region or country remains constant over the 2004-2050 period. To the extent that changes occur in the degree to which members of the population adhere to Catholicism, the true population figures for the three time periods could vary accordingly from those reported here. In making these projections, I used population projections from PRB’s 2004 World Population Data Sheet and statistics on present national and regional percentages of Catholics from the website The website contains Catholic population statistics down to the jurisdictional level (usually diocesan) from the Annuario Pontificio, the official yearly Vatican directory.
  2. “Protestants by Country,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (July 2005), accessed at, on July 18, 2005.
  3. I acknowledge the helpful comments of Karen Manges Douglas, Dudley Poston, and Mercedes Rubio on an earlier draft of this report, and the assistance of Lorena Murga in compiling some of the data used in the analysis. I also thank David M. Cheney, creator of the dataset, for his generous sharing of details regarding the dataset used in this analysis.