Church in Africa: Demography reigns

An adoration chapel in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

For the first time in a generation, the Roman Curia is without any African cardinals in top leadership positions, after Pope Francis accepted this month the resignation of Cardinal Peter Turkson from the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

But Africa is growing in importance within the Catholic Church, and is poised to become an even more important global center of Catholicism in the decades to come.

The growing prominence of Africa in the global Church is driven by two different stories: the conversion of sub-Saharan Africa in the first half of the 20th century, and the growth of Africa’s population — unique among all regions of the world — in the 21st.

Conversion of a continent

The globe’s second-largest continent by land mass, Africa was in 2020 home to a population of 1.3 billion people.

Fifty percent of that population is Christian; 17% are Catholic. Africa’s 236 million Catholics already make up 19% of the global Catholic population, but they are also the fastest-growing Catholic region in the world.

By 2050, the World Christian Database estimates that African Catholics will make up 32% of the Catholic Church.

Africa is not new territory for Christianity. Egypt and the rest of North Africa were integral parts of the Roman world and were early centers for Christianity. Saint Augustine served as bishop of Hippo, which is on the coast of modern day Algeria. And the Ethiopian Orthodox Church traces its history as the state religion of the Kingdom of Ethiopia to the fourth century. Indeed, Ethiopia became a Catholic state before Rome did.

But after the Roman Empire’s wane and the conquest of North Africa by Muslims in the seventh century, Christian expansion in Africa was limited until the colonial era. According to data collected by the World Christian Database, as of 1900 the continent was 9% Christian (including 2% Catholic, 2% Protestant, and 4% Orthodox) and 33% Muslim, while 58% followed traditional ethnic religions.

The period from 1900 to 1970 brought rapid religious change to Africa, as well as population growth and economic development.

The total percentage of Christians in Africa increased four-fold between 1900 and 1970: from 9% of the population to 38%.

The percentage of Catholics increased even more rapidly, from 2% in 1900 to six times that number in 1970.

Islam, which is primarily concentrated in the northern regions of the continent, grew from 33% of the population to 41%. Meanwhile, the share of Africa’s population adhering to indigenous religions decreased from 58% to 21%.

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A Catholic parish in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

Steady numbers

Since 1970, the trends have changed. Since that time, the Catholic share of several sub-Saharan national populations has remained relatively stable. But the Catholic population has continued to grow because sub-Saharan Africa’s population has continued to grow — and it’s growing the fastest in the countries with most Catholics.

In 1970, there were seven African countries with populations of more than one million people which were at least 30% Catholic.

Each of those nations grew an average of 300% in total population between 1970 and 2020.

For similar-sized African countries with lower Catholic populations, population growth over that same period was 275%.

Because populations are growing more quickly in counties with a greater share of Catholics, demographers predict that Africa will continue to become gradually more Catholic over the coming decades.  The World Christian Database estimates that the population will increase from 18% Catholic in 2020 to 19% in 2050.

A unique demographic trajectory

The conversion of Africa during the 20th century has made Christianity the single largest religious affiliation on the continent.

But with less than 20% of its population being Catholic, Africa is not the most Catholic continent on a percentage basis.

Instead, the growing prominence of Africa within the global Catholic Church can be attributed to Africa’s unique demographic trends — while most of the world slows down on reproduction, Africans, including Catholic Africans, continue having babies.

While Asia is by far the most populous continent, with 4.6 billion people, the birth rate in Asia has decreased significantly in recent years. The number of annual births in Asia has fallen from a high of 87 million in 1988 to 73 million in 2020. Meanwhile, the number of births in Africa has increased from 25 million in 1988 to 44 million in 2020.

Until relatively recently, consensus among demographers was that there was a direct relationship between economic development and fertility, with more affluent countries seeing lowering birth rates. But in recent decades Africa has diverged from other regions in this respect – as Africa gets wealthier, fertility rates have not dropped as quickly as in other developing regions.

Sub-Saharan Africa has a similar per capita GDP to South Asia. Looking at major countries in those regions: Nigeria is more affluent than India, while Pakistan is similar to Kenya.

But South Asia’s fertility rate – the total number of births per woman –  has dropped much faster than Africa’s. South Asia’s fertility rate is 2.4, just above the replacement rate, while Sub-Saharan Africa’s rate is nearly double that, at 4.6.

Other regions of the world have even lower fertility rates. Latin America has a fertility rate of 2.0, below the replacement level. Fertility rates in East Asia, North America, and Europe are even lower.

Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute told The Pillar that because of global fertility trends, major growth in the global labor force and population over the next five decades will come from the Sub-Saharan region.

And just as Africa will play an increasingly important role in the global economy, its increasing population seems set to play an ever-larger role in the life of the Church.

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