For the first twenty centuries of its existence in Asia, the Catholic Faith was something imported from the West, primarily from Europe. Today, however, a dramatic shift is occurring. More and more, Catholicism is now being exported from Asia to the very same West that originally brought it. Almost as if to return the favor hundreds of years later, Asian-born Catholic missionaries are traveling to Europe and the Americas to re-evangelize traditionally-Catholic nations that are now sliding into secularism.
We have already seen how the Church’s center of gravity over the past century has shifted outside of Europe. In the years to come, this trend will likely only accelerate. As the chart below indicates, the Catholic population of Europe is expected to decrease around five percent of its 2004 figure by 2050. Meanwhile, the growth of the Church in Asia will increase over 60 percent—a growth second only to Africa’s 145 percent.
(Source: Population Reference Bureau)
This dichotomy between East and West had enormous implications for the future of the Catholic Church as a whole. The rise of the Catholicism in the former and its simultaneous decline in the latter points to a Church that is more influential at its new peripheries than in its traditional heart. While time will tell whether or not this shift ultimately benefits Catholicism, it is nevertheless the reality with which the Church must contend. “The demographic changes can’t be reversed, and the Eurocentric era is clearly over,” remarked one prominent Catholic priest and social scientist. “But if this helps European Catholics think as part of the universal church, it’ll be a good sign for the future.”
Indeed, a giant reversal is occurring within global Catholicism. Today’s Europe has become the new East, and if the two-thousand-year Faith founded by Jesus Christ is ever to truly thrive “to the ends of the earth,” it may just be because the East of the future has become the Europe of old.