Published January 21, 2004
The Catholic Difference
Asia, the world’s most populous continent, is also the world’s least Christian continent. Which is a demographically polite way of saying that Asia has been the great failure of Christian mission in the first two millennia of Christian history. Pope John Paul II conceded the point in his encyclical on Christian mission, Redemptoris Missio [The Mission of the Redeemer], when he wrote that the Church’s twenty-first century mission “to the nations” should be “chiefly directed” to Asia.
Asian mission failures are often contrasted to Christianity’s rapid growth in Africa. The second edition of the indispensable World Christian Encyclopedia reports that there were 9.9 million Christians in Africa in 1900 and 360 million in 2000: in a century, African Christians had gone from being 0.6% of the world’s population to 8.9% of global humanity. The numbers are even more impressive when broken down temporally. At the turn of the millennium, some 8.4 million Africans were being baptized every year, which works out to 23,000 new Christians every day.
Of those 8.4 million new Christians, 1.5 million are what the World Christian Encyclopedia terms “net new converts:” converts minus defections or apostasies. Thus African Christianity is experiencing tremendous growth, not only through births into Christian families, but through effective evangelization. Will these almost biblical rates of conversion produce, later in this century, the missionary energy and personnel to re-convert Europe? Stay tuned.
As for Asia, the World Christian Encyclopedia also notes impressive growth rates there, if within a much larger population. “Net conversions” in Asia come to 2.4 million per year – a number which is probably higher because no one knows what’s going on in China, where the government has a vested interest in not getting the data out on Christian conversions and church growth. Sometime in the first third of the twenty-first century, Asia will have its second majority-Christian country: South Korea, following the Philippines. Christianity came to the Philippines through colonialism, however; that’s not been the case with South Korea, which suggests that Asia isn’t as impervious to conversion as some may have thought.
I’ve been saying for years that China, when it finally opens up, will be the greatest field of Christian mission since the European discovery of the Americas. One reason why involves the depredations of communism. Unlike India, which has a thick, intact, culturally-transmitted, and often anti-Christian religious system in the various forms of Hinduism, there’s very little of the religious left in China. Communism has destroyed much of China’s traditional Confucian philosophical and moral system; Chinese communist repression in Tibet and elsewhere has seriously degraded Chinese Buddhism. On the other hand, what’s left of Confucian ethics in China has points of connection with biblical morality, so there’s a place to start the conversation.
Cardinal Ivan Dias of Bombay (Mumbai) has recently made me wonder if I’ve not been too dismissive of India’s evangelistic possibilities, however. Speaking to the College of Cardinals this past October, Cardinal Dias noted that India now has the fourth largest episcopate in the world, after Brazil, Italy (of course!), and the United States. Christians are barely 2.3% of the total Indian population, and only 1.8% of the population is Catholic. Yet, the cardinal noted, Indian Christians provide 20% of the country’s elementary education and 10% of the literacy and community-based health-care programs; Christians provide 25% of the care for widows and orphans and 30% of the care of the handicapped, lepers, and those suffering from AIDS. In Africa in the twentieth century, as in the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries, Christianity attracted massive numbers of converts because it helped provide for those whom the rest of society preferred to ignore. Might that be the case in twenty-second century India – or even twenty-first century India?
If so, it’ll be because all that education, health care, and social service is deliberately linked to evangelization. Christian schools have long been recognized as the finest in Japan, the places where the elite sends their children. But there are as many Catholics in Japan today as there were in 1945, although the country is much more populous. Why? Perhaps because of a certain reticence about evangelization. The Christian proposal won’t be accepted unless it’s made.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.