Popes, Saints, and Religious Competition

Evangelicals are the fastest-growing world religion by conversion – a trend that underlies the strong expansion of Protestantism in traditionally Roman Catholic Latin America. The Catholic Church lacks enough priests to compete, which is why the creation of saints is becoming an important way of retaining the faithful.

CAMBRIDGE – The election of the first non-European pope is long overdue. After all, Pope Francis’s native region, Latin America, is currently home to nearly half (44%) of the world’s Catholics. But the Catholic Church is increasingly losing out to Protestant competition there and elsewhere.

Just look at the statistics. Evangelicalism is the fastest-growing world religion by conversion – a trend that underlies the strong expansion of Protestantism in traditionally Roman Catholic Latin America. Protestants in Latin America accounted for only 2.2% of the population in 1900, but 16.4% in 2010, with growth coming mainly at the expense of Catholics, whose population share fell from 90.4% to 82.3%.

The Catholic Church understands this competition, but it confronts a chronic shortage of priests. As a result, the creation of saints is becoming an important way of retaining the faithful.

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