Global fertility rates: Here’s how majority-Catholic countries rank against rest of world

global fertility

As global fertility rates continue to decline, even majority-Catholic and historically Catholic countries aren’t free from the demographic collapse.

That collapse increasingly threatens to shrink the populations of countries below the necessary rate of replacement.

Global fertility falling

Global fertility has been falling for decades, with the problem often most acute in industrialised nations with higher standards of living.

At the same time, the fertility rates in many developing nations with strained resources, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, continue to climb.

Many of the world’s most developed countries are well below the “replacement rate” of fertility.

That is generally about 2.1 births per woman over her lifetime and is needed to keep a population stable, according to data gathered by the World Bank.

In the U.S. the overall fertility rate in 2021 was about 1.7, falling to 1.6 two years later; in the U.K. in 2021 it was about 1.6; in Greece about 1.4. Japan and South Korea have some of the lowest birth rates in the world at 1.3 and 0.81 respectively.

Catholic population demographic change

Catholic populations have for years been associated with high fertility rates.

That is partly owing to the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception and its long-held teaching that children are, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, “the supreme gift of marriage.”

And yet fertility numbers below the replacement level can be seen even in countries with a majority Catholic population or with historically high levels of Catholics.

A recent panel that took place at the Catholic University of America moderated by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat looked at the variety of reasons for this, which includes loss of religious faith and changing cultural values.

Some countries with high levels of Catholics are still reporting high levels of fertility.

Angola, for instance, is more than 50 percent Catholic and reports a fertility rate of 5.6 — well above the global average.

Paraguay, meanwhile, is about 90 percent Catholic and has a fertility rate of 2.5, which is above replacement level.

Yet other countries long known for high levels of Catholicism are nevertheless well below replacement levels.

Poland, at more than 90 percent Catholic, has a fertility rate of 1.3; while Spain, at 75 percent Catholic, is even lower at 1.2. Mexico is more than 80 percent, yet still falls below replacement level, at 1.8.

A National Bureau of Economic Research study from 2012 found that “strongly Catholic countries” in Europe at the start of the 1970s “had fertility almost a half child per woman higher” than surveyed non-Catholic countries.

Yet by the end of the 20th century, those same Catholic countries had fertility rates considerably lower than non-Catholic countries.

Why the change?

The 2012 study argued that the decline could be attributed to the fact that the Catholic Church “retreated in the mid 1960s from providing a variety of family-friendly services”.

These included “education, health, welfare, and other social services,”.

Withdrawing these services thus make it more expensive to have children.

Additionally, polling shows that large majorities of Catholics believe birth control is acceptable, while other data indicate large majorities of Catholic women are using some form of artificial contraception.

Church leaders, meanwhile, have been sounding the alarm bell of declining fertility rates in recent years. Read more

  • Jonah McKeown is a staff writer and podcast producer for Catholic News Agency.
  • Daniel Payne is a senior editor at Catholic News Agency.
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