About half of all Christians worldwide are Catholic (50%), while more than a third are Protestant (37%). Orthodox communions comprise 12% of the world’s Christians. Other Christian groups, which make up the remaining 1%, include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Christian Science Church. (See Defining Christian Traditions.)
The Catholic Church has 1.1 billion adherents worldwide, representing half of the global Christian population.
Brazil has the world’s largest number of Catholics (134 million). There are more Catholics in Brazil alone than in Italy, France and Spain combined. The 10 countries with the largest number of Catholics contain more than half (56%) of the world’s Catholics.
Most of the countries with the largest Catholic populations have Catholic majorities. But the United States has the world’s fourth-largest Catholic population even though only about one-in-four Americans is Catholic. There are 67 countries in which Catholics make up a majority of the population.
More than 70% of Catholics live either in the Americas (48%) or in Europe (24%). Almost 40% live in Latin America alone. More than a quarter live either in the Asia-Pacific region (12%) or in sub-Saharan Africa (16%).
The world’s 801 million Protestants, as broadly defined in this report (see Defining Christian Traditions), make up 37% of the global Christian population.
The Protestant Reformation, which split Western Christianity and gave birth to Protestantism, took place in Europe in the 16th century. Today, however, only two of the 10 countries with the largest Protestant populations are European.
The United States has more Protestants than any other country – about 160 million, or 20% of the worldwide total. Nigeria is second, with nearly 60 million Protestants, or more than 7% of all Protestants worldwide. China has the world’s third-largest Protestant population (approximately 58 million), although less than 5% of China’s total population is Protestant. (See Appendix C [PDF] for more details on the range of estimates available for China.)
The 10 countries with the largest number of Protestants collectively account for 61% of the world’s Protestants. Protestants form a majority of the total population in 49 countries.
Despite Europe’s historical links to Protestantism, its share of the global Protestant population (13%) is eclipsed by the share in sub-Saharan Africa (37%), the Americas (33%) and the Asia-Pacific region (17%). Only the Middle East-North Africa has a smaller share of Protestants (less than 1%) than Europe.
There are about 260 million Orthodox Christians, making up 12% of the global Christian population.
Nearly four-in-ten Orthodox Christians worldwide (39%) reside in Russia, the country with the largest number of Orthodox. Ethiopia has the second-largest number of Orthodox Christians and more than three times as many Orthodox as Greece. Although Turkey is the seat of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, one of the highest archbishops in Orthodox Christianity (see Defining Christian Traditions for details), its Orthodox population is relatively small (about 180,000).
Nearly nine-in-ten (87%) of the world’s Orthodox Christians can be found in the 10 countries with the largest Orthodox populations. Most of the countries with large numbers of Orthodox Christians have an Orthodox majority – though the Orthodox make up less than half the total population in Ethiopia and only about 5% of the population in Egypt. (See spotlights on Ethiopia and Egypt.) Orthodox Christians make up a majority of the total population in 14 countries.
The Orthodox Christian population is heavily concentrated in Europe, which, for the purposes of this report, includes all of Russia. Europe is home to 77% of the global Orthodox population. Sub-Saharan Africa has about 15%, and the Asia-Pacific region (including Turkey) has roughly 5%. Small shares of Orthodox Christians also are found in the Middle East-North Africa (about 2%) and the Americas (1%).
Other Christian Traditions
There are about 28 million Christians in the world who do not belong to the three largest Christian traditions. Those belonging to other Christian groups make up slightly more than 1% of the global Christian population.
Many of the other Christian groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses, began in the United States. Today, the United States is home to 37% of other Christians, although only about 3% of Americans belong to these groups.
About two-thirds (67%) of all other Christians live in the 10 countries with the largest number of other Christians.
The majority of other Christians live in the Americas (63%). Smaller shares of other Christians live in sub-Saharan Africa (17%), Europe (11%) and the Asia-Pacific region (9%). Less than 1% of other Christians live in the Middle East-North Africa.
Defining Christian Traditions
The Catholic Church includes the international body of churches in full communion with the bishop of Rome, the pope. These churches include the Western (or Latin) church and 22 Eastern Catholic churches.1 Each of these churches has a distinct hierarchy and traditional liturgy, prayers and religious observances. The Western (Latin) church is the largest of these autonomous churches. Among the major branches of the Eastern churches are the Alexandrian, Antiochene, Armenian, Byzantine and Chaldean.2
Catholicism, taken as a whole, is the world’s largest Christian tradition. The Catholic Church teaches that its bishops are the successors of Christ’s apostles and that the pope, as the successor to St. Peter, possesses a unique authority in the church.3 Catholic doctrine maintains that the church is infallible in its dogmatic teaching on matters of faith and morals.4 Catholic worship is centered on the Eucharist, in which, according to the church’s teaching, the bread and wine are supernaturally transformed into the body and blood of Christ. 5
Estimates for the number of Catholics in this report also include members of some relatively small Catholic groups (such as the Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church) that are not in communion with the bishop of Rome.
Protestants are broadly defined in this report to include three groups.6 The first group is made up of historic Protestants who belong to churches originating (or reformulated) at the time of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation in Europe, as well as other denominations that came later, such as Methodists. The Protestant Reformation was led by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other theologians who “protested” the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical structure of the Catholic Church, leading to the creation of new national churches. The doctrines of the various Protestant denominations vary, but most include belief in grace through faith alone (known as sola fide or “by faith alone”), belief in the Bible as the ultimate authority in matters of faith and order (known as sola scriptura or “by scripture alone”) and belief in the priesthood of all believers.7
Anglicans are the second group of Christians categorized in this report under the broad banner of Protestantism. This category refers to Christians who belong to churches with historical connections to the Church of England or have similar beliefs, worship styles and church structures. The great majority of Anglicans are members of churches that are part of the international Anglican Communion, which recognizes the archbishop of Canterbury as its “Focus for Unity.”8 The Church of England emerged as a distinct Western Christian ecclesial tradition in the early 16th century, when King Henry VIII declared his supremacy over the English church and its independence from papal authority.9
The third group broadly defined as Protestants in this report is independent Christians. Independent Christians have developed ecclesial structures, beliefs and practices that are claimed to be independent of historic, organized Christianity.10 Independent Christians include denominations in sub-Saharan Africa that identify as independent from historically Protestant denominations, churches in China that are not affiliated with official religious associations and nondenominational churches in the United States.
Orthodox Christians are members of self-governing churches that belong to the Eastern Christian tradition. In 1054, the Great Schism divided the Christian church into an Eastern, Greek church centered in Constantinople (Istanbul today) and a Western, Latin church centered in Rome. This formalized a cleavage that had been growing for centuries. A major source of division was that the Eastern church did not recognize the bishop of Rome’s claimed jurisdiction over the entire church. The Eastern insistence on ecclesial autonomy persists: Orthodox Christianity is organized into “autocephalous” churches, each under the leadership of its own supreme patriarch.
Orthodox Christianity has two main branches: Eastern Orthodox churches and Oriental Orthodox churches. There are more than a dozen autocephalous Eastern Orthodox churches, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Patriarchate of Antioch, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.11 Though they are under no common hierarchical authority, the Eastern Orthodox churches enjoy full communion with each other. The head of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is recognized by all Eastern Orthodox churches as the “Ecumenical Patriarch” who enjoys primacy of honor as well as unique authority to convene pan-Orthodox synods and promote Orthodox unity.12
Oriental Orthodox churches are those Eastern Orthodox churches that recognize only the first three ecumenical councils convened by the church’s bishops to discuss and determine matters of church doctrine and discipline — the First Council of Nicaea, the First Council of Constantinople and the First Council of Ephesus.13 Unlike the Eastern Orthodox Church, which embraces the Council of Chalcedon’s teaching that Christ has two natures, divine and human, Oriental Orthodox churches hold that Christ has one indivisible nature. The Oriental Orthodox churches are therefore also called non-Chalcedonian churches. The Oriental Orthodox churches include the Coptic Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Eritrean Orthodox Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (India) and Armenian Apostolic Church.14
Other Christian Traditions
Members of other Christian groups self-identify as Christian although older Christian traditions may view them as distinct from mainstream Christianity. Many of these groups – including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Christian Science Church – originated in the United States. These groups often depart from traditional Christian beliefs with respect to the trinitarian nature of God and have additional sacred texts beyond the Christian Bible and/or their own authoritative interpretations of the Bible. For example, the canon of the Mormon church includes four texts: the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that “Christ is God’s Son and is inferior to Him” as well as that the destruction of the present world system at Armageddon is imminent.15 They prefer their own Bible translation, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.16 Christian Science was founded by Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910). Her 1875 book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, is one of its central texts, along with the Bible.17 Other groups in this category include the Unification Church, Swedenborgians and Christadelphians.
1 “Methodology,” in David B. Barrett, editor, World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, AD 1900-2000, Oxford University Press, 1982, page 80. (return to text)
2 “Eastern Rites,” in J. D. Douglas, Walter A. Elwell and Peter Toon, The Concise Dictionary of the Christian Tradition: Doctrine, Liturgy, History, Regency Reference Library, 1989, page 135. (return to text)
3 “Apostles,” in Honoré Coppieters, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 1, Robert Appleton Company, 1907; “The Pope,” in George Joyce, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 12, Robert Appleton Company, 1911. (return to text)
4 “Faith,” in Hugh Pope, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 5, Robert Appleton Company, 1909; “Morality,” in George Joyce, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 10, Robert Appleton Company, 1911. (return to text)
5 “Roman Catholicism,” in J. D. Douglas, Walter A. Elwell and Peter Toon, The Concise Dictionary of the Christian Tradition: Doctrine, Liturgy, History, Regency Reference Library, 1989, page 330; “Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 14, Gale, 2002, page 158. (return to text)
7 “Protestantism,” in J. D. Douglas, Walter A. Elwell and Peter Toon, The Concise Dictionary of the Christian Tradition: Doctrine, Liturgy, History, Regency Reference Library, 1989, page 309; F. L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, 1957, pages 1116-1117; John Bowker, editor, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, Oxford University Press, 1997, pages 771-772. (return to text)
9 “Protestantism: Anglican Communion,” in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 26, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2007, page 246. (return to text)
10 “Independents,” in Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, editors, Atlas of Global Christianity, Edinburgh University Press, 2009, pages 76-77. (return to text)
11 Some of the autocephalous churches are headed by “patriarchs” while the others are headed by archbishops or metropolitans. See “Eastern Orthodoxy,” in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 17, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2007, page 838. (return to text)
12 “Eastern Orthodox Church,” in J. D. Douglas, Walter A. Elwell and Peter Toon, The Concise Dictionary of the Christian Tradition: Doctrine, Liturgy, History, Regency Reference Library, 1989, pages 134-135; “Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 10, Gale, 2002, pages 679-681; “Eastern Orthodoxy,” in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 17, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2007, page 838. (return to text)
13 An ecumenical or general council is a meeting of all of the church’s bishops to discuss and determine matters of church doctrine and discipline. Many councils were convened to address specific theological disputes. For example, the First Council of Nicaea was convened in 325 to resolve disagreements concerning the relationship between Christ and God the Father; the First Council of Constantinople was convened in 381 to ratify the work of the Council of Nicaea and definitively end ongoing controversy concerning the relationship between Christ and the Father; and the First Council of Ephesus was convened in 431 to resolve emerging disagreement concerning the nature of Christ and the relationship between his humanity and divinity. The Council of Chalcedon was convened in 451 to resolve disagreements concerning the nature of Christ. (See “Arius, Arianism” in David W. Bercot, editor, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers, Hendrickson Publishers, 1998, pages 35-36; John Bowker, editor, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, Oxford University Press, 1997, pages 235, 241-242, 316, 692). (return to text)
14 “Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 10, Gale, 2002, page 681. The Syrian Orthodox Church changed its name to the Syriac Orthodox Church in 2000. See Atlas of Global Christianity, Edinburgh University Press, 2009, page 84. (return to text)