In simple terms: as Russia goes, so goes Eastern Orthodoxy. The reason, in my view is diversity. Catholicism is diverse, covering all geography and people groups, and is immune to being decimated when one group or region is decimated. Not so for Orthodoxy.
First some raw stats.
- The global fertility rate is 2.46 children per woman. (Global replacement rate is 2.3, developed nation replacement rate is 2.1)
- Nearly every country has a declining fertility rate.
- 1,114 million Catholics with a fertility rate of 2.49.
- 230 million Orthodox with a fertility rate of 1.42.
Eastern Orthodoxy is a regional religion. This is often disputed by Orthodox apologists, but it is simple demographic reality. Zoom your mental camera in on the area of the globe comprising the following 6 countries:
- Belarus and
Now let’s take a similar survey of the Catholic world. The top 27 countries which comprise 82% (906 Million) of Catholicism have a fertility rate of 2.45. That is a nice solid number that means growth. Another thing which becomes obvious is the diversification. Like a balanced financial portfolio, the Catholic population is scattered. By the time we get to #11 on the list of most populous Catholic countries, which is the 30 million Catholics in the Congo, we have gone from latin America to North America, over to the Philippines and then to Eastern and western Europe. There are developed industrial countries to 3rd world and everything in-between right up at the top of the list. There is an incredible diversity. There are 30 million Catholics in Congo with a fertility rate of 5.68. Wow. The 70 million Filipino Catholics have a fertility rate of 3.19. Even the United States bucks the global trend of developed nations with its replacement rate of 2.06. Ironically, the US is one of the most fertile places for the Orthodox. But, there are only 1.2 million Orthodox in the US.
Of course my numbers are assuming that the fertility rate of a nations Catholic or Orthodox population is at least as good as the national fertility rate (And yes, I also assume that a high fertility rate is good). In some cases, particularly less developed countries, I would think that the more devout subsets of the population would have a higher rate. In my own case, this is true. My 3 siblings and I (we are all serious about or religion) have a combined fertility rate of >6. And I know for a fact that high number has something to do with religious conviction in every case. Combine this reality with the fact that the Catholic Church is by all accounts growing more conservative, with more open teaching against contraception, and a more willing laity to obey those directives, and the future looks bright for Catholics. Is there a similar undercurrent in Orthodoxy? I cant say. I know they have dropped the ball on the contraception issue, that is a fact.
But one crucial thing the data tells us is that Orthodoxy is regional. As Russia goes, so goes Orthodoxy. And Russia aint going anywhere. It is actually shrinking, with that trend predicted to continue. There are simply no bright spots in the demographic future of Orthodoxy. The website where I obtained most of my data on Orthodoxy actually included ~22 million “Orthodox” in very fertile (6.02) Ethiopia. One problem, those are Oriental Orthodox, and are absolutely not in communion with Eastern Orthodoxy. I doubt if any of our Greek or Russian Orthodox brothers would want to claim them as their own. The most populous country with a decent Orthodox population and a decent fertility rate is the US. Keep moving down the list looking for good fertility rates and the only ones you will find are such sparkling gems as Kyrgyzstan, Syria, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Israel, Tajikistan, Palestine, and Turkey. I think it is not a stretch to say that it is the Muslims in these countries that are pushing up the fertility rates, not the Christians. Combine this with the fact that half of Orthodoxy resides in Russia, which is on the bottom of the “religiosity” scale.
Another factor to consider is Islam. Orthodoxy and Islam often share the same territory, Whereas the majority of Catholicism does not. I don’t think it is controversial to say that in those countries where they coexist, in general Islam slowly dominates through intermarriage conversions and other factors.
So that leaves us with a very narrow, well defined, and fairly easily predicable outlook for Eastern Orthodoxy. Because it is so narrowly defined within certain nations which are imploding, it is fair to say that Orthodoxy is imploding. Will it disappear? No way. There are always subsets of a population which have higher than average fertility rates. I am sure there is a woman in Russia right now who has 7 kids. If that is something she passes on to her descendants, then the fertility rate in Russia will someday be higher. But the size of the population will have decreased dramatically. I think this is far less likely to happen in Catholic countries such as Brazil, Mexico, central Africa and the Philippines. They will maintain above replacement levels of fertility and skip the drastic decline that Russia and eastern Europe are experiencing.
What it means demographically:
I think that this data almost certainly means that the 230 million Eastern Orthodox in the world will be declining rather rapidly in the coming 2 generations. Those who are left will no doubt be more devout, which may or may not be good for the prospects of Catholic/Orthodox reunion, but they will be much fewer. I predict there will be a bit less than 100 million Eastern Orthodox by 2070. For the same time period I predict there will be over 2 billion Catholics.
What it means for the Church:
Of course I do not wish ill on anyone, and I sure do wish the Orthodox would start to out-breed their Muslim neighbors, or better yet... become Catholic. But I am a Catholic who sees the Catholic Church as THE kingdom of God, the rock that grows to fill the earth from Daniels vision, the mustard seed that grows to a huge tree, etc. Why would anyone not want to be a part of that? And I see in these demographics perhaps the working out of God’s plan. I can’t prove it, but it is interesting to think about. Here is a powerhouse comment by Bryan Cross on Called to Communion about the Catholic/Orthodox numbers game and other important considerations.
One thing I know, is that the scope and reach of the Catholic Church is well worth considering. It is the biggest organization on the planet. Stop. Re-read that. Yes, it is the biggest organization on the planet. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Watching the Catholic Church is like watching a perpetual motion machinerun or seeing a unicorn; it can’t be, but there it is. The only thing that comes close is Sunni Islam with its 940 million. But Sunni Islam can hardly be described as one group with one hierarchy. This aspect of the Catholic Church is to me miraculous. As stupid and evil humans can be, that one organization with such grand claims for itself could survive so improbably for 2000 years is… well, a miracle. It is one among many reasons to submit to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. And it was one of the reasons I did not submit to Eastern Orthodoxy.