Areas like Western and Southern Europe or Latin America. I can see colonization being a factor. In Ireland and Italy, the people are around 90-95% Catholic.
Well, Western Europe generally, because with the fall of the Roman Empire, the Pope was able to take a larger role because he wasn’t limited, like the Patriarch of Constantanople was, by Imperial control (I’m horribly oversimplifying here). Southern Europe because the Protestant Reformation only was really successful in Northern Europe (again, for a number of factors). Latin America because it was mostly settled by Catholic Spain and Portugal, and they converted everyone to Catholicism.
The Roman Catholic church was the only Christen Church in Western/Southern Europe for what, almost 1500 years? They also got an aggressive start in Central America when the first colonization took place.
Why do they continue to dominate? A priest once explained to me that it was because in much of the third world the Catholic Church represents stability and literacy. A catholic service in Columbia is very much like a service in Chicago. That is comforting to many people, espicially to people of limited means and education.
Quebec was predominantly Roman Catholic, and still is in many regions. The “pure laine” (descended from early French immigrants) Francophone community are almost exclusively Roman Catholic, if they practice any religion at all. I believe that factors such as historically homogeneous immigration, geographical isolation, and linguistic and cultural independence kept the Roman Catholic church dominant here. (Roman Catholicism has been on a downturn since the 60s here, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.) We did (and do) have various branches of Protestantism and Judaism, and of course now we have immigrants practicing many different religions, but up until fairly recently you could assume that anyone who spoke French was Roman Catholic. If my husband’s grandma is correct, in the 50s, you could even assume that they’d tune into the radio Saturday night to listen to the rosary being recited!
Nail on the head. In other countries, you’ll find that they also take a lead role in constructing housing as well as other community needs.
Poland is staunchly Catholic (90% according to the CIA World Factbook) in part because it represents a link between Poland and the Western (“Latin”) world versus the Orthodox east. It’s always been strong but, since the fall of Soviet Communism, it’s built up further as another way of rejecting Russia.
Poland’s relationship with Latin Catholicism has always been somewhat based on inclusion into the western world. The “Baptism of Poland” was primarily a way to keep the Germans (Holy Roman Empire, if you will) off their backs since it turned Poland into a Slavic pagan state to be conquered into a Catholic state overnight. It also led to a crash course in western European culture and government as Rome sent clergy to educate the nobility. Point being, it has a long history of being what made Poland one of “Us” versus one of “Them”.
And in cases like Ireland, Catholicism is just another way to show that you’re different than the English. Converting to Protestantism was siding with the enemy.
And of course, for la Hispanidad, there’s Ferdinand of Aragon’s expulsion of Muslims and Jews… if it hadn’t been for those decrees, Spain (both the Peninsular part and the rest) would have remained tri-religion.
I’ve met Colombian and Peruvian Jews who trace their American roots to the time of the colonization; their foreparents correctly figured out that Over There people wouldn’t worry too much about the expulsion decree. But it certainly wasn’t something you wanted to be noisy about, of course.
France and Austria are highly Catholic too, right?
Can you explain this? Do you mean there’s a feeling of communion with a group of worshippers outside your location?
It’s all about the ritual being the same. They used to be totally in Latin, so everyone was equally confused. If you are Roman Catholic you know what you beliefs are (or at what they should be) the world over. The church is slow too change because of this sense of stability. Outsiders just consider the church old fashioned.
Well, it’s not just Catholicism. Why are Greeks overwhelmingly Orthodox? Why are Scandinavians overwhelmingly Lutheran? Why are Arabs overwhelmingly Muslim?
History, as has been pointed out, has a lot to do with it - and can indeed distort the picture. It’s mentioned above that Ireland is “90-95% Catholic”, but this is only true if you consider just the Republic of Ireland. If you looked at the country as a whole, the figure would be more like 75-80%. And the reason Northern Ireland was politically separated from (what became) the Republic is because denomination in Ireland identifies not just faith, but also community, and the (largely Protestant) dominant community in the North felt sufficiently separate from the dominant community in the rest of the country not to want to be in the same political entity as them.
So, to cut a long story short, the reason that the Republic of Ireland is 90-95% Catholic is basically because its border was drawn to produce that result. But that tells us more about the process by which the state was created than it does about the nature of Catholicism.
In a way this question is almost backwards. The more interesting question from the perspective of Western history is why are there religiously plural countries.
From the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the 300s through at least the late 1700s, a major element of nationhood was the religion of its inhabitants, which usually followed quite closely that of its ruler. Many of the wars of Europe and the Middle East/North Africa region in that millennium and a half were fought over religion.
The first major conflicts were after the Council of Nicea in 325, which produced the Nicene Creed on the nature of the trinity, and declared Arianism heretical, after which Emperor Constantine exiled its adherents. For the next several hundred years, the Roman Empire and its successors (including the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires) had ongoing wars defeat Arian “Barbarians” in central Europe, including the Germanic tribes that eventually sacked Rome itself. Eventually Arianism was almost entirely wiped out by the sword.
The next major political/religious conflict was between Islam, which swept out of Arabia to take over North Africa and a chunk of Southern Europe (parts of Spain, what is now Turkey and the Balkan region). Anti-Islamic highlights include the Crusades and the reconquest of Spain. Interestingly, Islamic countries generally permitted “people of the Book”, Christians and Jews, to live in them, though with taxes and restrictions. Christian countries were frequently much less accommodating, often barring Jews and other non-Christians.
Somewhere in there was the split between the (western) Roman Catholic church and Constantinople, creating the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity. This divide was as much a political split among the two halves of what was formerly the Roman Empire as it was a religious debate.
Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Cathedral and Henry VIII of England divorcing Rome along with his wife brought in the major conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism which divided Europe for several hundred years. Rulers decided between allegiance or opposition to Rome, and their subjects were by-and-large compelled to follow, often bouncing back and forth several times.
The European expansion into the Americas was also largely religiously driven. The Spanish/Portuguese conquest of South and Central America (and the Pope’s division of the New World between the two countries) was to some extent driven by a desire to bring Roman Catholicism to the Native Americans, often by the sword. On the other hand, many of the North American colonies were founded or populated by religious dissenters (the Pilgrims, Pennsylvania Quakers, Catholics in Maryland), though many American colonist groups were not in favor of religious tolerance toward those who dissented from their ideas. The colony of Rhode Island was founded on the basis of religious tolerance after Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts colony, but it was an exception.
Indeed, freedom of religion was an Age of Enlightenment concept, which was only really solidified in the West after the American Revolution brought a group or religiously diverse colonies together and the French Revolution violently overthrew the concept of divinely-inspired Kingship.
From that time forward, religiously diverse countries and regions developed in the West (and countries like Germany were formed by the amalgam of Protestant and Catholic principalities). At this point it seems a bit odd that there are religiously uniform regions, but from someone looking forward from several hundred or more years ago would be shocked at modern religious diversity.
The biggest Mass I’ve attended was a Youth Meeting with JPII.
But the one that felt most Catholic (i.e., Universal) was in Athens. About 20 people, from about 15 different countries judging by looks. Two women from India; four Spaniards with 4 different native languages (each of us said the Lord’s Prayer in a different language, which was kind of a surprise but also made sense when you thought where each of us was from); the priest celebrating in Greek.
My mother and brother came to visit me in Switzerland for Easter; we went to Mass in German. We barely understood a handful of words; we were able to recognize the fragment of the Gospel because of the locations mentioned. But for Mom and Bro, it was similar to my feelings in Greece… this recognition of “it’s the Universal Church.”
So yes, there is a feeling of communion with all other worshippers. And for those of us who are more ecumenic, not just “outside our location” but also those from other Churches whose differences with ours are political and not really theological.
I might be off-base on this, but it’s my impression that Western Europe is becoming increasingly secular. In that case, people might care enough about their identities to continue calling themselves “Catholic” but not care enough about religion such that it would make sense for them to convert to something else. Does that make sense?