When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation earlier in February (he will be stepping down as pontiff on the 28th), initial shock on the part of both outside observers and Vatican insiders quickly transformed into frenzied speculation about who would take his place. Many Catholics, including prominent cardinals, have called for a Latin American or African pope who would represent the Church’s changing demographic composition. The Church’s presence in Latin America is particularly strong: the region is home to 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, with Brazil touted as the country with the most Catholic followers. (Despite these statistics, only 19 of the 117 members of the College of Cardinals — the body responsible for electing the next pope — are Latin American).
The Catholic Church is cognizant of the importance of Latin America at a period when the Vatican’s influence in an increasingly secular Europe is dwindling. Its most visible outreach to the region has taken the form of 73 million “charismatic Catholics” — religious leaders meant to compensate for a paucity of priests while combating the influence of rival local religions (like Santeria in Cuba or Santa Muerte in Mexico), mounting secularism and the rapid spread of Protestantism, particularly in its evangelical forms, in North and South America and Africa. Thanks in large part to a message that emphasizes enjoying the “fruits of salvation” now (rather than in the afterlife), Pentecostal faiths have proved very successful amongst poor Latinos, many of whom still resent Pope Benedict’s opposition to liberation theology — a controversial movement that advocates preferential treatment of the poor.
Church leaders are also struggling to bridge a generational divide that has left many young Catholics ambivalent on what were once incontrovertible church stances on birth control and gay marriage. A drastic decrease in Latin American fertility rates — average birthrates have dropped from six children to two in fifty years — indicate changing attitudes towards the Church’s ban on contraception. The legalization of gay civil unions across South America, notably in Argentina, Mexico, and soon Colombia and Brazil, can be further explained by growing state ambivalence towards the Catholic Church. A similar disconnect shot to the spotlight in Europe last month when French lawmakers approved gay marriage legislation despite heated public opposition in the largely Catholic country. (The Church still exerts heavy influence in many Eastern European countries, as evidenced by more restrictive policies on gay unions).
One dramatic way to heal the rift with Latin American Catholics would be, the argument runs, by electing a pope from the region. But many Vatican experts believe that the selection of the next pontiff is more likely to be dictated by internal politics than by demographic considerations. More than half the members of the College of Cardinals are European (28 come from Italy alone) and despite the Vatican’s global reach, the conclave “is often run like an Italian village” where, despite the encroachment of English, Italian remains the primary language and non-European cardinals are handicapped by a complex bureaucracy largely dominated by those 28 Italian cardinals.
The structural challenges the Church faces in Latin America are reflective of its wider struggles to maintain relevance among all its constituencies in the wake of sexual abuse scandals and declining faith worldwide. And it will fall to Pope Benedict’s successor to strengthen a church that is in many ways splintered, by appeasing both Vatican conservatives and young Catholics alienated by hard-line policies on contraceptives, women’s ordination, and homosexuality. All while cleaning house — last year’s very public Vatileaks scandal revealed a complex web of in-fighting, petty rivalries, and murky financial dealings within the Holy See.
But with a week until he steps down, Pope Benedict may still have a few tricks up his sleeve. He is reportedly studying Vatican rules in order to move up the date of the conclave that will determine his successor. Such a move could place non-European candidates at a disadvantage: once the pope steps down, cardinals have a limited amount of time to meet and evaluate potential candidates. In an abbreviated pre-conclave period, better known (i.e., European) cardinals might have an “electability” advantage (to borrow a term from U.S. primary politics) over lesser-known ones. And if history is any guide — the last non-European pope was Gregory III, a Syrian, who took office in 731 — the new pope will in all likelihood resemble the last (i.e. white and European), squashing hopes that a Church in crisis might make a bold move by playing to its fastest-growing congregations even at the risk of alienating its traditional base.
That said, the election of a European pope may be sound tactically (and a good way to stay in the wavering good graces of European Catholics) even if it’s a poor choice strategically. Regardless of what history says, the numbers show that the future of the Catholic Church clearly lies outside of Europe — “Italian village” or no.