Who might be the next pope?

Posted Online: March 03, 2013, 6:00 am
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By Dan Lee
I suppose that I should be writing something about the mess in Washington, but I'm so tired of what is happening there (or, somewhat more accurately, not happening there) that I can't bring myself to do it. So you are going to have to endure one more piece on the election of a new pope, which is far more morally uplifting than the mess in Washington.

The Roman Catholic Church stands at a historic crossroads. Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are where the Church is experiencing the most dynamic growth, with Asia and the Pacific not far behind. Meanwhile, the percentage of Roman Catholics who are Europeans is diminishing -- today approximately 24 percent compared to 65 percent a century ago, according to data collected by the highly-regarded Pew Research Center.

Those numbers tell quite a different story with respect to Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia and the Pacific. A century ago, the number of Roman Catholics in Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for less than 1 percent of Roman Catholics worldwide. Today the number is more than 16 percent.

The percentage of Roman Catholics living in Latin America and the Caribbean a century ago was 24 percent; today it is 39 percent. In Asia and the Pacific, 5 percent a century ago, compared to 12 percent today. (North America has been relatively stable with 8 percent of the worldwide Roman Catholic population today, compared to 5 percent a century ago.)

In a New York Times article entitled "Church Helps Fill a Void in Africa," Adam Nossiter reports that at Christ the King Catholic Church in Lagos, Nigeria, as many as 10,000 people attend the six masses each Sunday, starting at 6 a.m. A week ago this past Saturday, 102 people were baptized at Christ the King. Mr. Nossiter describes Christ the King as "protector, feeder and healer."

And indeed that is the story of much of the Roman Catholic Church in Sub-Saharan Africa as it reaches out to people in the midst of chaos, helping feed and protect them, advocating for them, and treating them with respect in dignity. Similar stories can be found in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific. The bottom line is that churches grow when they effectively respond to human needs and treat all people with respect and dignity.

Notwithstanding the fact that European Catholics today comprise less than a quarter of the 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, the number of European cardinals who will be electing the new pope is disproportionate to the number of European Catholics. Europe is over-represented while Africa and Latin America are under-represented. For example, of the 117 cardinals eligible to participate in the election of the new pope, only 15 come from Latin America.

The key question is this: Will the European cardinals have vision and wisdom to vote a pope for the Southern Hemisphere, which is where the dynamic growth of the church is occurring? Or will they simply elect one of their own? As an outsider looking in, my hope is that it is the former, rather than the latter.

Possible candidates from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean include Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez of Honduras, and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, both of Argentina.

A final question: might the next pope be an American? With U.S. Catholics comprising such a small percentage of the 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, don't expect it on the first ballot.

However, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who is highly-regarded and well-liked, could emerge as a compromise candidate if no one gains two-thirds of the votes needed for election in the early rounds of balloting.
Dan Lee teaches ethics at Augustana College; danlee@augustana.edu.


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