(RNS) As the 117 Roman Catholic cardinals walk into the Sistine Chapel next month for the election of a new pope, one hopes that they fully recognize the unfolding, dramatic pilgrimage of world Christianity: The demographic center of Christian faith has moved decisively to the Global South.
Over the past century, this astonishing demographic shift is the most dramatic geographical change that has happened in 2,000 years of Christian history. Trends in the Catholic Church -- comprising about 1 out of 2 Christians in the world -- have generally followed this global pattern:
- In 1900, about 2 million of the world’s Catholic faithful lived in Africa; by 2010, this had grown to 177 million.
- 11 million Catholics were found in Asia in 1900; by 2010 there were 137 million Asian Catholics.
- Through colonial expansion, 59 million Catholics populated Latin America and the Caribbean in 1900; but by 2010, that number had grown to 483 million.
- In 1900, two-thirds of the world’s Catholic believers were in Europe and North America; today, two-thirds are in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
But the dramatic shift of world Christianity’s population to the Global South, for both Catholics and Protestants, has not been accompanied by any commensurate change in its centers of administrative power, influence, and authority. For the Catholic Church, this geographic disconnect between official authority and demographic vitality is reflected dramatically in the composition of the 117 voting cardinals: 62 of them are from Europe and 14 are from North America. Only one-third are from Asia, Africa, and Latin America combined.
Yet, one act by the College of Cardinals can create a dramatic, symbolic and powerful change in this present dissonant reality -- namely, electing a pope from the Global South.
When the white smoke billows from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, what would it mean if the new pontiff were from Africa, Asia, or Latin America?
First, it would signify that the cardinals are attempting to embrace the future, rather than simply trying to maintain the past. The shift in Christianity, which already has placed two-thirds of the world’s Catholics in the Global South, will only accelerate. If the public face of half the world’s Christians reflects a region other than Europe, it would be a powerful sign that the Catholic Church is looking forward.
Second, a pope from the Global South could redress the present imbalance of geographic power within the Vatican itself. Changing the overall composition of the College of Cardinals to reflect more genuinely the demographic realities of their church will take decades. But for now, there’s a historically unique opportunity to alter this dynamic by placing ultimate authority in a pope from the Southern Hemisphere.
Third, selecting a pope from the Global South would be a powerful affirmation for Catholics from those regions who already feel that they are on the margins of the church’s structures of authority and power. With Europeans serving as pope since the year 741, and European cardinals today comprising more than half of the College of Cardinals, it’s no wonder that the rising numbers of Catholics in Asia, Latin America, and Africa feel marginalized from power. They are.
Think of what would happen if, when the words “Habemus Papam” are announced, an African face appears at the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. Simply consider how a 14-year-old African-American in Detroit felt about America when Barack Obama was sworn in as president, and multiply that by the feelings of several hundred million toward their church.
Of course, many will immediately say that it’s nearly sacrilegious to suggest electing a pope on the basis of some geographical quota system. This is a matter of the deepest spiritual discernment, they would say, to seek a person of inspired vision, spiritual integrity, administrative wisdom, and pastoral skill, regardless of geographical origin.
In many ways I agree. Yet, should we honestly believe that those qualities are to be found only among Europeans (and North Americans)? Should we assume that no one among the 40 cardinals in that conclave from Latin America, Africa, and Asia has those qualities, and could be called by God? And couldn’t such spiritual affirmative action be inspired by the Holy Spirit?
Others will say that a pope could be elected from the Global South who is so conservative that he could take the church backwards. That’s possible, but the same could be said for a pope from the North. Even so, it’s more likely that a pontiff from Latin America, Africa, or Asia will carry the concerns reflected in those regions, such as evangelical outreach, social justice, relations with other faiths, and contextualized forms of liturgical expression.
I’m a Protestant, so my observations are those of an outsider, as a sincere ecumenical friend. But as the entire Christian church struggles in its responses to world Christianity’s rapid shift to the Global South, the Catholic Church suddenly finds itself with a rare, unexpected opportunity. Selecting a non-European would be a prophetic spiritual gift to the whole Christian community, and beyond. Normal church “politics” wouldn’t produce such a result. It would take a work of the Holy Spirit.
(The Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is the former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, and plays an active role in ecumenical organizations, including the steering committee of the Global Christian Forum. His forthcoming book discusses how “The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church.”)