Why We Wait for a Non-European Pope

| 2/27/2013 4:38:58 PM

pope benedict 

As Pope Benedict steps down, speculation stirs that the next pontiff could be a man of color or from outside Europe. 

While many qualifications trump nationality when it comes picking the leader of 1.1 billion Catholics, an end to the European dominance of the Holy See is still an enticing suggestion. On his Sirius XM radio show last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan mused that it was “highly possible” there might be a pope from the Americas or Asia or Africa. The former cardinal of Washington told the National Catholic Reporter that he thought the church was ready for a pope outside the West. The Pew Research Center found that most American Catholics (60 percent) think it would be good for the next pope to come from the developing world, hailing from South America, Africa, or Asia.

For some, a pope from the Global South would offer a new perspective, energizing a church faced with the challenges of the modern world. The move could signal an overcoming of past injustice, a herald that all parts of the church hold equal weight within the body. “I think it would send the message to the global church that they recognize the present and future of the church, and that they want to give voice and authority to what’s increasingly becoming the majority,” says Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, a professor of religion at the University of Miami who specializes in theologies of the Americas. “It says you are really a part of the authentic church, not just the colonized church.”

Like many global religious bodies, the Catholic Church now sees its most fertile reach outside historical power centers in Europe. Vibrant religious growth in the Global South means the largest share of Catholics now live in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the fastest church growth happening in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, as recorded in a new Pew study. Just 24 percent of Catholics reside in Europe, a marked decline from a century ago, when the continent was home to 65 percent of the world’s Catholics. Today Brazil boasts the largest number of Catholics—more than 126 million—with Mexico, the Philippines, and the United States following in the rankings. Even in the United States, the face of the church has changed: just 20 years ago, white Catholics outnumbered Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. 5-to-1; now that gap is just 2-to-1, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

The church’s shifting demographics are, in some ways, the remains of colonialism, the product of churches following empires and globalization, bringing the Christian faith with them. Yet such subjugation has a way of being thwarted; religious doctrines are not delivered by rote, but rather evolve and transform, creating new forms of religiosity. Out of this problematic legacy some of the most dynamic theologies have emerged—making another argument for a theological leader from the church’s more recent provinces.

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