In the coming weeks, debates over next pope will be not only about the person who will embody the office but about how the church will wrestle with shifting demographics and the relationship between tradition and modern culture. A look at these shifts and tensions among American Catholics provides a microcosm into the larger global dynamics at play.
First, the Catholic Church has been experiencing significant demographic and geographic transformations over the last century. In the American context, the demographic changes began relatively recently. In 1990, nearly 8-in-10 (78 percent) Catholics were white, while less than 1-in-5 (14 percent) were Hispanic. Today, less than two-thirds (63 percent) of Catholics are white, while nearly 3-in-10 (29 percent) Catholics are Hispanic. In other words, in the span of two decades, the ratio of white to Hispanic Catholics has dropped from 5-to-1 to 2-to-1. This shift has also had considerable impact on the Catholic political engagement, given the decidedly different profiles of white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics: in the 2012 election, 75 percent of Hispanic Catholics voted for Barack Obama, while 59 percent of white Catholics voted for Mitt Romney.
A parallel shift away from a European center of gravity has occurred in Catholicism worldwide over the past century. Recent data from the Pew Research Center and the World Christian Database maintained by Gordon-Conwell Seminary has shown that the percentage of Catholics worldwide living in Europe has dropped from 65 percent in 1910 to less than one-quarter (24 percent) today. The largest share of Catholics today live in Latin America and the Caribbean (39 percent), while a substantial number also live in sub-Saharan Africa (16 percent) and the Asia-Pacific region (12 percent).
These changes have led to calls for a pope from one of these new centers of Catholic culture, but the makeup of the 117-member College of Cardinals may stack the deck in favor of another European pope. The conclave will be overwhelmingly European (with 28 cardinals from Italy alone, compared to South and Central America’s 19).
Second, a central question facing each new pontiff is how the church engages the broader culture. American Catholics are divided on whether the church should focus on conserving tradition or adapting to modern culture. According to Public Religion Research Institute, more than 4-in-10 (42 percent) American Catholics say that their church should preserve its traditional beliefs and practices; however, a majority say either that their church should adjust traditional beliefs and practices in light of new circumstances (37 percent) or adopt modern beliefs and practices (16 percent).
Third, the new pontiff will likely determine which of two major streams of Catholic theology will be dominant for the foreseeable future: “Catholic social teaching,” which is focused primarily on economic justice, or Catholic teaching about “a culture of life,” which is focused largely on abortion. A solid majority (60 percent) of American Catholics agree that the Church’s public policy statements should focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion and the right to life. Less than one-third (31 percent) disagree, saying that the church should focus more on abortion and the right to life in its public policy statements, even if it means focusing less on social justice and the obligation to help the poor. This emphasis persists even among the most loyal churchgoers: a slim majority (51 percent) of Catholics who attend church at least weekly agree that the Church should emphasize social justice over abortion and the right to life.
Finally, the new pope will continue to face questions about the church’s stands on the legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships, amidst rapid shifts toward more acceptance in the broader culture. Here generational divides among American Catholics suggest these tensions will be felt not just between the church and society but within the church itself. Overall, a majority (54 percent) of Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, including majorities of both white Catholics (54 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (57 percent). Importantly, there is a yawning 30-point gap between younger and older American Catholics on the issue of same-sex marriage. Nearly 7-in-10 (68 percent) younger Catholics (age 18-39) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, compared to only 37 percent of Catholic seniors (age 65 and older). Notably, opposition to same-sex marriage seems to be confined to America’s oldest Catholics: even a solid majority (60 percent) of Catholics under the age of 60 favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.
Moreover, the Catholic Church is facing these trends worldwide. Since 2000, more than a dozen nations have legalized same-sex marriage either nationwide or in certain jurisdictions-including nations like Spain, Argentina, and Mexico, where the Catholic Church has a strong presence. There is also strong momentum for legalization of same-sex marriage underway in France.
As the cardinals go into their conclave next month, their selection will tell us much about their intentions for how the church, for the foreseeable future, will wrestle with the shifting demographics and center of gravity of the laity, with the engagement of church tradition and the broader culture, and with the appropriate emphasis it draws from the rich set of Catholic teaching.