This map of global Catholic populations shows the church’s looming dilemma


Click to enlarge. (SOURCE: World Christian Database, Topsy, staff reports. GRAPHIC: Wilson Andrews, Kat Downs, Anup Kaphle, T.J. Ortenzi and Karen Yourish/The Washington Post.)

No matter how many times I hear about the rise of Catholicism in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, this graphic always surprises me. (Interactive version here.) Europe, for centuries the home of most Catholics and the church's center of gravity, now holds fewer than one in four Catholics. There are far, far more in Latin America; almost half of Catholics live there. One in seven Catholics lives in sub-Saharan Africa, which is also the church's only region showing overall growth.

The church's heart may still be in Europe – its focus certainly seems to be there, the home of its capital and of every pope for a thousand years – but how long can it stay that way? The Washington Post's story on Pope Benedict XVI's surprise resignation touched on the dilemma this opens for the Vatican:

The sudden end to his papacy presents the Vatican with a delicate choice: to elect a new pope who will represent continuity or one who will represent change. With the church declining in its former stronghold of Europe but finding its future in Latin America, Africa and Asia, pressure already was growing on the College of Cardinals — the global princes of the church — to break tradition by elevating a non-European pope.

The Catholic communities in Europe and in the developing world are all Catholic, but their theological needs might still differ in important ways. Whom the Vatican selects to replace Benedict could say a great deal about whether it wishes to shore up the church's reputation in the developed world, which was damaged by the child sex abuse scandal, or focus on the developing world communities who increasingly make up the global Catholic population.

To give you a sense of how widely the church's European-dominated leadership diverges from its increasingly Latin and African following, here is a list of the world's 10 largest Catholic populations. It comes from a 2010 Pew study and the results are telling; the first European country on the list, Italy, is ranked fifth. Italy's Catholic population is about two-fifths the size of Brazil's. There are only three other European countries in the top 10.


Source: Pew

So, if you're the Catholic Church, do you select a pope who will demonstrate and hopefully execute your renewed institutional dedication to: (1) Leading the world's largest Catholic population, which is in Latin America; (2) Shaping the world's fastest-growing Catholic population, which is in sub-Saharan Africa, or; (3) Retrenching in the traditional center of gravity, in Europe. Roughly speaking, these are strategies about emphasizing the challenges of today, of tomorrow or of yesterday.

The nationality of the next pope will not on its own, of course, determine the church's future. But it could give us a strong indication of the Vatican's priorities.

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Olga Khazan · February 12, 2013