Although most experts agree the odds are long, it’s hard to imagine a more transformative choice the cardinals could make than to select a nonwhite person to lead the world’s largest faith denomination, 1.2 billion strong. In the conclave that begins Tuesday, that would mean a person from the developing world, which is now home to two-thirds of all Catholics.
After centuries and centuries of white European popes, a developing-world pope could further alter the modern concept of Christianity, and by extension the modern concept and geopolitical tilt of power.
In conversations, comparisons to Barack Obama’s election as the United States’ first black president readily arise. But there is ostensibly a major difference: American presidents are picked by voters driven by pragmatic concerns, while popes — in Catholicism, God’s representatives on earth — are picked by cardinals led by the Holy Spirit.
The process, in other words, is supposed to be above earthly concerns such as race and ethnicity.
“That’s not how we do things,” bristled Mary L. Gautier, a sociologist and researcher with the church’s best-known U.S. data bank, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, when asked for historical demographics on race and ethnicity within the church. There is no central repository for the data, Gautier said, and race is a social construct, anyway.
“The church has always been and considered itself a global church,” bound by its common humanity, she said.
But the reality is that the majority of the 115 cardinals are white men from Europe, where the Catholic population is decreasing, at the same time it is growing rapidly among people of color in the developing world.
Between 1910 and 2010, the percentage of Europeans who identify as Catholic decreased from 65 percent of the global Catholic population to 24 percent, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center of data from the World Christian Database. Latin Americans climbed from 24 percent to 39 percent, and Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa went from less than 1 percent to 16 percent. Catholics from the Asia-Pacific region went from 5 percent to 12 percent of the world Catholic population, according to the Pew Research Center.
‘Equal in God’s eyes’
The church’s demographics are undergoing a major shift in the United States, as well. Among Catholics over the age of 65, just 16% are Hispanic, while among Catholic adults under 40 that figure is 47 percent.
The election of a pope from Latin America or Africa, in particular, is seen by some as a way to send a powerful message that the church perceives a need to change.