For centuries, the Catholic church has been a European institution. The vast majority of its followers were in Europe, its enormous power was rooted in European politics and, reflecting this, its popes were European. Even as European missionaries and colonists spread the faith abroad, the church's center of gravity remained squarely in Europe.
As recently as one century ago, two out of three Catholics were European, according to data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. As of 2010, Europeans have shrunk to just 24 percent of global Catholic population. And yet 53 percent of the church's Cardinal electors still come from Europe.
The last hundred years have seen the global distribution of Catholicism change rapidly and dramatically. The largest population of Catholics is now in Latin America. Meanwhile, the Catholic population in Europe is shrinking, while the religion's following in sub-Saharan Africa – already substantial – is growing. According to the New Republic, there will be more African Catholics than European by 2033.
The question, then, is whether – and how – the Catholic church may attempt to transition from its traditional European focus to a more global identity. It will face that dilemma most immediately in selecting a new pope – observers have wondered about possible candidates from Ghana, Brazil and the Philippines – but that decision will be just one part of the larger identity crisis, something that may unfold over generations.