It is obvious to anyone watching that the traditions of selecting a new pope are something that has been going on for a very long time. But within the last three popes, there has been a dramatic shift of tradition. Once, popes were Italian without question. Indeed except for John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and, now, Francis I it overwhelmingly has only been Italians. Even now, within the College of Cardinals, this dominance is still a real fact.At the opening of the 2013 Conclave 22% of all Cardinals, are Italian. That is a full fifth of the college. America follows next with 19 Cardinals and Spain, then, with 10.
And this is nowhere close to what the numbers used to be. At the turn of the twentieth century, Italians were over half of the College of Cardinals. And that majority carried on until the beginning of World War Two. Since then, the Catholic Church has run into the development of the world on a grand scale, bringing its often remote and destitute constituents onto the world stage. It makes sense that their representation would increase in the church, and this is not to mention the growing trend of people turning away from the church. Building a more representative body of Cardinals is, at the very least, a way to address the growing once-faithful and promote the growth of the church at a local level.
But representation is still skewed. With the European and American Cardinals being the most numerous bodies, close to two-thirds of the College of Cardinals, they only represent about a third of all Catholics. A fair representation would indicate that far more Cardinals in South America are needed, which hosts over a quarter of the Catholic faithful, but only 10% of Cardinals. Asia, Africa and the Middle East are actually more fairly represented, though they are still lacking in the official church body. Furthermore, Cardinals, when broken down by country rather than continent, are skewed towards more developed countries like the United States, but that contain fewer Catholics. Mexico is a nation that has more Catholics than the United States but 15 fewer Cardinals.
But there is real hope that this may change. With John Paul II’s election in 1978, there has been a break with the Italian near-monopoly on the Papacy. He was Polish, and Benedict XVI, who followed John Paul II, was German. However great, even the previous popes were representative of Europe. Truly, a large part of the church, but grossly outweighed.
But now, Francis I is the first South American pope, one of few born outside of Europe. Even better, he is one of the few representatives of the growing Catholic Church outside the first world. Is his election finally recognition of the incredible support the church receives from South America? Is it a nod to the growing faithful around the world that have been glanced over by the church previously? That remains to be seen. But the church does seem to shifting, with Benedict’s elevation to Cardinal of John Onaiyekan in Nigeria, Ruben Salazar Gomez in Colombia, and Luis Antonio Tagle in the Philippines. These were previously underrepresented diocese, instilling the hope that many may find some recognition by the church.
What is definite is the job that Francis I has before him. The church finds itself in an era where it must modernize. Its position on abortion and same-sex marriage are not going to change, but the decline of its numbers in the global congregation must be acknowledged in respect to its conservative stance. The Catholic Church’s stance on contraception is also relatively unpopular, and is unhealthy and inappropriate to the fight against AIDS, especially when it could further the efforts to stymie the disease in the third-world. Furthermore, the church must learn to reconcile itself with the broader non-Catholic world, as Benedict XVI seemed to have difficulty doing. And this is not to mention the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the church so dramatically.
The church will survive through scandal and controversy as it always has done, but must have a powerful and enlightened driver to weather the storm. If it is to be Francis I that advances the church, only time will tell, but there is real hope of change for the better, as Francis I could easily become the champion of the unrepresented and disenfranchised.