Argentinian Pope Francis Faces A Catholic Community With A Growing Hispanic, Latino, and Brazilian Majority. How Will He Rule?

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Quo Vadis? Where are you going? The Papal Conclave in Vatican City after two days and five ballots the 115-member Cardinal electors 1 chose its 266th Pope, a 76 year-old pastoral Argentinian, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now the very first Pope Francis, and the first Latin American Pontiff. The white smoke from the Sistine Chapel signaled an extraordinary opportunity to address the imbalance within the church between non-European/non-American/Canadian Catholics and the other regions – South America, Mexico, Africa – where most of their flock lives. Pope Francis did not arrive after a long Sistine Chapel confinement despite the reports of numerous factions within the conclave. Yet, in two days, at least two-thirds, or 77 of the Cardinals, came to a rather swift conclusion. The white smoke that emerged from the Sistine Chapel chimney soon after 7:00 pm Vatican City time did not, as some thought it might, signify exhaustion – there was no “Tandem, habemus papam!” (Finally, we have a Pope!), Instead, a simple two-word “Habemus Papam!” rang out.

Is this a transformative election, a message to world Catholicism that change in nigh? Seventy-seven Cardinals could not have voted for Cardinal Bergoglio, a man whose pastoral personality they knew well, unless they intended to send that signal around the world. Pope Francis, who has devoted himself to ministering to the poor and mentoring shoe leather priests and nuns, emerged from his Vatican apartment study to stand above the St. Peter’s Square crowd, at a time the Roman Catholic church suffers again from gargantuan dilemmas, theologically, morally, and financially. This is consequential for world politics as much as it is for world spirituality or morality. The church counts nearly 1.2 billion souls among it members, around one out of every five humans. Today’s church disappoints many of them.

What did the Cardinals discuss in conclave? What had they already discussed pre-conclave.. Does selecting Pope Francis suggest a southern shift in Catholic focus? Does it signal an imminent Curial shake-up? Did Pope Benedict XVI Emeritus take part?2 How each Cardinal voted is as secret as secret gets, but during the weeks since Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication, many Catholics and non-Catholics asked:

2013 Conclave by country (Wikimedia Commons)
2013 Conclave by country (Wikimedia Commons) Note: Chart includes Mexico and Central Anerica as part of North America.)
      • Will 77 members of this conclave address the 750,000,000 non-European and non-American/Canadian Catholics (68% of their worldwide membership) by selecting a Pope from among their midst?
      • Will 77 members of this conclave elect a Pope who will champion increased representation among non-Europeans and non-American/Canadians within the College of Cardinals? The present conclave sub-set of the 217 member College, i.e., the company of 115 Cardinal electors, includes only 38 (33%) non-European and non-American/Canadian Cardinals. That 33% represents 68% of all Catholics. (See regional locations in chart at right. Note: chart includes Mexico and Central America as part of North America.)
      • Will 77 members of this conclave select as Pope a man who will more forcefully and forthrightly address Catholicism’s still-roiling child abuse “legacy”?
      • Will 77 members of this conclave choose a Pope who will address the role of equality between men and women – priests, nuns, and laity – theologically and realistically?
      • Will 77 members of this conclave elect a man who will take up the question of mandatory celibacy for all, priests and nuns? Are all contentious social issues off the table, like GLBT issues including same-sex marriage?
      • Will 77 members of this conclave elect a Pope who has the courage, energy, and executive skills to  reform Curia, the Pope’s 4,000 member “executive branch”? This is among the more controversial and partisan challenges facing the presumption of collegiality among the electors. who seek extensive reform in Curial ways and policies that extend beyond, but not above, their seeming complicity in covering up child abuse. From Newsday:
        • “The portrait[of the Curia] revealed the extent to which church officials were getting involved in for-profit business opportunities throughout Italy and how negligence had allowed the Vatican bank to run amok and possibly engage in money laundering. In addition, some of the documents accused senior church officials of illegally rigging contracts for public works in the Vatican city-state.”

Now, with Pope Francis selected, the world will wonder, and analyze, and read into his past. Yet, Popes, by definition, have never been Popes before. How this Pope reacts within these unknown and immensely powerful environs will be an open question, perhaps for many months, or years. Will he disappoint those who elected him? Will he disappoint those many faithful, yet dissatisfied Catholics who seek representation and respect? Or will he, like Pope John XIII, grasp the levers of his power and spirit and begin constructing a new Catholic church for a new millennium? A new millennium with a Spanish, Portuguese, Asian, African, and Oceanian regional focus. Pope Francis may be most influenced – and pushed – by the hundreds of millions of Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking Catholics who live far from Vatican city.

A familiar demographic storm engulfs the Catholic state. Specific issues aside, balancing church composition and leadership trumps all matters for Pope Francis, more than any time in recent memory. As we’ve seen above, 33% of the 115 Cardinal electors represented 68% of the Catholic flock; within the entire 207 man College of Cardinals this percentage is even less, 12%. That imbalance, on fairness and justice grounds, is astonishing, especially because these non-European and non-American/Canadian regions contain 750,000,000 Catholics, or 13 out of every 20 of the 1.1 billion worldwide Catholics claimed by the church.

In light of the above, it’s safe to say – despite this upcoming admittedly awkward analogy – that the Catholic hierarchy has no House of Representatives, no Commons. . . no representation by population, at least in our western political sense of representative government. Notwithstanding, Catholicism remains a monarchy, the long-running “Mother of all Monarchies,” in business for millenia. In that event, comparisons or analogies between secular political republics or democracies are moot. Nonetheless, the Catholic church resembles the city-state that it legally is, as it attempts to rule an enormous world “citizenship” from the smallest of the world’s countries, Stato della Città del Vaticano, Vatican City, whose population, CIA reports, hovered around 835 in 2012. Thousands who live in, and commute to, Vatican City, as well as its thousands of staff in church “offices” worldwide seek to rule a billion. This is not Pope Pius XII’s or Pope John XXIII’s world anymore. It is the world of Pope Francis.

Here is the Catholic world the new Pope inherits, and how it got there from Pius XII – Pope John era (since 1950):

 Click image for much larger and very readable version that will open in a new window/tab

World regional Catholic population trends and demographics 1950-2013

As the Catholic hierarchy looks forward after Pope Benedict XVI, it must stop looking backward.

Map_World_where Spanish is spoken

The Spanish-speaking world

The chart makes explicit what we have long felt: the future of the Catholic Church will have a Spanish heritage, with varieties of Spanish language root languages and culture. In addition, Portuguese culture and language will have its say going forward through its South American giant, Brazil with its 125 million Catholics. All told these countries (and subsections of countries, i.e. the United States) account for 450 million Catholics.

Many within the faithful and the hierarchy, nuns, priests, and prelates, seek to redress the imbalance within the Catholic hierarchy that the charts reveal, many do not, or want to delay,  or carry out the re-balancing very slowly. The hierarchy has a historically fulsome attitude about its more than 2,000 year tenure, and tends to view change almost in geological terms. In effect, they say,

“Scandal? If you want to discuss  real scandals, then let us speak of Henry VIII, the Avignon Papacy, or the Inquisition!”

The church has seen it all come and go, come and go. Geologic time-think. With 43 Cardinal electors aged 75 to 79, a sense of this long view of “come and go” deserves respect. The demographic and cultural trends overtaking the church, however, can be resisted, yet, if resisted, their strength will grow more and more irresistibly every year, every decade. Even the Roman Catholic church cannot hold this time-propelled tsunami from breaking over Vatican City, its intransigent Curia, its inherited favoritism, and narrow view.

Quo Vadis, Pope Francis? Quo Vadis?

  1. Not all cardinals were electors. For example, those 80 or older do not sit in Conclave. Roughly 60% of the 217 members of the College of Cardinals were electors.
  2. Pope Benedict XVI Emeritus was ineligible to vote for the new Pope. Also note, Church rules forbid “campaigning” for the Papacy.

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Michael Matheron

From Presidents Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush, I was a senior legislative research and policy staff of the nonpartisan Library of Congress Congressional Research Service (CRS). I'm partisan here, an "aggressive progressive." I'm a contributor to The Fold and Nation of Change. Welcome to They Will Say ANYTHING! Come back often! . . . . . Michael Matheron, contact me at

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