Lifestyle & Belief

Next papal selection could bring first non-European pope

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Pope Benedict XVI visited Porto, Portugal, in May 2010. (Photo by Ricardo Ramalho via Wikimedia Commons.)

Some historians see Pope Benedict XVI's resignation as an opportunity for change in the Catholic Church, specifically for it to embrace the rise of Latin America and Africa in the church.

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According to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, 40 percent of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics live in Latin America, 16 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa and European Catholics make up only 24 percent.

Philip Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University and expert on the growing influence of the Global South on Christianity, says the pope's resignation raises the question of how long the papacy can remain in Europe when the percentage of Catholics outside of Europe is growing exponentially.

"One figure I find very powerful is that by 2030, there will be more Catholics in Africa than in Europe. It's been said that the problem with the Vatican is that it is 2,000 miles too far north and the big issue is if whether we will have another European Pope," he said.

Jennifer Hughes, associate professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, and an expert on the Catholic Church in Latin America, says, for north and south American Catholics, the upcoming election for the next pope will be one of the most important of the last century.

"What many Latin American Catholics want at this point in history is a pastor, a pastoral papacy that can minister to them," she said. "They've come to feel, especially over the last eight years, largely abandoned by Rome."

Whether the Catholic Church will name someone to represent the growing diversity in Catholicism, Hughes says, there's a need for a conciliatory pope who can bridge the disconnect between Rome and American Catholics.

"Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, cardinal from Honduras, that name is now circulating among Latin American Catholics themselves, as someone who might be more moderate and conciliatory," she said. "Pope John Paul was much beloved in Latin America among many Latin American Catholics ... I think there may be a desire from Rome, or a desire to have a more conciliatory, pastoral person in that role."

And yet, the majority of the Catholic Church's comes from places where membership is declining. 

Though Catholicism is growing in Africa and Latin America, the income isn't there, Jenkins said.