Could the next pope come from Latin America?

The selection of a Latin American Pope would be symbolically important and would help rejuvenate a crippled Church.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O''Connor Holds A News Conference On The Upcoming Papal Conclave
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said that during the selection process in 2005 convened to replace the late Pope John Paul II, Latin American candidates were definitely being considered due to some "concerns" of the Church [Getty]

Pope Benedict XVI recently resigned as Pope on February 28. After completing nearly eight years at the head of the Catholic Church, he was the first pope to resign in 600 years. The College of Cardinals will meet in the Vatican on Tuesday to vote on his successor. Latin America is home to the largest concentration of Catholics in the world. Brazil (120 million) and Mexico (101 million) have the world’s two largest Catholic populations and nearly forty percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in Latin America. As a result, many are hoping that the next Bishop of Rome will hail from Latin America.

Two weeks after Pope John Paul II’s death in April 2005, the College of Cardinals elected German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to be his successor. Upon accepting his election, Cardinal Ratzinger took the name Benedict XVI. At the time of Ratzinger’s election, several Latin America candidates were rumoured to be among those considered to replace John Paul, including Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina. While Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo said that “John Paul II called Latin America the continent of hope”, there’s disagreement over how seriously Latin American candidates were considered by the Cardinals. According to British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, “Without giving anything away, I can say certainly there were Third World, Latin American concerns, not so much candidates but concerns, regarding poverty, and the Church, on the side of the poor, was very much on a lot of the cardinals’ minds.” In the end, the cardinals voted for a conservative European who was expected to be more of a transitional pope after the twenty-seven year tenure of John Paul II, the second longest serving Pope (1978-2005).

Who from where?

Explainer: Pope frontrunners

Now, eight years later, Catholics are once again excited about the possibility that the College of Cardinals will elect a pope hailing from Latin America. There are several candidates from the region who have a chance to succeed Benedict, but no one really knows how likely they are to be elected. Brazilian cardinals Joao Braz de Aviz and Odilo Pedro Scherer have been named as possible replacements. Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is once again a consideration, after possibly having been the runner-up in 2005. Bergoglio would be the first Jesuit pope. However, Bergoglio’s age, 76, and health might work against his selection given the reasons why Benedict retired. Fellow Argentine Leonardo Sandri is also a possibility, but he has never led a congregation which is something that hurts his chances. Honduran Archbishop Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga was a possible successor to John Paul II and is among those considered once again. However, his support for the 2009 coup in Honduras cannot have helped his cause even though he is often described as “an outspoken campaigner of human rights, a watchdog on climate change and advocate of international debt relief for poor nations”. The Archbishops of Guadalajara, Francisco Robles Ortega, and Havana, Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, are considered long-shots.

In 2005, one hundred fifteen cardinals voted to elect the new pope. Twenty of those who voted were from Latin America while fifty-eight were from Europe. Cardinal Ratzinger captured a minimum of seventy-seven votes to become Pope, perhaps even as many as eighty-four. The odds are slightly worse for the selection of a Latin American pope this time around than they were in 2005 as there are more Europeans – particularly Italians – and fewer Latin Americans eligible to vote. Of the one hundred fifteen cardinals who will vote next month, sixty-two come from Europe and only nineteen from Latin America. There are also prospectivecandidates from Canada, Ghana, Nigeria, the Philippines, and the United States. An Italian selection is most likely as the last two popes called Poland and Germany their homes. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were the only non-Italians [SP] in the last five hundred years. However, a Latin American pope would not only be important to Catholics of Latin America but to all of the Americas – Canada, the United States and the Caribbean included.

Now, the next Pope’s selection is not geographically-determined. And even if it were, there is a lot more that goes into the selection of the next Pope than simply from where he hails. As Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said following Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2005 selection, there was a lot of discussion about issues that were important to Catholics from the global south even if, in the end, another European was selected. The cardinals were looking for the best candidate to lead the Church at that moment in history.

Sixty-seven of the cardinal electors who are voting will have been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI. The rest were appointed by fellow conservative John Paul II. In that sense, there’s a good chance that the next Pope will share many of the same theological, social, political, and economic stances as his most recent predecessors. However, he will not be identical to Pope John Paul II or to Pope Benedict XVI as they were not the same even though both are considered conservative.

Abuse costs church ‘moral standing’

The case for a Latin American Pope

The Catholic Church confronts one of the most challenging periods in its 2,000-year history. The sexual abuse of children by priests and the illegal and immoral covering up of that abuse by Church leaders have caused many faithful to leave the Church, to cut back on their offerings, and to stop sending their children to Catholic grammar schools. While the abuse scandals in the United States and Ireland have gotten the most attention, scandals have rocked Mexico, Chile, and other Latin American countries as well. A twenty-first century congregation has also had a difficult time supporting the Church’s stances on homosexuality, contraception, celibacy, and women and married clergy. As a result, in most countries outside of Africa, the percentage of Catholics is decreasing as is the number of men entering the priesthood.  

Electing the next Pope from Latin America, or anywhere in the global south, would be symbolically important. Africa counts the fastest growing Catholic population, but Latin America is still home to the world’s largest concentration of Catholics. While most Catholics today voluntarily profess their religion, Catholicism was violently imposed on the indigenous population that originally inhabited what we today call Latin America over five hundred years ago. And, it was only fifty years ago that Latin American bishops first travelled to Rome to participate in the Second Vatican Council after having been seen as second class for centuries. Given the large number of Catholics residing in Latin America and the global south, a successor from the south would be tremendously symbolic even if he were cut from the same conservative mold as his two most recent predecessors.

However, it is not all about symbolism. The selection of a Latin American pope might help to rejuvenate a Church that has lost ground in recent decades to Protestant and evangelical churches. It might help to heal the rift that occurred between those who supported a theology of liberation and those who preferred that the Church remain more traditional, some might say apolitical. Finally, the selection of a Latin American Pope might give added hope for the canonisation of the murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.

However, in some ways, what might also change with the selection of a Latin American, African or Asian pope, is how the media, Catholics and non-Catholics listen to the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, as well as their predecessors, have spoken very strongly not only on social issues, which get the most attention, but on issues such as the damaging effects of capitalism, poverty, inequality, climate change, the environment, migration, and war. Their stances on these important issues does not excuse them for the areas in which they have failed. But perhaps the selection of a pope from outside of continental Europe will force many to listen, not blindly of course, to what the Church has to say on many other important issues of the day.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.