Latin America is home to 40 percent of the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics, but there has never been a non-European pope in the modern era.
With the surprise announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will resign at the end of this month, many in the so-called global south are hopeful that a new pope might finally hail from Asia, Africa, or Latin America.
There has never been a non-European pope in the modern era, and naming a leader from Latin America, Africa, or Asia would be considered a radical new direction for the Eurocentric Vatican. But it would also reflect a new, and to many a long overdue, pragmatism within the institution. While nearly three-quarters of Latin Americans identify as Catholic, for example, only a quarter of Europeans do.
After the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, similar expectations for a non-European pope simmered. And when Pope Benedict, a German, was selected for the post, a sense that the church headquarters does not understand the reality of today's faithful was palpable in places such as Latin America. But Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, says he believes the chances of having a pope from the global south now “are stronger than ever.”
While many argue that the next pope should hail from Western Europe, precisely to revitalize the epic lost ground of the church there, he says, “the greater realization is that you must go where the future lies.
“The future of the global church is in Africa, parts of Asia, and Latin America,” Mr. Chesnut says.
While Catholics have been leaving the church in Europe, numbers are still strong in Latin America. Seventy-three percent of the region is Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center.
But Catholicism still faces a test in this part of the world, as many have left the faith altogether or, in many countries in Central America and Brazil, joined a growing movement of Protestantism, especially of Pentecostals. In Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, for example, Protestants represent more than 35 percent of the population.
On a sunny Monday morning in Mexico City, Liliana Lopez, a lifelong Catholic, was heading home from her morning walk when she saw her local congregation completely empty. “How sad it is that theaters and movies are filled but churches are empty,” Ms. Lopez says.
“Having a pope from this part of the world could help renew our faith. We need an extraordinary rejuvenation [in the church].”
Pope Benedict was hailed, upon his selection, by conservative Catholics across the globe while liberal Catholics worried about him taking a hard line. In Latin America, while issues such as gay marriage and abortion have come to the fore in urban pockets, posing a problem for local Catholic leaders, such “culture wars” have not yet created the wedges with the church that have formed in the United States and Western Europe.
But Latin America was disappointed in the choice of a more staid leader, who lacked the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II. The widely loved pope visited Mexico five times in the 20th century, each time amassing huge crowds. Pope Benedict’s visits to the region, most recently in March last year to Mexico and Cuba, energized the deeply faithful but not the population at large.
Ms. Lopez looks up at a portrait of John Paul II that hangs in her Mexico City church. “We just need a pope with charisma, even if he’s not Mexican, someone who can recuperate our faith.”
In recent months, there have been hints that a next pope might be a Latino. For example, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in December: "I know a lot of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the universal Church,” reports Reuters. "The universal Church teaches that Christianity isn't centered on Europe."
Some of the frontrunners could be Odilo Scherer, archbishop of the diocese of São Paolo, Brazil, or Leonardo Sandri, who heads the Vatican department for Eastern Churches, and is Italian-Argentine. There are also candidates touted from Ghana, the Philippines, the US, and Europe.
Brenda Carranza, a religious studies expert at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Campinas in Brazil, says that it would be symbolically important for a new pope to hail from Latin America, since it’s the “huge bastion of Catholics in the world,” Ms. Carranza says. But in reality, it might not make much of a difference for the continent.
Factions of the church in Latin America were at a divide with the Vatican in the 1980s, over the left-leaning liberation theology, which centered on social justice but that was accused of promoting Marxist politics.
A Catholic leader with such leanings wouldn’t be considered, and the problems that are so stubborn here – such as poverty, corruption, and crime – would take a back seat to what Rome considers a priority, Carranza says. “I think a pope from Latin America with thinking aligned with Rome would not make much of a difference,” she says. “They will be preoccupied with what Rome is preoccupied with … numbers, problems with priests, priest training.”
But it could make a difference for the way Catholicism is practiced, giving more of a role to lay movements that are fertile in Latin America, notably the Catholic charismatic renewal, says Chesnut. It is a Catholic version of Pentecostalism – notably animated services and spirited music that speaks to Latin American sensibilities.
“I think the Vatican has seen charismatic renewal as their greatest hope in competing with surging Pentecostalism, not just in Latin America but in Africa and Asia, too,” he says.
A pope from this part of the world would be a significant first, but Chesnut says that it also would show the institutions’ pragmatism, underscored in and of itself in the resignation of Pope Benedict. He’s the first pope in 600 years to resign from the post.
In a statement, the pope said that in order to govern "both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
"For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter," he said.
The resignation sets the stage for a new pope to be selected in March.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to note the history of the papacy.