February 19th, 2013
01:06 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi and Dan Merica, CNN
(CNN) – Despite calls for a new pope from Latin America or Africa, the areas of the Catholic Church experiencing the most rapid growth, the power in the College of Cardinals is decidedly European.
The rapid growth of the Catholic population in Latin America and Africa has not yet led to a proportional balancing of the College of Cardinals. The makeup of the college skews overwhelmingly European, while the majority of the congregants are increasingly not European.
“It (the College of Cardinals) doesn't reflect the population, it reflects the power structure,” said William D’Antonio, a professor at The Catholic University of America. “It is like a corporation. The corporation picks its own board of directors. You might own some stock in it, but you are really fighting a battle against a corporation here.”
Dubbed the “princes of the church,” the cardinals’ main role is to select the next pope, which is done in a secret conclave in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. Cardinals are handpicked by the pope both to choose his successor and to assist in the daily needs of the church. When they are elevated to the role they take on a red hat, symbolic of their willingness to shed their own blood for their faith.
Cardinals have selected the pope since 1059, and the College of Cardinals was formally established in 1150.
When the doors to the Sistine Chapel are closed and the secret deliberations begin, the 117 men in the 2013 papal conclave will not only be selecting a pope as the new bishop of Rome, but also as the pastor of the 1,195,671,000-member global communion.
There were approximately 284,924,000 Catholics living in Europe, according to the Statistical Yearbook of the Church for 2010, the most recent year the church has made such data available. In Italy, which surrounds Vatican City, there were 57,554,000 Catholics in 2010.
Of the cardinals tapped to select the next pope, 62 hail from Europe, with almost half of them - 28 - from Italy.
“I found that, as the American ambassador, it was extremely helpful to speak Italian,” said Miguel H. Díaz, the former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and now University Professor of Faith and Culture at University of Dayton. “While English is increasingly the working language among some cardinals, Italian remains an important language.”
European cardinals will make up more than 50% of the conclave, despite the fact Europeans make up less than a quarter of the church’s overall population.
“One hundred years ago, circa 1913, about 70% of all Catholics lived in Europe - thus, not surprising that the great majority of cardinals came from Europe,” said D’Antonio. “They have been slow to recognize the changing distribution of the population, or to acknowledge it. Then, given the system, we should not be so surprised at the slow pace of change.”
Brazil, the country with the largest population of the Catholics in the world - 163,269,000 million - has six cardinals, despite being home to a tenth of the church’s global population.
South America as a whole has 339,017,000 million Catholics. Add in Central America and the number jumps to 501,333,000. Those two regions have 19 cardinals.
The continent of Africa is home to 185,620,000 million Catholics, but only 11 cardinals.
“There’s a long history with that part of the world. There is clearly an awareness that the church had for a long time been a Eurocentric church,” Díaz said of Latin America. “I think that as we turn this page, more and more we’ll see, at least many people hope that you will see, a greater and greater number of cardinals coming from the South.”
The United States is home to 77.7 million Catholics, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. There will be 11 U.S. cardinals voting in the conclave.
Pope Benedict XVI’s successor to the papal throne must be elected by a two-thirds vote from the College of Cardinals.
If the red hats were divvied up proportionally based on population, then Brazil would have 12 cardinals, double the number the country currently has. In that scenario Italy would be the big loser; with only a 20th of the global Catholic population, its share of cardinals would shrink from 28 to six.
Canon law, which dictates the operation of the church, caps the number of cardinals in the college at 120. But the pope is under no obligation to appoint cardinals proportionally.
“Those to be promoted Cardinals are men freely selected by the Roman Pontiff, who are at least in the order of the priesthood and are truly outstanding for doctrine, virtue, piety and prudence in practical matters,” canon law reads.
One quirk of canon law also helps explain why there are so many Italian cardinals. The law says cardinals “have the obligation of cooperating closely with the Roman Pontiff.”
If the cardinal is not a diocesan bishop - like Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is archbishop of New York - then the cardinal is “obliged to reside in Rome.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, told reporters last week that when the cardinals vote, they will be answering to a higher call than considerations of citizenship or nationality.
"When we go into the conclave, what has to be upper in the minds of all of us is what is God asking of us in making a choice. Who will fill the chair of Peter? And I think that's going to be the only consideration," said Wuerl. "Who among this body has the qualifications, the characteristics, the spiritual gifts to fill that chair?"
So what are the chances that the next pope will come from outside Europe? Not high, said D’Antonio.
“I do not see anybody coming out of the pack,” he concluded. “If they go back and take the cardinal from Milano, there is a possibility he will be a little more of a politician, get along better, be less concerned about sex sins, but he is part of the corporation. It is just difficult to see how there would be any other choice.”
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.