The Catholic Church worldwide is passing through an era of historical transformation, a decisive shift in numbers towards the Global South – to Asia, Africa and Latin America. Many are aware of this trend as an abstract fact, but we are scarcely coming to terms with the implications for Church life, for the composition of Church leadership, and for its future policies. A southward-looking Church may be a vibrant and flourishing body, but it might pose some challenges for Catholics of the older Euro-American world.

The fact of that geographical shift is clear enough. A century ago, the European continent accounted for almost two thirds of the world’s Catholics. By 2050, that proportion will fall to perhaps a sixth. In that not-too-far future year, the Church’s greatest bastions will be in Latin America (perhaps 40 per cent), in Africa (25 per cent) and Asia (12 per cent).

Actually, those numbers understate the southern predominance, because a sizeable number of Catholics living in Europe or North America will themselves be of migrant stock – Nigerians or Congolese in Europe, Mexicans in the United States. A Church born long ago on the soil of Asia and Africa is returning home.

Looking at a near-future list of the world’s largest Catholic nations reinforces that point about the relative decline of the Euro-American presence in the Church. In 1900, the three nations with the largest Catholic populations were France, Italy and Germany. By 2050, the leading countries will be Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines. France and Italy will comprise the only European entrants among the top 10 Catholic populations, which otherwise will include three African nations (Nigeria, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and the United States. With around a hundred million Catholics, the Democratic Republic of the Congo will enjoy rough parity with the United States and the Philippines. Those specific numbers are projections, and of course they may over- or under-estimate particular regions. But the general directions of change are not in doubt. The Catholic future lies in the South.

But what does that mean for the Church’s leadership, for the composition of the College of Cardinals and for the papacy itself ? Nobody advocates that the cardinals should be chosen on the basis of some kind of strict proportional representation, dependent on the findings of each new global census. Nor do cardinals represent constituencies. But the Church has long acknowledged that cardinals do play some kind of representative role, and of course they enjoy unique importance when the time comes to choose a new pope.

Over the past century, the College of Cardinals has become steadily more diverse and more global. The Italian contingent in the college has dropped sharply, from more than 50 per cent in 1920 to 35 per cent at the time of Vatican II, and to around 20 per cent today. Since the 1980s, all three successive popes have conspicuously tried to increase the numbers from the Global South. Today, the college includes 120 cardinals of voting age, of whom 54 come from Europe and 34 from the Americas.

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