The Catholic Church is not a democracy. Cardinals do not have geographical constituencies. And a conclave is not a political convention.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s acknowledge the deep geographical imbalances in the conclave that will elect Pope Benedict XVI’s successor. There are 117 cardinals eligible to vote, and it is a group dominated by Europeans and North Americans.
Consider these numbers:
— A full 52 percent of the voting-age cardinals are European, despite the fact that Europe today is home to just 24 percent of the church’s total population, and is the only continent where the actual number of Catholics is in decline.
— Italy alone has 28 voting cardinals in the conclave, or 24 percent — more than Africa, Asia and Australia combined, and eight more voters than the last conclave in 2005.
— About 35 percent of the voters are active or retired members of the Roman Curia, a remarkably high proportion that has significantly increased since the 2005 conclave.
— Latin America, home to 42 percent of the world’s Catholic population, has 19 cardinals among conclave voters, or 16 percent of the total.
In terms of population, the church’s center of gravity long ago moved from Europe to the south and east, and the church’s biggest growth areas are Africa and Asia.
Many would argue that this changing dynamic goes beyond simple numbers — that Catholic communities in developing countries are not only more populous, but also more vibrant, more participatory in the sacraments and more influential in their societies.
Catholic leaders, including popes, have professed to welcome this transformation from a Eurocentric to a more universal church. But it’s a shift that has barely touched the highest levels of church governance.
No wonder the College of Cardinals is increasingly seen as the firewall against change in the church. For all the talk about Catholicism’s global expansion, far-flung church communities have relatively little voice when it comes to choosing and advising a pope.
“The church is not a democracy” is an oft-recited mantra at the Vatican, and no one is seriously suggesting that the College of Cardinals should operate as a kind of representational parliament, or that popes should adhere to geographical quotas when he selects new members.
But early last year, after yet another batch of new cardinals tilted almost exclusively toward Europe and the Roman Curia, whispered criticism was heard inside and outside the Vatican. Some of it appears to have reached Pope Benedict’s ears: when he named six additional cardinals in November, none were European and five were from the developing world.
That hadn’t happened in decades, and the pope told a surprised audience that his selections were meant to demonstrate the church’s universality.