Speculation over whom the College of Cardinals will elect as the new pope is focusing on the geographic distribution of the world’s Catholics. Only 16 percent of the world’s population is Catholic, but some 42 percent of these believers are Latin American and 15 percent African. And here’s a few more numbers : according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 432 million Latin Americans, fully 73 percent of the region’s population, identify (if not practice) as Catholics. Some 134 million Brazilians identify as Catholic, making Brazil the world’s largest Catholic population in the world, with 12.2 percent of the global share. Mexico has the second largest Catholic population. While in Colombia, only the sixth globally, 38 of its 42 million people identify as Catholic.
We won’t know until Easter if the heavily Latin American and African concentration of Catholics will penetrate Europe’s long history of running the papacy. It might take longer for the Vatican’s leadership to become more representative than for the UN Security Council, where Brazil and Latin America as a whole can likewise make a similarly legitimate claim for more representative distribution of permanent seats.
But beyond the national or regional origin of Pope Benedict’s successor, and quite apart from the separate matter of how the Vatican copes with (or perhaps is inadvertently prompting) the rise of evangelicals in both regions, it seems to me that the Catholic Church remains unprepared to adjust its doctrine to the way people live and love today. Gay marriage and civil unions, women’s rights and contraception to prevent pregnancy or disease : I don’t have the statistics but it is a good guess that some Catholic-identified Latin Americans are also gay, lesbian, women, or users of contraception, or all of the above. Or simply modern human beings : men, women, gay, straight, or somewhere else on the gender/sexuality continuum. The same can be said for the United States, where the Church’s evangelical priorities are running smack into its rigidity on social doctrine, its hypocrisy in sheltering child molesters while preaching a gospel of protecting the most vulnerable among us.
But is it really necessary for the Catholic Church to become less rigid, more progressive ? We all know practicing or quasi-practicing Catholics for whom the spiritual strength they derive from prayer far outweighs their doctrinal disagreements. If believers themselves can live with the contradictions, is pining for a more modern Vatican just a little too secular, even naïve ? I don’t think so. Although the Vatican no longer has the geopolitical weight of the UN Security Council, it exercises enormous cultural power. And that power still affects us all.