The Catholic World


There’s no reason for the Roman Catholic Church to leave Rome. Why give up the swell Michelangelos? But there’s plenty of reason for the cardinals ensconced in the Vatican conclave to look beyond the borders of Europe, which has long ceased to be the population center of Catholicism, in selecting a new pope.

The white puffs of smoke are quite likely to come this week, perhaps as early as today. For the last century, papal elections have come quickly. But that swiftness obscures the many factions among cardinals. And even though voting blocs in the conclave are more likely to form along doctrinal rather than geographical lines, after the long rule of the Polish John Paul II, the Italians would love to see the position back in their hands, where it has rested through most of the papacy.

The Americans know they haven’t got a shot; their nation’s wielding of global power makes others wary.


The church would be better served by looking elsewhere. Its souls -- stakeholders, if you will -- are in the developing world, and a global institution that seeks to serve the world’s underprivileged should not remain a colonial enterprise, run in Europe by Europeans for subjects to a large extent in the developing world. Nearly half the world’s Catholics live in Latin America, yet there has never been a Latin American pope.

But here’s the rub for progressive Catholics: The cardinals from Latin America, Africa and Asia are among the most conservative. Latin American nations would be proud to see one of their cardinals assume the papacy, but that “triumph” might only solidify the church’s opposition to direly needed social programs in the region.

The Mexican government’s family planning program has cut the birthrate by about two-thirds in the last quarter of a century. The Brazilian government has reduced the spread of AIDS through its distribution of condoms. Africa needs similar programs. Yet the church under John Paul II strongly opposed them, and another conservative pope probably would do the same.

The age of the new pope might matter more than his country of origin. Cardinals are said to favor an older candidate, someone to straighten up some of the Vatican’s internal housekeeping for a few years while the church figures out its longer-term bearings on sexual matters, poverty and social justice. In that case, a Third World pope could boost the church’s standing in the eyes of many, while cardinals who might be nervous about a non-European papacy could be assured that it wouldn’t last long.

A progressive candidate from the developing world is what the church really needs, but such cardinals are a rare breed -- a fact that stands as one of John Paul II’s most important legacies.

Then again, there is always the hope that the new pope, regardless of his origins, will be transformed by his position to see what his billion-soul flock needs during life as well as after.