Unless his reign is short, a Roman Catholic pontiff will appoint most of the men who vote for his successor. But Pope Francis’ additions to the College of Cardinals since his election in 2013 also have served another purpose – tilting the leadership structure of the Roman Catholic Church away from its historic European base and toward developing nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The pope recently announced that he will appoint nine new voting cardinals (in addition to four other cardinals who are over 80 and therefore ineligible to vote). After this latest group is elevated at a Nov. 28 ceremony in Vatican City, the College of Cardinals will have 128 voting members, 42% of whom are European, down from 52% in 2013.
Francis’ appointments have increased the overall representation of the Asia-Pacific region within the body of voting cardinals from 9% in 2013 to 15% in 2020, while increasing the representation of sub-Saharan Africa from 9% to 13%. These figures include cardinals who were named by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II.
Francis, an Argentinian who is the first pope from outside Europe since the eighth century, still has picked more cardinals from Europe than from any other region. Of the 73 newly appointed or currently eligible voting cardinals Francis has named so far during his papacy, 38% are from Europe, 21% from Latin America and the Caribbean, 18% from the Asia-Pacific region, 14% from sub-Saharan Africa, 7% from North America and 3% from the Middle East-North Africa region.
Among the nine cardinals Francis has chosen this year, four are from Europe, with three from Italy and one from Malta. Two were born in the Asia-Pacific region (Brunei and the Philippines), one is from Latin America and the Caribbean (Chile), one is from sub-Saharan Africa (Rwanda), and one is from North America (the United States). The American is Wilton D. Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, who will become the first African American cardinal.
Given that, as of 2010, only about a quarter (24%) of the global Catholic population is from Europe, the continent remains heavily overrepresented among voting cardinals. By this measure, the most underrepresented continent within the church’s leadership – even with Francis’ new picks – is Latin America and the Caribbean, which is home to 39% of the worldwide Catholic population (again, as of 2010) and has 19% of the cardinals.