Electing a New Pope

The Roman Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals is convening at the Vatican this week to fill one of the most influential religious roles in the world: the papacy. Last month Pope Benedict XVI made history when he stepped down, becoming the first pontiff to do so in more than 600 years.

Starting on Tuesday, the College of Cardinals will gather for what’s known as the papal conclave to discuss the future of the church and to vote on its new leader.

Church experts say Benedict, now a pope emeritus, may have some sway in the process, having appointed 67 of the 115 cardinal electors—members of the College who will vote to replace him—during his papacy. A two-thirds majority vote is needed to choose a successor.

But as the world’s Catholic population has grown to an estimated 1.2 billion, its rank and file has largely shifted from the European countries from which popes have traditionally hailed. Even as organized religion fades in western Europe, it is growing in Africa and South America.

Catholics worldwide
(Percentage of worldwide
Catholic population)

With the church’s history rooted in the region, European followers represented over 67 percent of the global Catholic population in 1900. France was the largest Catholic country, with 40 million adherents—98 percent of its population—while nearly 100 percent of Spain’s and Italy’s populations were Catholic.

While Europe had the largest total number of Catholics in 1970, Latin America with its growing population wasn’t far behind. The regions each represented about 38 percent of the world’s Catholics. Around this time Catholicism had also begun to seriously take hold in sub-Saharan Africa.

By 2010 Europe’s Catholic population had shrunk considerably, representing less than 24 percent of the world’s followers and leaving Latin America to take the number one regional spot, with 41 percent. The Democratic Republic of the Congo now has the highest Catholic population in Africa, with almost 36 million followers—over 50 percent of the country’s population. The Philippines is home to 6 percent of the global Catholic population, a greater share than Italy, making it one of the five most Catholic countries in the world.

Who will elect the
next pope?

The conclave of cardinal electors at the Vatican this week is made up of 115 of the 208 total members of the College of Cardinals from around the world, one of whom is traditionally selected to be the next pontiff. Until Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978 from his post as a cardinal in Poland, the Vatican hadn’t seen a non-Italian in the papal office in over 450 years. The participants in the 2005 conclave that elected the German-born Benedict had a similar geographic makeup to the 2013 conclave, shown here. While Europe’s share of the global Catholic population has significantly dropped in recent years, its high number of voting cardinals demonstrates the influence it continues to have over the future of the church.

Present-day boundaries shown. Countries with less than .1% Catholic population not symbolized.

Map: Alexander Stegmaier, Maggie Smith, NGM Staff

Source: World Christian Database, Vatican