(Getty/Guido Marzilla)

(Getty/Guido Marzilla)

As Pope Benedict steps down this week, speculation stirs that the next pontiff could be a man of color or from outside Europe. And while many qualifications trump nationality when it comes picking the leader of 1.1 billion Catholics, an end to the European dominance of the Holy See is still an enticing suggestion. On his Sirius XM radio show last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan mused that it was “highly possible” there might be a pope from the Americas or Asia or Africa. The former cardinal of Washington told the National Catholic Reporter that he thought the church was ready for a pope outside the West. The Pew Research Center found that most American Catholics (60 percent) think it would be good for the next pope to come from the developing world, hailing from South America, Africa, or Asia. 

For some, a pope from the Global South would offer a new perspective, energizing a church faced with the challenges of the modern world. The move could signal an overcoming of past injustice, a herald that all parts of the church hold equal weight within the body. “I think it would send the message to the global church that they recognize the present and future of the church, and that they want to give voice and authority to what’s increasingly becoming the majority,” says Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, a professor of religion at the University of Miami who specializes in theologies of the Americas. “It says you are really a part of the authentic church, not just the colonized church.”

Like many global religious bodies, the Catholic Church now sees its most fertile reach outside historical power centers in Europe. Vibrant religious growth in the Global South means the largest share of Catholics now live in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the fastest church growth happening in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, as recorded in a new Pew study. Just 24 percent of Catholics reside in Europe, a marked decline from a century ago, when the continent was home to 65 percent of the world’s Catholics. Today Brazil boasts the largest number of Catholics—more than 126 million—with Mexico, the Philippines, and the United States following in the rankings. Even in the United States, the face of the church has changed: just 20 years ago, white Catholics outnumbered Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. 5-to-1; now that gap is just 2-to-1, according to the Public Religion Research Institute

The church’s shifting demographics are, in some ways, the remains of colonialism, the product of churches following empires and globalization, bringing the Christian faith with them. Yet such subjugation has a way of being thwarted; religious doctrines are not delivered by rote, but rather evolve and transform, creating new forms of religiosity. Out of this problematic legacy some of the most dynamic theologies have emerged—making another argument for a theological leader from the church’s more recent provinces.

I cannot help but think of Latin American liberation theology, which emerged out of this ethos in the late 1960s, a seeming fulfillment of Vatican II’s call to update and “throw open the windows of the Church” to meet modernity.  After Latin American bishops met in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, the Rev. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest considered to be the movement’s founder, later wrote, “Liberation theology is closely bound up with this new presence of those who in the past were always absent from our history. They have gradually been turning into active agents of their own destiny … changing the condition of the poor and oppressed.”

Liberation theology grappled with social justice, poverty, and the gap between rich and poor—not the spiritually poor, but the materially poor so often found in the Global South. It was a daring edge of theology, beginning on the margins for those on the margins, one that talked back to power and hierarchy. Arising alongside feminist theology and black liberation theology, this Latin American school multiplied, conversing with theologies and postcolonial thought around the globe. Today we speak of liberation theologies in the plural, with words from womanist and mujerista thinkers, from the theology of the minjung in South Korea and the Dalit in India, and from a growing cadre of perspectives.

Despite its influence, liberation theology has struggled as a movement. Its Marxist communitarianism looked a lot like communism, an anathema to the Polish-born Pope John Paul II who worked to fell the Iron Curtain. His contemporary and successor Joseph Ratzinger criticized elements of the movement and censured well-known liberation theologians in his role as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Even Gutiérrez, when asked about the movement’s reputed decline in a 2003 interview with America magazine, acknowledged that “liberation theology is linked to a particular historical moment.” “Any new insight within a particular field of knowledge initially receives a lot of attention, but then it slowly gets incorporated or assimilated into the normal ways of doing things,” he said.

Its assimilation could be taken as a sign of success. The “preferential option for the poor”—language from Latin American liberation theology—is now a repeated refrain of Catholic social teaching. The newest head of the CDF, German Archbishop Gerhard Müller, is said to be sympathetic to liberation theology and even co-authored a book with Gutiérrez. Benedict, like many Catholic theologians, has been a staunch defender of the poor and a loud critic of economic oppression in his teachings and encyclicals.

The Global South could be considered an important source of innovative theologies and the place where the Catholic Church is most alive. But would a pope from the region be able to bring that vitality to Vatican City? “Representation by a member of the Global South in the papal office need not necessarily mean a true representation of the concerns of the Global South,” says Susan Abraham, a postcolonial theologian at Harvard Divinity School. As she explains, “The cardinals have been appointed to toe a particular stance in regards to the Vatican.” Regardless of nation of origin, the next pope will have been made a cardinal by John Paul II or Benedict XVI. He will be one of their guys. He will not be so much a dramatic change as a continuation of their leadership.

The next pope’s election is also still a political process, and the odds heavily favor a European papabile. While there are contenders for the papacy from the likes of Brazil, the Philippines and Ghana, journalists like CNN’s Eric Marrapodi and Dan Merica, along with Religion News Service’s David Gibson, have demonstrated why some of these candidacies are longshots. Often that reasoning results from sheer numbers: Of the likely 115 cardinals who will choose the next pope, 61 come from Europe, 28 from Italy alone.

In 2005, during his first general audience in St. Peter’s Square, the new bishop of Rome explained why he had chosen the name Pope Benedict XVI. It referenced Pope Benedict XV who led the church during World War I, as well as St. Benedict who helped spread Christianity across Europe. “St Benedict is therefore deeply venerated, also in Germany and particularly in Bavaria, my birthplace,” he said. “He is a fundamental reference point for European unity and a powerful reminder of the indispensable Christian roots of his culture and civilization.” A son of Europe, Benedict felt called to rebuild the declining church in Europe. Perhaps the next pope will feel the same. Or perhaps he will be called to champion the church elsewhere, maybe even in his own place of origin in the Global South. Only time and the College of Cardinals will tell. Until then, we wait.

Tiffany Stanley is managing editor of Religion & Politics. Follow her @tifflstanley.