Pope Benedict XVI’s seemingly sudden decision to resign has caused a media frenzy, with many a Catholic asking why, when, what, and who will replace him? For many of these questions, the answers are concrete and clear: age and illness, effective February 28 and the first resignation in 600 years. In the midst of all of this noise, however, the last question sticks out as unanswered and therefore ripe for speculation: who will the next Pope be, and where will he be from?
Although the election of the Pope is, of course, a Catholic event, it has significant global meaning and effects. This decision, which has the opportunity of revolutionizing the inarguably timeworn Catholic Church, matters not just for Catholics but also for non-Catholics and even the non-religious in many notable ways.
Firstly, a Pope’s particular theology can shift the Church’s direction and therefore a nation’s; Pope Benedict XVI remained fundamentally conservative in his views and thus so did most Church teachings. In predominantly Catholic Mexico, pro-life laws were passed in the states of Baja California and San Luis Potosi in September of 2012, largely due to the country’s Catholic standings. If, for instance, the next Pope came out in favor of pro-choice legislation, it is unlikely such laws would remain in predominately Catholic countries such as Mexico and Ireland. It is inarguable that the Pope’s theology directly affects the laws and legal systems of primarily Catholic countries, and is principally why the election of the next Pope should be of pronounced interest to every individual, Catholic or not.
Moreover, the origin of the next Pope has global consequences beyond theology and legislation. The year 2013 marks the first time in centuries that the next Pope has the potential to be of non-European origin. Vatican power-players have been European for centuries, but a rapidly secularizing Europe has strained the Church to galvanize and broaden its appeal. Electing a Pope from Latin America, where about 40 percent of the world’s Catholics reside, would electrify an institution struggling to stay relevant in an increasingly secular world and would display tangible commitment to globalization and progress. Electing a Pope from Africa, such as frontrunner Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, a 64-year-old currently heading Pope Benedict’s Council for Justice and Peace, would rejuvenate a Church seen as a stoic, inflexible institution.
“He (Turkson) would be able to respond to global needs and…the reality of what the face of Catholicism is,” stated Randall Woodard, Associate Professor of Theology at Saint Leo University in a CNN blog.
The demographic distribution of Catholics has shifted decisively to the developing world, according to the Pew Forum of Religion and Public Life. About 40 percent of the world’s Catholic population is from Latin America and 15 percent hail from Africa. Only about 25 percent originate form Europe, but most of the Cardinals and Vatican officials are European. This tension has forced the Church to come to a crossroads.
“Everybody said Benedict XVI was the transitional pope, the question is, transition to what?” Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, Director of the Research Center for Religion in Society and Culture at Brooklyn College, wrote. “The issue is what direction is the church going to seek: someone who is going to restore what we’ve lost or think constructively about other parts of the world?”
The prospect of a Latin American pope is an exciting one for 73 percent of the region-the exact percentage of its population that counts itself as Catholic.
“Having a pope from this part of the world (Latin America) could help renew our faith,” Liliana Lopez, a Mexican lifelong Catholic, said. “We need an extraordinary rejuvenation [in the church].”
The Catholic Church certainly could only benefit from renewing its follower’s faith and even gaining new adherents. Long strained under the weight of various scandals, the Church would benefit from adding a global, revolutionary aspect to its doctrine, which is seen by many as gathering dust in a perpetually fluctuating world. The new pope should represent its base, which has found centers in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
“The Vatican is a global organization,” writes Rachel Donadio and Elisabetta Povoledo in an article for the New York Times, “(but) it is often run like an Italian village.”
This kind of image is, obviously, a negative one to have going into approximately its 2,000 years of existence. If the Catholic Church wants to stay relevant in 2013, it should heed its retiring leader’s own advice.
“Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed,” Pope Benedict writes in his 1996 book “Salt of the Earth.” If the mustard seed represents the rapidly developing countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, then it seems that Pope Benedict XVI’s words might be wrought prophetic.
Emily Merlino is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]