March 20, 2013 9:54 am
Updated: October 16, 2013 7:47 pm

Rep by Pope: How the papal conclave favours Europe and North America

Cardinals conducting their final mass before entering the papal conclave.

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Catholics in Europe and North America are much better represented at the conclave – the assembly that will elect the Catholic church’s new pope – than Catholics in Africa, Latin America and the Philippines, public data shows.

Pope Benedict XVI’s successor, the 266th pope, will be elected in a closed-door process in Rome by cardinals – senior bishops named to the role by papal appointment. Only cardinals under 80, called “cardinal-electors,” are allowed to vote.

The Philippines, and most large countries in Latin America, have significantly more Catholics per cardinal-elector than their counterparts in Europe and North America. The United States, for example, has 6.7 million Catholics per cardinal-elector, while Mexico has 32 million. (Canada is well-represented at 3.2 million.)

The Philippines has one voting cardinal for 75 million Catholics, while Italy has 21 for 50 million Catholics.

Many countries with significant Catholic populations have no cardinal allowed to vote. Topping the list is Angola, with 14 million Catholics. Of the 15 largest countries not represented at the conclave (measured by Catholic population), 14 are in Africa.

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Toronto-based Thomas Cardinal Collins agrees that the apportioning of cardinals isn’t entirely equal on a per-person basis – “but it isn’t meant to be.”

“It’s not really like a parliament. It’s not meant to be like a legislature,” he told reporters at St. Michael’s Cathedral Sunday before leaving for Rome.

If each country’s cardinal quota was dictated by its Catholic population, he noted, “Canada wouldn’t have two or three cardinals: We’re a little tiny country.”

One of the downsides to adding cardinals as Catholic communities grow, he said, is a kind of clergy inflation: “This is one reason, I think, we have 120 rather than 30 or 70 – just because of the spread of the church. It’s booming in Africa, South America, different places. There are countries that have huge numbers of vibrant dioceses.”

The sheer number of cardinals can make the conclave’s task harder, Collins said: too many people to get to know while choosing a new pope. “It’s a very real issue to raise of how do we get to know them,” he said, noting this may be more of an issue for him as a conclave newbie. “I’ve only been at it for a year.”

All that said, he thinks “it’s a good idea to spread [Cardinal distribution] more widely. There have been efforts at that over the years, but not perfect. And I think there needs to continue to be those efforts.”

Catholics by country proportional map The proportion of Catholics by country. Map of voting cardinals by country A proportional map of the number of voting cardinals by country.The last pope born outside Europe was Gregory III, originally from Syria. He died in 741.

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