I am a great admirer of the journalist John L. Allen, whose 2009 book The Future Church I have praised highly as a guide to the “megatrends” shaping Christian denominations generally, and not just Roman Catholicism. Allen is a very well informed author, whose views are arguably prophetic. He is in fact the main reason I follow the paper National Catholic Reporter, where he has a regular column.

His latest contribution offers a catalogue of the candidates for the next Pope, who will succeed the present Benedict XVI (now a venerable 85). Allen knows better than anybody the old superstition that anyone identified as a likely future pope will for that very reason never get the job, but his forecasts are nevertheless intriguing. By far the most interesting part of Allen’s analysis concerns the likely papal candidates from outside Europe and North America, men such as Manila’s Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle or Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson.

Even more than other denominations, the numerical strength of the Catholic church is rapidly “going South,” into the newer churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Already, the countries with the largest Catholic populations are Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines, and in any typical year, the number of Catholic baptisms in the Philippines exceeds the total for France, Spain, Italy and Poland combined. If you want to think of a typical Catholic, think of a black or brown-skinned woman living near the Equator. At some point, surely, that numerical change has to have its impact on the church’s global hierarchy.

This shift in authority is quite familiar to Protestants, who note for instance the changing balance of power in the global Anglican and Lutheran communions. Recently, non-Americans (mainly Africans) made up forty percent of delegates at the General Conference of the United Methodist church, meeting in Tampa. And as those examples suggest, a change in ethnic and geographical background is reflected in ideological shifts, an awareness of very different concerns.  It would be fascinating to see the Catholic Church – still by far the world’s largest religious institution – under the leadership of an African or Asian pope.

Whether or not that will come to pass at the next papal election is open to dispute, but the change cannot be too long delayed. How astonishing such a development would have seemed to Christians of the last century!


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