Latinos Reshaped the Church, but Few Expect a LatAm Pope

PHOTO: LOsservatore Romano Pope Benedict XVI meets with Fidel Castro in Havana. Benedict announced Monday Feb. 11, 2013 he would resign Feb. 28, the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years.PlayAP Photo/LOsservatore Romano
WATCH Catholics in Mexico React to the Pope's Resignation

The news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation gave hope to many Latin Americans that the next Pope might be from their region of the world. After all, nearly half of the world's Catholic population resides south of the U.S.-Mexico border, and one in three U.S. Catholics is Hispanic.

Even a number of Latin American names have been tossed around as possible picks for the top spot. Brazilian cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, who serves as the head of Vatican's office for religious congregations, and Odilo Pedro Scherer, the archbishop of Sao Paulo, Argentine Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and Honduran Archbishop Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga have all been mentioned as possible candidates.

Still, some religious experts doubt that Latin Americans have enough clout among those who will be selecting the next leader of the Catholic world. Not to mention, there has never been a modern non-European pope.

"To see the possibilities for a Latin American pope, you have to look at the makeup of the College of Cardinals," Bernardo Barranco, an expert at Mexico's Center for Religious Studies, told the Associated Press. "From the get-go, I see it as difficult for a Latin American ... because the college has not only been 're-Europeanized,' it has also been 're-Italianized.'"

The College of Cardinals -- historically made up of the clergy of Rome -- remains heavily European to this day. That may be a reflection of the fact that the pope tends to choose his the cardinals himself. It wasn't until the 1960's that the Church's leadership made efforts to incorporate regional diversity from the growing Catholic populations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Still, just about half of the members who will vote on the next Pope are European and less than one fifth are from Latin America. In other words, a choice of pope is both a reflection of deep-rooted tradition but also of the group that makes the selection.

Benedict XVI certainly saw the power of Latin Americans, even if that is not reflected in the College of Cardinals. He visited Brazil in 2007, where he condemned contraceptives, abortion, and he spent a few days in Mexico and Cuba last year as well. When in Cuba, he met with Fidel Castro in Havana, and pushed for the need for "authentic freedom" in the country.

Peace between Cuba and the rest of the world would only be reached if all parties are "prepared to ask for the truth and if they decide to take the path of love, sowing reconciliation and brotherhood," Benedict said.

If sheer membership played a role, a Latin American pope might not seem all that strange. It's no secret that the Catholic church is currently undergoing a membership crisis and many have suggested Latinos may be the answer, in part because they already play a distinct role. Catholic Latinos, after all, are growing in numbers in both Latin America and the United States.

In fact, it seems Latinos actually may be helping stave off a more dramatic membership decline in the U.S. A recent study by the Pew Forum indicates that Catholicism has experienced the "greatest net losses" of any religion as a result of religious converts in the U.S. But the attrition has been slowed by immigration and the growth of the Latino population. About 62 percent of all Hispanics are Catholic, according to the study.

Still, critics say the Roman Catholic Church is a slow-moving institution, where traditions hold strong. A Latino pope may be too unconventional for such a conservative institution that "thinks in centuries," said John Moody, a former Vatican correspondent and the Executive Editor at Fox News.

"There will be Latinos among them capable of accepting the burden of the papacy," he wrote on Monday, "But they may be hidden in the long shadows of tradition and a diminishing appetite for the unexpected."

CORRECTION: A former version of this article stated that there has never been a non-European pope. It has been updated to reflect the fact that there has never been one in modern times.