It’s Still 1491 At The Vatican

As the world looks on while the Vatican chooses its next leader, it’s worth pointing out that the Western Hemisphere is solidly a Catholic one. 

Catholics in the Americas

If it weren’t for the British colonies and their pesky religious pluralism and protestant settlers, the Vatican would have achieved their ultimate goal to make the Western Hemisphere its fief.

Yet, as Real World St. Peter’s continues, it is clear that cardinals from near and far will face an uphill battle to choose a pope that is representative of the 21st century Church and, increasingly, of its bases of power, funding and support. Despite the Americas containing nearly 50% of the world’s Catholics, North and South American cardinals only make up 27% of the papal conclave. 

El País wrote a great piece last week entitled “Brazil looks for more weight in the Church”, citing Lula’s (already more popular than God in Brazil) dream of seeing a Brazilian pope and a growing sense amongst Brazilian Catholics that the Church is losing touch with the ways that Brazilian society is developing and losing the war against evangelism in the country. Sound familiar? Brazilians just need to look to their big northern neighbor for a glimpse into their future.

Now, saying that the Catholic Church is stuck in the past is like saying that the Italian government is dysfunctional. Everyone knows it, everyone knows it needs to change, and yet both participants and observers watch with horror or glee as it descends into further chaos and confusion.

But one thing is clear, the Americas do not have their fair say and share in the Catholic Church, and the only country that has struck the correct balance between this dysfunction and the needs of a modern flock is the United States (and, to a lesser extent, Canada). And there’s good reason for this: where there’s choice (U.S., Canada and, increasingly, Brazil), the alternatives are clear and the weaknesses of the Church become apparent. 

And the reward for the U.S.’s modern approach to the church? Isolation, confusion, and rejection from Rome. Among other things, being American is seen as a big impediment to potential leadership candidates at the Vatican (the same way Cardinal Dolan clear qualifications as Archbishop of New York are put on ice by his broken Italian). Even the U.S. Church’s hardest workers, American nuns, are under siege.  And American Catholics are not happy about it.

I don’t have much hope that even a Latin American will do much to change this paradigm, at least as long as Europe keeps grasping for power in increasingly desperate ways (their governments are doing it, why shouldn’t the Vatican?) But at the very least the appointment of a ‘New World’ pope might offer some cold comfort to resigned Latin Catholics throughout the hemisphere, but it won’t do anything to solve the problems inherent in its biggest and most lucrative markets.

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