What the Election of Pope Francis Says About Global Politics

As the white smoke clears, Italy—and the rest of Europe's—monopoly on the papacy seems to have ended, at least for a time.

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Hannah Gais is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association and editor of ForeignPolicyBlogs.com. You can follow her on Twitter @axi0nestin.

The decline and fall of the West in general and Europe in particular may be hype, but emerging powers have made themselves heard in some surprising—and cautiously conservative—places, including the Roman Catholic Church.  And with the election of the first pope from the Americas and the first Jesuit, Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who will be taking the regnal name of Francis, change is in the air—change that isn't indicative of only the Roman Catholic Church but also wide ranging global dynamics. Bergoglio was the main challenger to Benedict XVI in 2005, but Benedict's relationship with John Paul II made him a shoe-in. And while two non-Italian popes in succession after electing only Italians since 1523 was historic, the emergence of the first pope from the Americas is even more so. Aside from Italy and Argentina, other potential candidates hailed from the Philippines (Luis Tagle), Brazil (Joao Braz de Aviz), the United States (Timothy Dolan), Canada (Marc Ouellet), Austria (Christoph Schoeborn), Brazil (Odilo Scherer) and Ghana (Peter Turkson).

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

Both the newly elected Pope Francis and the other frontrunners represented the changed—and changing—face of Catholicism. With 1.2 billion members worldwide, the church represents the largest single Christian denomination in the world—and it's growing. The number of believers is shrinking in Western Europe, but growing in the Eastern bloc. The percentage of the population of Catholics to non-Catholics is dropping in South America and parts of southern Asia; however, South Americans still constitute 41 percent of the total Catholic population. What is interesting though is not the decline in numbers in, say, Spain or Italy, but the boom in Africa and parts of China. Compared to the number of believers in relation to the total number of Catholics worldwide, Africa's measly 12 percent doesn't seem like much to celebrate. Yet there are other facts to consider than percentage points alone.

The Rise of the Global South

First, as Europe declines—both economically and religiously—nontraditional powers are on the rise in the so-called "global south." Since 1910, the number of Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa has risen from 1.2 (1 percent of the population) to 171.5 million (16 percent of the population)—as has Latin America (from 70.7 to 425.5 million) and the Middle East-North Africa region (from 1.4 to 5.6 million). Catholics in Europe dropped from making up 65 percent of the population to 24-26 percent; however, they still constitute nearly 58 percent of the College of Cardinals in comparison to Africa's 8 percent. [See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

Just as the world's Catholic population is shifting towards the global south, so too is the world economy. Africa features prominently here. First, 12 of the 20 fastest growing economies in terms of compounded annual growth rate are on the continent. In and of itself, growth isn't necessarily spectacular news—after all, GDP growth doesn't solve deep structural inequalities and political imbalance nor does it automatically "trickle down." However, some—such as Ghana—have an improving human development index (HDI) and access to international credit markets, which further stimulates economic growth. As Dambisa Moyo told Great Decisions in Foreign Policy on PBS, "Africa is open for business now. We now have about 16 countries in Africa that have credit ratings." But it's not just "business" in the traditional sense—and it's not just Africa. "Growth" in the global south—Africa, Asia and the Americas—has provided these regions with a better spot on the global stage.

Changing Institutions

Second, the diversity in the papal election demonstrated that institutions perceived as resistant to change were, in fact, subject to fluctuations of their own. Although this may seem obvious, recall that two of the largest Christian denominations—the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox—are still "headquartered" in the "old world." If there's one lesson we can learn from Christianity in the first millennium, it's that even though the Roman Empire may have crumbled, it still required a canonical dispute to even consider Constantinople (the East)— "the new Rome"—truly equal in stature to Rome (the West). East-West power struggles defined Christian relations, resulting in the Great Schism in 1054, in the first and second millennia; perhaps North-South power struggles will make an appearance in the third. [See Photos: Pope Francis Embarks on First Day as Pontiff.]

"Superpowers" Step Back

Third, and finally, perhaps the church is gearing towards not a G8, G20 or G40 world, but a "G-zero" one. Tradition and geography naturally entwined Roman Catholic leadership to Europe—specifically Italy—but a looser grip on "worldly" affairs, drops in active church membership, population decline, scandal and the overall crisis in Europe can, and perhaps is, moving the church onwards. The "power vacuum" in ecclesial leadership may not be as obvious as an introspective West refusing to intervene halfway across the world, but there's no question that the Europeans are not acting as the only leaders. But it's not that the Europeans, particularly the Italians—whose representation in the College of Cardinals has dropped steadily over the years—don't necessarily have the chops for the heavy lifting of 1.2 billion souls; it's that there are other players on the court, other heavy lifters, standing besides them. As Harvey Cox at Harvard Divinity School noted, "The growing edge of the Catholic Church is no longer in Europe, it's in the Southern Hemisphere and the non-Western world." The Americans, the Brazilians, the Ghanaians, the Argentinians and the Filipinos are the emerging powers in a dynamic 21st century church. Bergoglio, with an Italian family background and a European education, offers an easy transition from the "old world" to the "new."

As the white smoke clears, Italy—and the rest of Europe's—monopoly on the papacy seems to have ended, at least for a time. Time can only tell what the church will look like in the years to come, but one thing is for sure: The European stronghold has found some new contenders.

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