According to Stalin’s interpreter, in 1944, when the Allies were carving up the soon to be post-Nazi world, the Soviet leader responded to Churchill’s concern about the fate of Polish Catholics in a Soviet sphere.
When Churchill mused whether it might not be sensible to provoke a conflict with the Vatican over Poland, Stalin is alleged to have dismissed the threat of Rome with the put down: “The Pope? How many battalions does the Pope of Rome have?” To which Pius XII later retorted: “You can tell my son Joseph that he will meet my divisions in heaven.”
Whatever the precise veracity of these great lines, it is clear that the position of the pope has always been, and will continue to be, as much geo-political as spiritual.
Interestingly for Stalin’s ideology, his battalions proved illusory. In contrast, Pius XII’s ideology proved to be much more resilient. And indeed religion had a significant role, on both its western and southern flanks, in bringing down the atheist empire of the Soviets. On its western flank, historians point to the election of a Polish pope in 1978 as the beginning of the end for communism.
They argue that by appointing a pope from behind the Iron Curtain, the Vatican created a parallel leadership for Catholics in communist countries. There can be no doubting the Catholic nature of the Solidarity movement in Poland and the sense that Catholicism was the main opposition force there.
In other central European Catholic countries, such as Croatia, parts of the Ukraine, Hungary and Slovakia, the clergy was a significant oppositional force.
On the Soviets’ southern flank, the role of religion in destroying Moscow’s power was much more direct. The Islamic fighters of the Mujahideen inflicted a military defeat on the Russian heathens in the name of Allah.
Today, both Islam and Catholicism are still potent world powers. And the election of the next pope may have to take into account what those other religious people, the settlers in the West Bank — euphemistically call the “facts on the ground”.
When looking at the facts on the ground of world Catholicism — let’s call it Popenomics — we can see a picture that is replicated in global economics: the decline of the West and the rise of the Rest.
Catholicism is on the retreat in Europe while it is flourishing in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the very places where the economy is also flourishing. Now only the very brave and possibly foolhardy would try to link causation between strong economic performance and religious observation, but what is clear is that the Catholic Church is becoming profoundly less European.
Of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, Latin America accounts for 483 million or 41.3pc of the total Catholic population. Of the 10 countries in the world with the most Catholics, four are in Latin America.
Brazil has the highest Catholic population of any country at more than 150 million. Italy has the most Catholics in Europe, with 57 million, while the Democratic Republic of Congo has the biggest Catholic population in Africa, ranking ninth in the world with almost 36 million.
Since 1970, Catholicism has seen a global shift southwards; the proportion of Catholics living in Europe has declined, while Africa has seen a growth in the number of Catholics from 45 million in 1970 to 176 million in 2012. Asia has also seen a growth in Catholicism and now represents almost 12pc of the total Catholic population in the world, or 137 million people.
IN 1970, Europe accounted for close to 40pc of the world’s Catholics, today the figure is 23pc. In contrast, 40 odd years ago, less than 7pc of the world’s Catholics lived in Africa. Today that figure has more than doubled to 15.2pc.
At this rate, in a few years, there will be more African Catholics than there will be European Catholics. Similarly, the growth in Asia has been spectacular.
When I was in school in the 1980s, priests from our school regularly “came back from the missions”. These men were always a bit odd, at least initially, trying to re-acclimatise to the more ordered life of suburban Ireland. The most interesting ones were the guys who came back from Latin America.
They tended to be immersed in notions of social justice, which were exactly what we wanted to hear as teenagers. Little did I realise at the time that what I was hearing was the language of liberation theology articulated by priests who saw God’s ministry as being closer to the people and if needs be, against the elites of the time in Argentina, Chile and Brazil, as well as further north on the South American landmass.
While at the time they may have felt defeated, little did they realise just how successful they were.
Now Latin America is home to the world’s largest Catholic population and the two biggest Catholic countries, Brazil and Mexico, are the best performing major economies in the region. In Africa, we see that both the economies of Congo and the next biggest Catholic country, Nigeria, are flying. Indeed the Lagos stock market is among the best performing in the world of late.
But crucially, if we conclude with the idea that “demography is destiny”, what we see is the evident continued growth of the populations of Africa and Latin America, as well as parts of Asia. Meanwhile, Europe will continue to grow old and grey and as it does, it will become less significant in global power terms.
This global demographic challenge poses a dilemma for the future leadership of the global Catholic Church. Because Europe used to have more Catholics and because the cardinals are old men, there is a huge imbalance between the actual population of Catholics in Europe and the amount of European cardinals who will vote next month. Europe has 23pc of the world’s Catholics but 56pc of all the world’s cardinals. In contrast, Africa accounts for 15pc of the world’s Catholics but only 9pc of the cardinals. Meanwhile, the disparity for Latin America is greater with 41pc of the world’s Catholics yet only 11pc of the cardinals.
Popenomics dictates that if the Catholic Church wants to vote for the future, it should vote for a Latin American Pope next month. It is hard to underestimate, even as the church’s power evaporates here in Europe, how significant it would be for a country in Latin America to have one of its own nominated by such an ancient and powerful organisation as the Vatican. These things matter. They voted strategically for a Polish pope in 1978, why not vote again strategically for a Latin American pope, particularly given the growing popularity of Protestant evangelism in that region?
Indeed, as many Irish Catholics try to grapple with the horrible legacy of child and adult abuse by the church here, skipping a generation past the old, grey European powerbase of cardinals can only be a good thing.
Voting for a pope from Latin America, or even Africa, would not only reflect the changing global economy, but would be, to use the expression of Mao Zedong (another man who believed he would trounce religion), a great leap forward.