Will the Geographic Profile of the College of Cardinals Really Change Under Francis?

The Pope’s Promotions

Earlier today, Pope Francis formally elevated 19 Catholic prelates to the rank of cardinal in a ceremony known as a “consistory,” marking the first time that he has made such promotions since his election last March. As with all of Pope Francis’ “firsts,” the announcement of his first picks for the cardinalate had generated a significant amount of buzz in light of his evident intention to dramatically shift the geographic distribution of the red hats.

Since their main responsibility is to elect the next pope, there is naturally a great deal of interest in the cardinals – where they come from, who they are, and what issues they care about. In the run-up to the conclave that elected Francis last March, the Pew Research Center produced a graphic showing how the percentage of cardinals from each region of the world compared to the percentage of the world’s Catholics living in those regions. The visual was stark: while Europe only accounted for less than a quarter of the world’s Catholics as of 2013, it was home to over half of the cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave. Latin America, with nearly 40% of the global Catholic population, could claim only 17% of the cardinal electors as its own.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Francis is accelerating a trend toward the “de-Italianization” or “de-Europeanization” of the College of Cardinals that has been at work for some time. National Catholic Register‘s Edward Pentin observed in January that “[f]ewer cardinals [from] the Roman Curia [the Vatican bureaucracy] will allow the Pope to choose more widely from the Church’s resident archbishops, thereby giving a more equitable distribution of cardinals from around the world.” In keeping with his emphasis on caring for the poor, Francis’ choices included clerics from developing countries like Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, and Nicaragua. Bishop Chibly Langlois was selected as the first cardinal from Haiti, one of the most impoverished nations in the world.

But looking at how the nationalities of the cardinals have evolved over time only tells half the story. As the Pew graphic emphasized, one also needs to take into account the ratio of cardinals to Catholics in a given region to get a sense of whether that part of the world is represented as fairly as another.

Of course, when I talk about “representation,” I don’t mean to imply that the cardinals represent the laity in the same way that congressmen represent their constituents in the U.S. House of Representatives. While the College is a quasi-democratic institution with a protocol for electing the pope that resembles the protocol used by the Electoral College to elect the President of the United States, the cardinals do not literally poll the faithful on who they want to be pontiff. Moreover, the College’s role in the actual governance of the Church is generally very limited, despite the fact that it is sometimes referred to as the “papal senate” (though the amount of input that its members have varies from papacy to papacy, and may well be reaching a high-water mark under Francis).

That said, there are clear reasons to prefer a distribution of cardinals roughly commensurate with the global distribution of the Catholic population. One is that the issues that appear most pressing to the Church in Rome may not seem all that important or urgent to the Church in the Third World, and vice versa. For example, the European and North American bishops and cardinals are more likely to worry about secularism, church-state conflicts, the aftermath of the sexual abuse crisis, and bioethical controversies than their counterparts elsewhere. In Africa, the most pressing concerns are hunger, genocide, and Islamic extremism. In South America, starvation and poverty again top the list, along with environmental degradation and governmental corruption. A Church that becomes too myopically Eurocentric will be unable to react appropriately to problems in other parts of the world.

I was curious to see whether the geographic distribution of the cardinalate has in fact become significantly more or less equitable over time, so I fired up my copy of Stata 12 and starting crunching the numbers.


Data and Methodology

The first step was to find some data. Fortunately, virtually all of the hard work of compiling information on the College of Cardinals had already been done by Florida International University’s Salvador Miranda, who curates a wonderfully comprehensive website on “The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church.” Since the majority of Catholics lived in Europe for most of the Church’s history, and since the cardinals were almost all of Italian descent until relatively recently, I figured it would be enough to begin my analysis around 1900 (this was also the earliest date for which I could find estimates of the global Catholic population, as I explain below). I pulled data from Miranda’s website going far enough back in time to be sure that I had included all men who were cardinals at the start of the twentieth century.

Counting cardinals at any given point in time is in fact a bit trickier than it might seem. Cardinals can exit the College either by dying, by being elected pope, or (in a couple rare instances) by resigning their position. The pope can also create “secret cardinals” or cardinals in pectore, whose names are kept “in his breast” until such time as he decides to publish them. Although the date of promotion of such cardinals is technically the date the pope promoted other cardinals he chose at the same time, I thought it would make more sense to count only cardinals whose names were known publicly on the date in question.

Moreover, assigning cardinals to a particular region of the world can also get complicated. Many have held positions in the Vatican at the time of their elevation despite having been born and raised elsewhere. I decided to assign cardinals to regions based on where they worked when they were promoted, not on their nationality at birth. Since I argued at the outset that we should care about the geographic distribution of the red hats because it can affect the Church’s global perspective, I figured it was logical to count men working in the Holy See as Italians/Europeans. (That said, I also redid my analysis with nationality at birth, and the results are very similar. These, along with all of my computations, are available on request.)

For population data, I turned to the World Christian Database (WCD), sponsored by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. From the website of the WCD I was able to obtain estimates of the global Catholic population by continent in 1900, 1950, 1970, 2000, and 2010, as well as projections for 2020.

Following some work in the political science literature, I decided to employ the Gini coefficient – most commonly used in economics as a measure of income or wealth disparities – to get a sense of inequality in the geographic distribution of cardinals. I don’t want to bore non-econ geeks with a mathematical discussion of the Gini coefficient*, so I’ll stick to essentials: Gini readings close to zero represent more equal distributions (e.g. every region of the world having a number of cardinals proportional to its share of the global Catholic population) and readings close to one represent unequal distributions (e.g. one region having all the cardinals while the others have none). In other words, the lower the Gini coefficient, the better.

Although the Gini coefficient is constantly in flux as older cardinals pass away and/or as the world population of Catholics changes, I obviously had to limit myself to calculating it at a finite number of points in time. I chose to do so at the times of the consistories when new cardinals are inducted, and at the times of the conclaves when new popes are elected. Because I only have population data at select dates, I used simple linear interpolations to estimate population at the times of the consistories and conclaves (i.e. if I had population data at time t and time t+1, I assumed that population growth between t and t+1 could be modeled with a straight line).

Following the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo in 1975, not all cardinals are permitted to cast votes for pope during conclaves; that privilege is reserved to those under 80 years of age. Since their right to vote for pope is the primary (but by no means only) reason we are interested in their nationalities, I do my analysis in the post-1975 period on both the entire set of cardinals and on a restricted sample of the sub-octogenarians.



The following figures provide the key takeaways of my investigation.

Fig. 1: Size of the College of Cardinals, 1900 – 2014


Fig. 1 illustrates how the size of the College has increased dramatically since 1900, even as the number of eligible electors has remained relatively constant in recent years (owing to a decree of Pope John Paul II that no more than 120 cardinals may cast ballots in conclave).

Fig. 2: Percentage Share of Cardinals by Continent, 1900 – 2014


Fig. 2 shows how the percentage of cardinals hailing from each continent has evolved over time. While Europeans have lost a lot of ground compared to the early twentieth century, the absolute share of European cardinals has remained roughly constant for the last thirty years or so.

Fig. 3: Estimated Percentage of Global Catholic Population by Continent, 1900 – 2014


Fig. 3 plots the population series I constructed from the WCD data, and gives a rough idea of how the Catholic populations of different parts of the world have changed in the last hundred-odd years. A comparison of Figs. 2 and 3 makes it clear that representation of the non-European continents in the College has not grown in proportion to the growth in their shares of the worldwide population of Catholics.

Fig. 4: Estimated Gini Coefficients for all Cardinals and Cardinal Electors, 1900 – 2020


This final graph presents the estimated Gini coefficients for the College of Cardinals from 1900 to the present. The solid lines denote computations using historical data, while the dashed lines indicate projections for 2020 based on the estimated future Catholic populations of each continent in the WCD data and the assumption that regional representation in the College will remain at current levels going forward.

The pattern seen in this graph runs somewhat counter to the conventional wisdom. The lines drop off sharply at the very end of the series, indicating that Francis’ recent set of picks is indeed moving the College toward geographic equity (the coefficient for all cardinals decreased from 0.359 on March. 13th, 2013 to 0.278 today, and the coefficient for the electors from 0.329 to 0.216). Yet it is also clear that the long-run trend over the past several decades has been toward greater inequity, reversing an earlier trend that stalled out around the time of Paul VI’s reforms. Even though Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI made an effort to extend red hats to bishops from beyond the European continent, this analysis suggests that Catholic population growth outside of Europe has proceeded even faster than the “de-Europeanization” of the College.

On top of that, the projections for 2020 offer some cause for concern. Even if the present diversity of the College is maintained, the Gini coefficient is expected to actually rise modestly over the next few years (to 0.300 for all cardinals and 0.237 for the electors). This would imply that Francis and future popes might have to be even more aggressive about looking to the ends of the Earth for new “Princes of the Church” if they are serious about making the Catholic hierarchy more geographically inclusive.


*Readers interested in the technical details of how the Gini coefficient is computed can check out page 9 of a working paper entitled “How Has the Literature on Gini’s Index Evolved in the Past 80 Years?” by Kuan Xu of the Dalhousie University Department of Economics in Nova Scotia for a lucid, step-by-step derivation.


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