Popes, Saints, and Religious Competition

CAMBRIDGE – The election of the first non-European pope is long overdue. After all, Pope Francis’s native region, Latin America, is currently home to nearly half (44%) of the world’s Catholics. But the Catholic Church is increasingly losing out to Protestant competition there and elsewhere.

Just look at the statistics. Evangelicalism is the fastest-growing world religion by conversion – a trend that underlies the strong expansion of Protestantism in traditionally Roman Catholic Latin America. Protestants in Latin America accounted for only 2.2% of the population in 1900, but 16.4% in 2010, with growth coming mainly at the expense of Catholics, whose population share fell from 90.4% to 82.3%.

The Catholic Church understands this competition, but it confronts a chronic shortage of priests. As a result, the creation of saints is becoming an important way of retaining the faithful.

Indeed, the choice of a Latin American pope echoes a prior shift in the geographical distribution of new saints. Since the early part of the twentieth century – and, most clearly, since John Paul II’s papacy (1978-2005) – the traditional dominance of Italy and other European countries in the locations of blessed persons has waned. This is reflected in the two stages of saint-making: beatification (the first stage of the process and currently the status of John Paul II) and canonization.