Pope Francis greets cardinals after Easter Mass. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)
Pope Francis greets cardinals after Easter Mass. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)

Unless his reign is short, a Roman Catholic pontiff will appoint most of the men who vote for his successor. But Pope Francis’ additions to the College of Cardinals since his election in 2013 also have served another purpose – tilting the leadership structure of the Roman Catholic Church away from its historic European base and toward developing nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The pope recently announced that he will appoint nine new voting cardinals (in addition to four other cardinals who are over 80 and therefore ineligible to vote). After this latest group is elevated at a Nov. 28 ceremony in Vatican City, the College of Cardinals will have 128 voting members, 42% of whom are European, down from 52% in 2013. 

For centuries, the leadership structure of the Roman Catholic Church has been largely based in Europe. That has changed somewhat under Pope Francis, the first pontiff born outside of Europe since the eighth century, whose appointments to the College of Cardinals have increased the share of non-European member of that body, which votes for the next pope.

This analysis looks at Pope Francis’ selections for new cardinals (since 2014, the year after he became pope) by their geographic region. It looks only at cardinal electors – that is, cardinals who are presently under 80 years old and therefore eligible to vote in a papal election. The data in this analysis comes from the Vatican website and from other websites that maintain databases of cardinals, gcatholic.org and catholic-hierarchy.org.

The analysis also uses data on the regional breakdown of the worldwide Catholic population from a 2010 Pew Research Center demographic study “Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.”

Francis’ appointments have increased the overall representation of the Asia-Pacific region within the body of voting cardinals from 9% in 2013 to 15% in 2020, while increasing the representation of sub-Saharan Africa from 9% to 13%. These figures include cardinals who were named by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II.

Most of Pope Francis' selections for cardinals are from outside Europe

Francis, an Argentinian who is the first pope from outside Europe since the eighth century, still has picked more cardinals from Europe than from any other region. Of the 73 newly appointed or currently eligible voting cardinals Francis has named so far during his papacy, 38% are from Europe, 21% from Latin America and the Caribbean, 18% from the Asia-Pacific region, 14% from sub-Saharan Africa, 7% from North America and 3% from the Middle East-North Africa region.

Among the nine cardinals Francis has chosen this year, four are from Europe, with three from Italy and one from Malta. Two were born in the Asia-Pacific region (Brunei and the Philippines), one is from Latin America and the Caribbean (Chile), one is from sub-Saharan Africa (Rwanda), and one is from North America (the United States). The American is Wilton D. Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, who will become the first African American cardinal.

Given that, as of 2010, only about a quarter (24%) of the global Catholic population is from Europe, the continent remains heavily overrepresented among voting cardinals. By this measure, the most underrepresented continent within the church’s leadership – even with Francis’ new picks – is Latin America and the Caribbean, which is home to 39% of the worldwide Catholic population (again, as of 2010) and has 19% of the cardinals.

Under Pope Francis, Europeans are still overrepresented on the College of Cardinals, but less so than in 2013

Note: This is an update of a post originally published Nov. 17, 2016.

Jeff Diamant  is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.