Pope Francis greets cardinals after Easter Mass in April 2019.
Pope Francis greets cardinals after Easter Mass in April 2019. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)

Unless his reign is short, a Roman Catholic pontiff typically appoints a majority 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 16 new voting cardinals (in addition to five other cardinals who are 80 or older and therefore ineligible to vote). After this latest group is officially installed at an Aug. 27 ceremony in Vatican City, the College of Cardinals will have 132 voting members, 40% of whom are European, down from 52% in 2013. 

This analysis looks at the regional distribution of Pope Francis’ selections for new cardinals (since 2014, the year after he became pope). 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, including gcatholic.org and catholic-hierarchy.org.

For the analysis, each cardinal is assigned a single geographic region from among the following: Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America-Caribbean, Middle East-North Africa, North America and sub-Saharan Africa. Cardinals who lead a diocese or an archdiocese are counted as being associated with the region of the world where that diocese or archdiocese is located, even if they were born in a different region. Most often this is the same as their region of birth, but there are some exceptions. For example, Giorgio Marengo, one of those selected to become a cardinal on Aug. 27, was born in Italy but has served as apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and is counted as representing the Asia-Pacific region.

Cardinals who hold or have held Vatican positions are counted as being from the region of the world where they spent most of their years in the clergy prior to working at the Vatican.

The analysis also uses data from 2010 on the regional breakdown of the worldwide Catholic population published in a 2013 Pew Research Center demographic study titled “Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.”

A table showing that most of Pope Francis' selections for cardinals represent regions other than Europe

Francis’ appointments (including the recently announced future cardinals) have increased the overall representation of the Asia-Pacific region within the body of voting cardinals from 9% in 2013 to 17% in 2022, while increasing the representation of sub-Saharan Africa from 9% to 12%. These figures include cardinals who were named by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II.

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 83 newly appointed or currently eligible voting cardinals Francis has named so far during his papacy, 34% are from Europe, 22% from the Asia-Pacific region, 20% from Latin America and the Caribbean, 13% from sub-Saharan Africa, 8% from North America and 2% from the Middle East-North Africa region. Altogether, these cardinals appointed by Francis will make up a majority (63%) of the 132 voting members of the College of Cardinals after the Aug. 27 installation ceremony.

Among the 16 future cardinal electors Francis has chosen this year, four will represent Europe (Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom). Six will represent the Asia-Pacific region (two from India and one each from East Timor, Mongolia, Singapore and South Korea). Three other future cardinal electors are from Latin America and the Caribbean (two from Brazil and one from Paraguay). Two are from sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana and Nigeria) and one is from North America (U.S.-born Robert McElroy, archbishop of San Diego).

A bar chart showing that under Pope Francis, Europe is still overrepresented on the College of Cardinals, but less so than in 2013

Given that, as of 2010, only about a quarter (24%) of the global Catholic population lives in Europe, the continent remains heavily overrepresented among voting cardinals. By this measure, the most underrepresented region 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) but has only 18% of the cardinals.

Note: This is an update of a post originally published Nov. 17, 2016, and most recently updated on Nov. 23, 2020.

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