Here's some context for the chatter today about the region of the world that could produce Pope Benedict XVI's successor. According to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, 40 percent of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics currently live in Latin America, and Brazil now has more Catholics (134 million) than Italy, France, and Spain combined. Sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, accounts for 16 percent of the world's Catholics, compared with Europe's 24 percent. And the numbers in Africa are growing.
For more, check out Pew's map below (click to expand), which shows the distribution of Catholics in the 80 countries that have more than 1 million adherents.
Reprinted from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, "Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Christian Population," © 2011, Pew Research Center.
The numbers explain why there's now speculation that the Roman Catholic Church could look to Africa, Latin America, or North America for its first non-European leader. As the New York Times notes, the outgoing pope -- only the second non-Italian pontiff since the 16th century -- inherited an institution "run by a largely European hierarchy overseeing a faithful largely residing in the developing world." Changing that dynamic is now in the hands of the 118 cardinals who will soon gather in Rome to choose the next pope. But demographics isn't necessarily destiny.
"All of the questions about nationalities are nonsense," Michael Sean Winters, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, tells CNN today. "There are 118 men and all of them have gotten to know one another.... Their questions are going to be 'who can we see in that chair?'" Another data point to keep in mind? More than half of those 118 cardinals are European.