The number of cardinals from Latin America is not at all proportionate to the number of Roman Catholics in this traditionally most Catholic of continents.

At the 1978 conclave names like Paulo Evaristo Arns and Alois Lorscheider -- archbishop-cardinals of large Brazilian archdioceses -- surfaced as potential papal candidates.

But it was not to be.

Then again at the 2005 conclave other Latin American names appeared on the virtual list of contenders:  Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras  and Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City -- again with little result.

This time the circumstances are different and several names have emerged, all of whom can be taken seriously:

  • Leonardo Sandri, a Curial Cardinal who headed one of the Vatican's Congregations or departments, has significant diplomatic experience as a papal nuncio or ambassador, is a respected canon lawyer and Vatican insider
  • Joao Braz de Aviz, has both strong pastoral experience as a bishop and recent Curial exposure as well  in the difficult Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; he inherited a mess and has brought a more moderate and irenic tone to its delicate work
  • Odilo Pedro Scherer, like Braz de Aviz, is a Brazilian, and is currently Archbishop of  Sao Paulo, the largest archdiocese in the numerically largest Catholic country in the world. A former seminary professor he lacks the charisma and vision of his storied predecessor Cardinal Arns, but, or perhaps precisely because of that difference, he enjoys a great deal of Roman favour.
  • Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian Jesuit and Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is reputed to have come in second at the last conclave. That would certainly give him some clout among the electors whose fondness for him has not diminished in the intervening years.  But given his age, 76, it is hard to see the immediate advantages of a Bergoglio papacy. Still, the Roncalli ( John XXIII) papacy was of a similar vintage and it changed the church irrevocably and for the better. Could or would Bergoglio do likewise?

The Latin American church faces some considerable challenges and those Latin American prelates with onsite experience could offer the universal church some pastoral strategies and wisdom that has been absent  on the Tiber.

But for all its embedded Catholicism, indigenous devotionalism, populist religious practices, comunidades de base or basic communities, and ostensibly devout political leaders of either the left or right (often a quirky melange of messianism, social and biblical prophecy, and capitalist conservatism) the church of "the" Catholic continent has yet to adequately address the perduring ecclesial problems around the phenomenal growth of Pentecostalism, the appalling paucity of ordained priests in ministry, and the silencing or marginalizing of its most creative theological thinkers --the Liberationists who sought to conform church structures and doctrines more vigorously to the Gospel and to the church of the martyrs.

Dr. Michael W. Higgins is CTV's Papal commentator. He is also:

  • Vice President for Mission & Catholic Identity, Sacred Heart University
  • Chief Consultant, for “Sir Peter Ustinov’s Inside the Vatican” 6-part series
  • Author of Bestsellers: Power and Peril: the Catholic Church at the Crossroads , (HarperCollins, 2002) and Stalking the Holy: In Pursuit of Saint-Making (Anansi, 2006)
  • Author of Award-winners: Heretic Blood: the Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton (Stoddart, 1998) and Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical sex Abuse Scandal (Novalis, 2010)
  • Past President of St. Jerome’s in Waterloo & St. Thomas In Fredericton NB