The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the western world, and with more than one billion members worldwide, it is the largest Christian church. Its history spans almost 2,000 years and is rooted in the Church's Canon of Scripture and Tradition. At the head of the church is the Pope, who Catholics believe is the successor to Saint Peter whom Christ appointed as the first head of His church. The Pope, according to the religion's doctrine, can speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals. The Catholic Church practises closed communion and only baptised members of the church are permitted to receive the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
Could a non-European be a future pope?
As cardinals from around the world gather in Rome to select the next pope, they must be cognizant of growing voices for a non-European to head the Roman Catholic Church. Profound shifts in the nationalities of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics mean the church's best hopes for growth lie in the developing world. Like many western corporations that find sales are down in their traditional home markets but expanding at a phenomenal rate in emerging ones, it's clear to Rome where its future lies.
Europeans and North Americans now only account for about 350 million followers. In the West, church authorities are plagued by sex-abuse scandals and disputes over dogmas against birth control, gay marriage and women priests. But in the rest of the world, the church is untainted by scandals, and the flocks are more respectful of authority.
Almost two thirds of Catholics now come from the developing world. All across Africa, Asia and Latin America, churches are opening, seminaries are filled and expanding, and more people are discovering the faith. Some 16 per cent of the world's Catholics now live in Africa, as the continent's Catholic population grew nearly 21 per cent between 2005 and 2010, the fastest in any part in the world. While the number of priests in North America and Europe has declined, they grew by 16 per cent in Africa.
Though China today only has about 12 million Roman Catholics, with many operating underground, its population of 1.3 billion represents a vast pool of souls to save. That's why the Vatican is waging the contemporary equivalent of the 11th and 12th century Investiture Controversy, about whether Rome or territorial rulers, in this case the Chinese Communist Party, has the right to select bishops. So far, it has been a stalemate.
At the moment, a non-European pope looks unlikely. But it should not be impossible in the near future. After all, one of the greatest of the church fathers, St Augustine of Hippo, hailed from Africa.