The Church’s last great expansion came under Pope Alexander VI, a native Spaniard. Alexander oversaw the doubling in the number of the faithful after the New World was discovered by Columbus and conquered by Cortes, Pizarro, and Balboa. (The Spanish adventurers’ slogan: “For God, Gold and Glory!”) Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries almost immediately followed the conquistadors, as an estimated 20 million Indians (admittedly often involuntarily) were converted to Catholicism.
Since they are now the majority of Catholics, a renewal of Hispanic devotion to the Church would also reinvigorate worldwide Catholicism. As Finke and Stark have noted, such a renewal is needed if the Church is to avoid severe shortages of priests and nuns in the next generation.
If John Paul II was instrumental in the peaceful overthrow of Communism in Eastern Europe, a Hispanic pope would undoubtedly help do the same with Cuba, and with the various strains in Venezuela and throughout the region. Beyond that, a Hispanic pope would also likely help Latin America make the transition from rural poverty to stable urbanized, working-class industrial societies. A newly powerful Catholic Church could be a strong proponent of workers’ rights and religious freedom, and could oppose the environmental degradation and oppression of indigenous peoples that usually accompany mass industrialization.
As Latin America is one of the most troubled places on the planet, it will take almost a miracle to heal these polarized societies. Perhaps only the Church could bring the proper moral pressure on society’s upper echelons to help ease the pains of Latin America’s coming stresses. A pope of Hispanic descent might also be able to calm down tensions in America over Hispanic immigration (Pat Buchanan, take note).
For the next century, as Latin Catholics go, so will go the Church they will increasingly dominate.