Will the next Pope be Hungarian? There are certainly good reasons to think he will be European

The next Pope? Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom–Budapest (EPA-EFE/Attila Kovacs)


Pope Francis is 87. After two operations in the last three years, several medical visits (some made public, others not), and the trip to Dubai for COP 28 cancelled due to bronchitis, the Pope’s health has become a central concern at the highest levels of the Church.

The Pope’s health inevitably creates speculation about what the next Conclave will look like and who Pope Francis’s successor might be.

Will he be European?

After many centuries of Italian and two non-Italian but European Popes, the cardinals had chosen a Pope from Latin America for the first time. There had been Popes from the African continent or Asia, for example, but never from Latin America.

The election of Pope Francis brought to the Church’s heart a continent that was eager to free itself from its colonial past and ultimately wanted to overcome its sense of subjection to the European continent.

The significant innovations of the Latin American continent in the theological field are derivations of Western philosophical thought. The famous, or infamous, Liberation theology takes Marxist categories directly from European universities in France and Germany, where the founders of these currents, such as Gustavo Gutierrez or Leonardo Boff, went to study.

After eleven years of Pope Francis’s pontificate, can the European continent find new impetus within the Catholic Church?

Let’s look at the numbers. Pope Francis has convened nine consistories in eleven years to create new cardinals, as many as John Paul II convened in 27 years of pontificate.

Pope Francis has created 142 cardinals, of which 113 are eligible to vote in a conclave – only cardinals under 80 can elect the Pope.

The red hats created by Pope Francis come from 70 different nations, 22 of which had never had a cardinal before.

If we entered the Conclave today, there would be 94 cardinal electors created by Pope Francis, compared to the 27 made by Benedict XVI and the eight created by John Paul II. To elect the Pope, a block of 86 votes would be needed (two-thirds of the assembly). The cardinals installed by Pope Francis make up more than two-thirds.

The numbers suggest a much more varied college of cardinals than in the past; the territorial component must give way to different considerations.

The European component is still significant. Although fewer than before, Europe is still the most represented continent among the cardinal electors, with 52 electors.

Second in this ranking is, incredibly, Asia with 22 voters. North America has 17 cardinal electors, like Africa, while Central America has four and South America has 14.

By the end of 2024, ten more cardinals will lose the right to vote in the Conclave. Therefore, if Pope Francis were not to convene a new consistory at the end of the year, he would fall back below the limit of 120 cardinal electors established by Paul VI. This has never been repealed.

In attempting to work out what might happen, one finds oneself in treacherous terrain with constantly changing configurations.

Things are made even more unpredictable because Pope Francis has rarely convened consistories to discuss general issues (he did so in 2014, 2015, and 2022).

As a result, the cardinals, incredible as it may seem, do not know each other. And, in a conclave, personal knowledge of the candidate affects the choice in a very significant way.

This means the cardinals will not feel obliged to vote for a Pope with a profile similar to that of Pope Francis. After the first Latin American, it will probably be awkward to have a Pope who comes from the same continent again.

But is there a possibility of a European Pope? Generally speaking, the answer is yes, for several reasons.

The first is that there is talk of the need for a Pope legislator to replace Pope Francis, and the European cardinals would bring that legal and social mindset that would allow “putting order back” into some administrative issues.

One of the candidates everyone thinks of is Péter Erdő, archbishop of Esztergom–Budapest, expert canonist, and indeed a man familiar with the institutions.

His star was bright two years ago during the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest. He would bring attention to Europe because he was president of the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe for two terms.

The second reason a European Pope would be possible is that European cardinals find themselves “naturalised” in mission lands.

One of these is Cardinal Cristobal Lopez, archbishop of Rabat, Morocco. Spanish, naturalized Paraguayan during the years of his mission in Latin America, Cardinal Lopez has a profile as an “evangeliser”. He is highly charismatic and capable of bringing an institutional awareness that he developed very well during his years as archbishop in Morocco, dealing regularly with the Muslim king.

The third reason a European Pope would be possible is that, after the Latin American experience, the cardinals would like to return to a more orderly style of government, and the European Popes have previously guaranteed this.

It must be said that the disorganisation or, to put it another way, the authoritarianism with which Pope Francis has operated – legislating with extraordinary documents such as the so-called motu proprio – can also be attributed to Pope Francis being a Jesuit.

Although this may only be a prejudice, it could be a decisive prejudice for not choosing Pope Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg, vice-president of the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe, and former president of the Commission of Episcopal Conferences of the European Union. His appointment would risk replicating Francis’s model of governance.

The fourth reason to expect a European Pope is simply as a collective reaction, a rebound as it were, to Pope Francis. In the election of Francis, the North American cardinals, and then those who worked in the Roman Curia, were decisive in moving the votes necessary to guarantee his election.

North Americans could look to Europe precisely because they want a discontinuity from this pontificate.

It is worth noting that last month, a document called Demos II was released – referencing the first Demos document on the situation of the Church. This was released in 2022 and its author was Cardinal George Pell, although this was only revealed after the death of the Australian cardinal on January 10, 2023.

Demos II seems clearly to originate in the Anglo-Saxon world and criticises the current pontificate (on its style of government and management of doctrinal issues in practice). This too could favour a European candidate.

An educated guess would suggest that the next Pope will be European. This is, however, only an educated guess for now.