That transformation has not been reflected in the makeup of the cardinals who will elect the next pope, however.
In fact, the membership of the conclave remains—by its regional breakdowns, at least—more of a look back on what the church was rather than a reflection of where it is headed.
Europeans still dominate the group, representing more than half of the possible 117 cardinals who will gather in the Sistine Chapel to vote. However, the pressures of the 21st-century church—battered by abuse scandals and losing stature in the West—are likely to exert themselves strongly in the deliberations and the fundamental choices facing the papal electors.
Should they return the papacy to an Italian, stick with a pontiff from elsewhere in Europe, or follow the trends in the church and look to Africa or across the Atlantic? Here is a look at the options:
Polish-born Pope John Paul II ended 455 years of Italian papacies with his surprise selection in 1978. Back-to-back popes from outside Italy, however, do not constitute unstoppable momentum toward another non-Italian.
There could be support to swing the papacy back to an Italian at a time when the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the curia, appears in need of a firm hand at the top. As always, Italians are in control of the network of offices and councils that direct everything from top-level Vatican policies to the daily running of the city-state. The theories in favor of an Italian pope suggest that only someone from within can marshal the allies and influence to bring reforms to the curia, whose leaders have pushed back against attempted reforms by Benedict.
Meanwhile, a scandal last year over embarrassing leaked Vatican documents appeared to expose high-level mismanagement and resistance to pressure for greater financial transparency.
Italians have by far the largest national bloc within the voting cardinals—those under 80 years old—with 28 members. That alone is more than the African and Asian cardinals combined.
A frequently named Italian papal possibility is Cardinal Angelo Scola, the 71-year-old archbishop of Milan. Scola is considered to hold conservative views on social and family issues. But he also has built a reputation as compassionate toward problems such as poverty—seen as influenced by his working-class upbringing in northern Italy. Scola, too, is seen as comfortable with the public persona needed for the modern-day papacy. He famously held open office hours for all comers when he served as patriarch of Venice from 2002-11.
Another possible candidate from Italy is Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican's culture office.
By raw numbers alone, the European cardinals could pretty well dictate that the papacy remains on their continent if that was their only concern. Sixty-one cardinals—more than half of those eligible for the conclave—come from Europe.
While it's unlikely that geography alone will be the conclave's deciding factor, it can't be far from the minds of many with the rising confidence of prelates from Africa and Latin America.
If the powerful Italians, for example, feel Scola or another papal candidate will not gain enough support, they could possibly throw their backing behind a fellow European. Such a move would reflect the church's modern European comfort zone after popes from Poland and Germany. The trouble is that many European dioceses—like much of the West—have been hit hard by the cleric sex abuse scandals over the past decade. Although none of the possible papal contenders from Europe are directly implicated, there is likely to be careful consideration among the cardinals about how much potential spillover would come with any choice.
Among the names circulating as a possible European choice is Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the 68-year-old archbishop of Vienna who has confronted sex abuse scandals in Austria that included his predecessor. Schoenborn—who comes from aristocratic lineage and studied theology under the future Benedict XVI—is seen as holding strict views on church doctrine and traditions, but suggested in 2010 that the Vatican should undertake a deep re-examination of how it trains priests in the wake of the sex abuse crisis. He also stirred widespread debate among Catholic theologians by acknowledging the possibility of divinely guided evolution, so-called "intelligent design," that challenged traditional views on creation.
OUT TO AFRICA
The relatively small size of the 11-member African bloc among the voting cardinals does not reflect the continent's growing clout in Vatican affairs. Some demographers predict the number of African Catholics could surpass European ones by 2030—conceivably during the reign of the next pope.
Still, the number of African cardinals has remained steady in the past three decades. The fast-growing African Catholic community underscores an overall trend in Christianity on the continent, where evangelical and other denominations are exerting strong influence on the faith with revival-style worship and strong community outreach.
The African Catholic church has imbued some of this flavor as a cultural reflection as well as to keep followers from drifting to the charismatic groups. The African dioceses and parishes also often carry different priorities than their Western counterparts. They include issues of chronic poverty and trying to reconcile the Vatican's strict teachings against birth control and condoms with the need to fight the crises of overpopulation and AIDS. Africa is also an important setting for the Vatican's efforts at outreach to Muslims.
Selecting an African pope would require a conclave willing to make one of the most historic decisions for the church.
One of those mentioned as a possible candidate for pope, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, said he thought the prospect of an African pontiff wasn't "too far away." Turkson, 64, was named to head the Vatican's justice and peace office in 2009. But he suffered a blow to his reputation last year after being forced to apologize over alarmist predictions about the rise of Islam in Europe.
In conclave number crunching, one statistic frequently stands out: About 40 percent of the world's Catholics live in Latin America. That compares with 24 percent for Europe and 16 percent for sub-Saharan Africa, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.
It suggests that if the cardinals are willing to look outside Europe, their first choice might be Central or South America, which brings 19 cardinals to the conclave.
A Latin American pope could be an easier first step from Europe than Africa. In addition, two candidates—Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Leonardo Sandri of Argentina—would have the double cachet of being South Americans with Italian ancestry.
Latin America still carries a strong traditionalist strain among the worshippers and the enthusiasm for a local pontiff would reverberate through the Catholic world. Yet Latin America is also the birthplace of powerful Catholic-based social justice movements, often called "liberation theology," that has likely put some possible papal contenders out of consideration because of too-liberal leanings.
While several Latin American cardinals are considered possible papal contenders, increased attention is falling on Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, the 63-year-old leader of the Sao Paulo Archdiocese, one of the world's biggest. On Wednesday, he predicted that neither geography nor age will play a role in determining the next pope.
North America—with 14 papal electors—has held a growing role in Vatican affairs for more than 150 years as big U.S. archdioceses pulled in Catholic immigrants. But America's role as a superpower is a huge hurdle. It's highly unlikely the cardinals would favor hitching the Holy See to America's profile of global political and military might, although New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been mentioned as a far long-shot.
That leaves a Canadian, former Quebec City Archbishop Marc Ouellet, as an intriguing option for the conclave. The 68-year-old now serves as the head of the Vatican's office for bishops, an influential post that helps select archbishops. He also serves as president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, extending his influence over much of the Western Hemisphere.