Are Catholics ready for a black pope?

As European Catholic leaders acknowledge that the Church needs to readjust its compass, could a black Pope signal the dawning of a new era for the Vatican, asks Eddie Barnes

As European Catholic leaders acknowledge that the Church needs to readjust its compass, could a black Pope signal the dawning of a new era for the Vatican, asks Eddie Barnes

IT WAS 1,282 years ago – even by the standards of the Vatican, quite a long time – that Gregory III was ­elevated to the Papacy. Among other things, he used his ten-year spell in the seat of St Peter to ban the consumption of horse-meat – proof that, despite the turn of history’s dial, some sources of public outrage don’t change that much. Last week, however, Gregory’s name was not being hailed for his ­dietary habits, but because of his origin. By birth a Syrian, this 8th-century priest remains the last Pope to come from outside ­Europe.

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As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to leave his apartment in the Vatican to see out his remaining days in retirement, and with Cardinal electors from around the world beginning to pack their bags for a flight to Rome to choose his successor, the question is being asked whether it is finally time for the Roman Catholic Church to find a successor to Gregory and pick someone from outside the old continent.

With Benedict’s shock announcement from last Monday still reverberating around the Catholic world, so a mood of radicalism is being felt within this most conservative of institutions. In its homelands, it is noted that the Church is in terrible straits. George Weigel, the conservative official biographer of Pope John Paul II notes: “Catholicism is dying in its historic heartland, Europe.” That is the opposite of the case in the developing world where religious observance of the world’s largest faith is booming – the Church has grown 20 times since 1980 in Africa. There is not just demographics at play here though; there is also image. Benedict is just the latest ageing white European to have taken the helm of this global institution which unites people from every continent in faith.

What would it say if this mighty religion, brought low by the outrages of child sex abuse over recent years, and marred by the sense that it is run solely by and for a pale gerontocracy, were to decide that it should be led not just by a non-European, but by a man from the poor world – and perhaps even a black African? Flying into Rome over the coming weeks and months will be a dozen or so Cardinals from Africa. Might one of them end up staying?

The prospect of an African Pope has long excited the imagination of sections of the Church. Three years before his own election in 2005, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said the prospect was “entirely plausible” and would be a “wonderful sign for all Christianity”. The object of Christian charity and Lenten appeals to help “the black babies”, Africa has spent too long under the gaze of ­European condescension. A Church led by an African would therefore present a massive historical break, ­finally allowing the south to speak back to the north.

Archbishop William Slattery, the Archbishop of Pretoria in South Africa, declares: “We in Africa would love to have an African elected.” Benedict, he notes, had warm words for the continent. But there would be nothing quite like having someone from the developing world actually in charge. Archbishop Slattery adds: “The advantage of having someone outside Europe is that it would bring a different part of the world and their concerns to the forefront. Pope Benedict’s concerns, I think, were with the secularisation of Europe.”

The view that there needs to be a rebalancing is widely shared. Fellow South African, Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, said last week that while he wouldn’t base his views on candidates on where they were from, there was a need for a candidate who can confront the challenges that await the Church “in every corner of the globe”. Even European Church leaders have acknowledged in the last few days that the Church needs to readjust its compass – with Germany’s Archbishop Gerhard Müller noting that “Christianity isn’t centred on Europe”. Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican department for Christian unity, added: “It would be good if there were candidates from Africa or South ­America at the next conclave.” At home, Cardinal Keith O’Brien – the only Cardinal from the United Kingdom who will be involved in the conclave – also noted the need for the next pope to take the broad view. “My prayer will be that we can elect a man steeped in a lifetime of prayer, someone of great wisdom, strength of character and pastoral awareness, who also has a global perspective on the Church in the world.”

The hype over a potential black African as Pope has been wrenched up a further notch because there appears to be an obvious candidate. Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64, was immediately seized upon last week as the most likely African “Papabile”. The President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, his relative youth makes him more suitable that the Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, who is now 80. Turkson did nothing to dampen that speculation last week, opening himself up to media interviews. “For me, having someone from the southern part of the world – Africa, Latin America, Asia – I would not be too surprised if that happened,” he told The Times. An African Pope would, he added, “be a great recognition of a Church that has come of age and a Church that is able to contribute to the universal Church.” Also in Turkson’s ­favour is the fact that while his background in the developing world may spark the imagination of liberals, he ­remains just as orthodox a figure as his two predecessors.

Turkson’s election to the Papacy would certainly provide a perfect rags to riches back story that Church spin doctors would love. The fourth of ten children, he was born in rural Ghana. His father was the local carpenter while his mother sold vegetables at the local market to supplement the family income. A self-confessed child tearaway, he found his vocation after being sent to school at a local seminary. Turkson’s journey has now taken in New York, where he was a student, and Rome where he has quickly ascended the Vatican career ladder – a career which was blotted badly last year when he used a presentation to the Vatican to declare that the Muslim birth rate would soon see large parts of Europe being taken over by Islam, a presentation adorned by the use of a video uploaded from YouTube, which is known to use fake statistics. He owned up to the mistake and has since insisted he is not anti-Islam – pointing out how his own uncle was a Muslim. “The point [of the presentation] was to highlight the demographic situation as a result of the anti-life tendency and culture in the Western world where, as I see it, there is a great need to apply the values of the kingdom of God to the social order,” he said afterwards. He is now seen as a potential successor to John Paul II – charismatic, a communicator who is happy to welcome the cameras in, and doctrinally conservative.

Cardinal Turkson has also been keen, however, to point out that Latin America – home to 483 million Catholics, of around 41 per cent of the total – may have a prior claim. “The Church has been in Latin American for many years. We can’t pretend there is not a certain leadership there in all these years,” he noted. A South American Pope would have similar symbolism in re-setting the balance between north and south. Candidates include Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, whose Italian parentage may endear him to the Church’s home cardinals, or Brazil’s Joao Braz de Aviz, the head of the Vatican department for religious congregations. Or there is the Far East, with 55-year-old Cardinal Luis Tagle from the Philippines raised as a figure with the kind of charisma to emulate John Paul II. Liz Leydon, editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer, notes: “With such growth in the Catholic Church in Africa and the Far East, it would come as no surprise if the next pope originated from one of these areas, or from the Americas.”

Counter to this, however, is the view also held by some that this might be an election when the Papacy is “brought home”. Not since the death of John Paul I in 1978 has the Bishop of Rome been an Italian. Of the 118 Cardinal electors who will form the consistory next month, 28 are from Italy. The Polish John Paul II and the German Benedict XVI are still viewed, say Catholic observers, as “the exception rather than the rule” when it comes to the man in charge.

Leydon adds: “Given how unexpected Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was, and how swiftly he is stepping down, the return to an Italian pope to ensure a smooth transition, stability and continuity for the Church should not be ruled out.” In which case it could be that Cardinal Angelo Scola may follow many before him in using the Archbishopric of Milan as a springboard to the papacy. Scola was among the “Papabile” in 2005 after the death of John Paul II. The son a truck driver, he became a teacher before opting for the priesthood and, since the mid 80s, has been a constant figure within the Curia, the powerful bureaucracy in Rome which runs the global church. Those who have met him describe him as “personable and intelligent”.

As for Scola’s approach, he emerged as a young man from the conservative Communion and Liberation movement, a combative presence on issues from abortion to communism within Italian politics for decades. More recently, however, he has distanced himself from the movement. He is a renowned expert on bio-medical ethics and has also worked on outreach programmes to Christians in the Muslim world.

Scottish Catholic writer Hugh McLoughlin also notes the chances of Turin’s Cardinal Fernando Filoni, an envoy to Pope Benedict. With some bookmakers not even offering a price on his chances, he would seem a highly likely candidate. That is because, as the saying goes in the Vatican, he who enters the conclave a Pope always emerges as a Cardinal.

Speculation about candidates such as Turkson is rarely based in fact. It is therefore more than likely that the next Pope has not yet even been mentioned once in dispatches – like the barely known Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, elected in 1978 as John Paul II after two ­opposing blocks agreed on a compromise.

The Cardinals are ­expected to begin the conclave between 15 and 20 March when the most senior Cardinal Bishop under the age of 80, the Italian Giovanni Battista Re will preside over the election (at night, the clergy will be allowed to stay in the nearby Casa Santa Maria, the Vatican’s new hotel-style facilities for its electors). The comfort of those lodgings may encourage the electors to take their time. And given the unexpectedness of Pope Benedict’s resignation and the magnitude of the choice facing them, it may well be that, this time round, they do so.

The election marks the end of a near 40-year period in which the Church has been dominated entirely by the leadership of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Given that all of the Cardinals who will elect a successor next month were chosen by one or other of the pair, it is certain that whoever emerges – white, black, European or not – will remain steadfast to what Weigel terms their focus on “evangelical ­Catholicism” in the face of a world which, as the Church leadership sees it, is hostile to such values. But while a Pope from the north will ensure that the “no change” message is shouted loud and clear, a figure from the south could ensure that this traditional conservative message is given a new voice, in a new ­language.

Twitter: @EddieBarnes23