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Will the Church have its 'Obama moment'?

A pope from the global south makes perfect sense

  • Fr Desmond de Sousa, Panaji
  • India
  • March 6, 2013
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The story goes that in 1523 a Dutchman was elected Pope Adrian VI. But since he tried to break the eleventh commandment, ‘Thou shall not change anything in the Church,’ Pope Adrian died very soon afterwards – some suspect he was poisoned.

For the next 455 years there were only Italian popes, until John Paul II broke their monopoly in 1978. With Pope Benedict XVI, a German, succeeding him in 2005 until his abrupt resignation in 2013, there have been European, non-Italian popes for the past 35 years. Is the moment right for a change – a pope from the global south signaling a world Church and no longer a European Church? The last non-European was Pope Gregory III, a Syrian, in 741.

The justifications for a pope from the south are many. There has been a dramatic demographic shift in the global Catholic population from the north to the south. Nearly 70 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics are now living in the global south. Around 41 percent, or about 483 million, in Latin America, 16 percent, or about 177 million, in Africa, and about 12 percent, or around 137 million, in Asia. Compare this with about 24 percent, or around 277 million, in Europe and 7.3 percent, or about 85 million, in North America and you have a clear shift.

Secondly, while around 66 percent of the cardinals are from the global north, only 34 percent are from the south. But sex scandals have severely eroded the moral authority of the Church, including the pope, in the global north. It erupted in Boston towards the end of John Paul II’s reign and has dogged the entire papacy of Pope Benedict. It even thrust the involvement of Pope Benedict XVI into the spotlight as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

Thirdly, the recent synod on the new evangelization is seen as an effort to revitalize the Catholic faith mainly in the global north, but also in the south. But a more fundamental orientation of the new evangelization should be towards confronting rising atheism in today’s world. Would the next pope from Asia or South America signal a broadening of the thrust of the new evangelization from Catholics alone to all humans on the planet? After all, “For God so loved the World that he gave his one and only Son so that all who believe in Him might not be lost but may have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

Africa has the fastest-growing Catholic population of all the continents. But will an Obama moment’ arrive in the Catholic Church? Can 14 centuries of white European-dominated Catholicism go through a sudden metamorphosis overnight and elect Cardinal Turkson of Ghana or a Cardinal Monsengwo of Kinshasa or a Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea as the next pope? I have my doubts.

Would an Asian Cardinal as pope signal that the Church is serious about a new evangelization, not just to 1.2 billion Catholics world-wide, but to the whole world? Asia is the most populous continent, which has China, India and Indonesia and constitutes nearly 65 to 70 percent of the world’s population. It is a continent with militant Islam and Hinduism and a resurgent Buddhism – all metacosmic religions that can confront even vibrant Christianity and more than hold their own. But can the paparazzi’s favorite Cardinal Luis Tagle of the Philippines, at only 55 years old, fit the bill? With Pope Benedict setting a precedent of retiring, the cardinals will probably look for a pope who will retire after 10 to 15 years or so.

That leaves the five Latin Americans. Brazil is a microcosm of the global Church. It suffers from secularism like the global north. Only 65 percent of Brazilians now say they are Catholic, down from more than 90 percent in 1970. It figures among the top 10 countries on the atheism list. It also suffers from rabid evangelism similar to militant Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism in Asia.

There are three Brazilian cardinals, all with impeccable credentials and experience in dioceses of their native Brazil, with charge of Vatican Offices and in the Papal Nunciatures: Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Sao Paulo, 64, of the largest diocese in the world’s largest Catholic country; the Franciscan Cardinal Claudio Hummes 77, formerly of Sao Paulo before going to the Vatican; and Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, 65, now in the Vatican office.

Then there is Cardinal Oscar Andres Maradiaga of Honduras who is only 70. He is described as Latin America’s John Paul II because of his charismatic personality, linguistic skills and his work in promoting the Church’s Social Teaching.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 68, an Argentine by birth, has spent most of his life in Italy, so he brings together the First World and the Third World at the very moment when Catholicism is seeking a bridge between the two. He is a veteran Vatican official with a reputation as an adept administrator.

Should we look beyond one of these three Brazilians or five Latin Americans for the next pope?

Redemptorist Father Desmond de Souza formerly served as the executive secretary of the Office of Evangelization in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference. He was closely associated with the Churches in Asia from 1980 to 2000.

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