Editorial: A new pope could signal a new direction for Catholic Church
Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 18, 2013 22:02
The sudden announcement of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI last week has opened speculation from Catholics and bookmakers the world over as to the selection of the next pope. The Catholic Church, having weathered numerous crises and controversies during Benedict’s tenure—from contraception to child abuse—has reached a definitive point in its history. Having not witnessed the resignation of a pope in some 600 years and beset in Africa and South America by the rise of Evangelical Protestant churches and in its traditional bastions in Europe by secularism and declining church attendance, the church looks set to make a break from its troubled recent past through the selection of a new pope.
Two millennia of Catholic history have seen very little variation in the geographic background of the church’s leader. All have been identifiably white, almost all have been born in Europe (a few early popes of the Roman period may have come from North Africa), and the majority spoke Latin or Italian as their native language. Though the previous two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were born in countries not readily identified as culturally or historically Catholic—Germany and Poland—the Eurocentric and Italian bias of the church’s leadership remains evident. Of the 121 Cardinals eligible (born after 1933) to select the new Pope, 61 hail from Europe and 21 are Italian, despite the fact that fully 40 percent of the world’s Catholic population resides not in Europe but in Central and South America. Furthermore, the new pope is encouraged and expected to have experience with the papal administration and bureaucracy – headquartered in the Vatican City – and to have working knowledge of Italian, further stacking the deck against potential non-European pontiffs.
But because the outgoing Benedict was viewed as being a much more reserved and apolitical Church leader than his predecessor, John Paul II, Catholic analysts view the likelihood of an African or Latin American candidate’s election to be greater than ever before as the Catholic Church seeks to appeal to its adherents outside of Europe. Odilo Scherer, a Brazilian Cardinal with experience in Church administration, Peter Turkson, a Ghanaian moderate and reformer and Leonardo Sandri, the Argentinian third-in-command under Benedict, among others, are all seen as particularly likely candidates, if the Las Vegas oddsmakers are to be trusted. But much about the papal selection will remain inscrutable until the white smoke is seen above St. Peter’s Basilica this spring. Until then, the Catholic Church has much work to do to repair fraught and severed relations with millions of the world’s Christians.