Is the Catholic Church ready for a black pope? That is the question many inside and outside the world’s largest Christian organization are asking following the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI this week.
The German pontiff, formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he was elected in 2005, is the first leader of the Catholic Church in 600 years to retire before death. Most of his predecessors, who trace their official lineage back nearly 2,000 years to Saint Peter, the first pope, have died while still in the top job.
At age 85 and citing failing health, the outgoing pope has triggered a wave of speculation on who will be his successor. That will be decided next month when the church’s cardinals from various parts of the world convene in Rome to elect the new pontiff.
Not only should the next leader of the Catholic Church be black, but also the mere fact that the above question is posed in the way that it is – is the church ready for a black pope? – betrays a deep unspoken racism, not just in the church hierarchy but in the European-American centric world that it reflects. Of course the Catholic Church should have a black leader. What on earth, or heaven, is the deliberation about?
First of all when we say “black” we mean all people who are non-white; those from Africa, Asia and the Americas, that is, outside the Euro-North American realm.
The election of a black pope is a simple matter of justice. Most of the Catholic Church’s one billion membership stems from outside the traditional power base of Europe and its white North American colonial extension. While the church’s numbers have been dwindling particularly in Europe over recent decades, it is growing steadily elsewhere in the world.
Nearly half of the church’s worldwide followers now come from Latin America. With a population of nearly 200 million, Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world.
The church is growing rapidly in Asia too, with major population centres in the Philippines, China and India.
However, it is Africa where the Catholic Church is seeing its most spectacular growth. Over the past century, the numbers of Catholics on the continent have grown from some two million in 1900 to a present day figure of 180 million.
By the year 2025, the African church is projected to rise to 230 million, when one in six Catholics worldwide will be African.
In the space of one hundred years, the balance of demographic power in the Catholic Church, in terms of its ordinary membership, has swung diametrically. Whereas before, three-quarters of the church’s followers resided in Europe and North America, today more than 70 per cent of the world’s Catholics are living in Africa, Asia and Central, South America.
In a word, the Catholic Church today is black.
Therefore, it is entirely proper that the leader of this church should be black. This is not just a basic matter of democratic fairness. To not reflect its membership leaves the Catholic Church open to accusations that it is white-dominated and Eurocentric, in the same way that many other international institutions are failing.
The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations with its white-dominated Security Council are other examples of this racial divide of the world that does not reflect humanity’s democratic composition and concerns. If these organizations are failing in their humanitarian commitments and duties, then it is plausible that their undemocratic administrative structure is central to the problem.
Apart from the question of democratic principle, there are many other good reasons why the Catholic Church should choose its next leader from beyond its traditional white conclave.
As the infirmed Pope Benedict said in his resignation speech this week, the primary purpose of the church is preaching the gospel, meaning the “good news” of God for mankind. That vocation is fittingly suited to those parts of the world where the church is young, growing and energetic.
After all, the description “Catholic” derives from the Greek word “katholikas” which means “universal”. The church should therefore demonstrate its purpose and meaning by having a figurehead that reflects its presumed universalist body.
The scandals that have greatly wounded the Catholic Church in recent years, causing its membership to hemorrhage, are largely problems emanating from Europe and North America. The clerical child sex abuse that emerged during Benedict’s eight years as pontiff has plagued the church with disillusionment and dwindling numbers. Clerics who engaged in these crimes have been seen to be based mainly in Europe and North America, and the church hierarchy in these countries, including the pope, has been accused of callous negligence towards victims and, worse, cover-up of the scandal.
The theft and subsequent release of confidential documents by the Pope Benedict’s personal butler last year also sparked embarrassing scandals over financial sleaze and money-laundering in the Vatican’s lucrative bank dealings – one of the richest institutions in the world owing to centuries of European colonialism. The butler’s disclosures also shed light on petty-power bickering among the Vatican hierarchy, which reinforces the notion that it looks like a rich-man’s club completely out of touch with the concerns of the rest of the world.
It seems a patent matter of justice that a worldwide church should not be made to suffer because of the sins of its white and mainly European leadership. This leadership has inflicted deep damage and should therefore makes amends by at least relinquishing its monopoly on administrative power.
Today’s Catholic Church is not only black. It is mainly poor. Most of its membership – like the world at large – is struggling with violent conflict and economic exploitation in order to feed their families.
In his official meetings with US presidents Bush and Obama, Pope Benedict gave emphasis to the issues of abortion and what might be referred to as “life ethics” such as contraception and gay marriage.
It is true that Benedict criticised the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, but not nearly as forcefully as he should have done. These are after all huge crimes of genocide and aggression that have set a dynamic for many other neo-imperialist wars that are now raging across the Middle East and Africa, Syria and Mali being the most recent cases.
When did Pope Benedict denounce the continual threat of nuclear war against Iran issued by the US and its surrogate Israeli client? Or the illegal and barbaric American and European sanctions that are inflicting so much suffering on the people of Iran? The pope is not just a leader of Catholic Christians, he is supposed to be a voice for all of humanity, whether Christian, Muslim or any other.
What the Catholic Church and the world needs is a leader who speaks up unequivocally and vociferously against the massive structural violence and violations that are indisputably the result of Western government foreign policies. Such a leader needs to condemn the American and European perpetrator presidents and prime ministers of these abominations, not to indulge them with reverential meetings to discuss ethical issues.
The politically conservative German pontiff, known for this theological dogmatism, failed conspicuously to denounce capitalism. As with most of the European and North American hierarchy, the outgoing pontiff seems to be oblivious to the fact that this elite-driven economic system dominated by Washington, London, Paris and Berlin is literally crucifying the planet and its people with poverty, disease, hunger and ecological destruction.
The Eurocentric Catholic Church with its long succession of white popes reflects a world that has become warped and corrupted by elite domination, manifested in capitalism and warmongering imperialism that subjugate the world’s majority in conditions of poverty and conflict. Those chains need to be broken. If the Catholic Church is truly guided by God’s good news, then it must break from the pernicious paradigm of elite domination and open up to the reality and needs of the common human condition.
One final irony is that history shows that Africa – while being a recent growth area for the church – is also crucial to its origins and subsequent spreading of the religion. In years following Jesus, his disciples took his teachings from Palestine to Alexandria, in Egypt, as well as Constantinople, Antioch and Rome. One of the four evangelists and friends of Jesus, Saint Mark, was from Cyrene, in what is now modern-day Libya. Mark along with others brought the early church to North and East Africa. At least three of the early popes – Victor I, Miltiades and Gelasius I – were from Roman-occupied Africa. It was only in the following centuries that the Catholic Church became centered on Rome and most of its popes thereafter were Italian and European.
So the historical precedent for an African pope is strong, as well as the modern need for a more representative church that truly reflects and speaks for the human concerns of the world.
A black pope would be long-overdue good news, and a good new beginning.
He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in journalism. He specializes in Middle East and East Africa issues and has also given several American radio interviews as well as TV interviews on Press TV and Russia Today.
His interests include capitalism, imperialism and war, socialism, justice and peace, agriculture and trade policy, ecological impact, science and technology, and human rights. He is also a musician and songwriter. Previously, he was based in Bahrain and witnessed the political upheavals in the Persian Gulf kingdom during 2011 as well as the subsequent Saudi-led brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protests.
The author and media commentator was expelled from Bahrain in June 2011 for his critical journalism in which he highlighted many human rights violations by the Western-backed regime.
For many years, he worked as an editor and writer in the mainstream media, including ,The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. Originally from Belfast, Ireland, he is now based in East Africa where he is writing a book on Bahrain and the Arab Spring.
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