Now that Pope Benedict XVI has announced his resignation to poor health—becoming the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years—there is speculation as to who could replace him. Some even suggest that a younger, dynamic pontiff from Africa, Latin America or some other area of the developing world could be waiting in the wings.
Some believe the next pope will and should come from Africa. But why an African pope?
It would not be the first time, but it has been a very long time since the world has seen a pontiff from Africa. There were three African popes throughout history, according to the National Black Catholic Congress—Pope St. Victor I (circa 186-198 A.D.), Pope St. Miltiades (311-14), and Pope St. Gelasius (492-496).
Today, while the Catholic hierarchy is represented as a white-male dominated structure centered in Europe, the global demographics of the church membership tell a different story. Like Pope Benedict himself, the church leadership in Europe and America is perceived as old, tired and out of step with the times and out of touch with the people.
In America, the church has lost 5 percent of its membership in the past decade, a figure which would have been worse were it not for a rising immigrant population. Although all denominations in America have suffered a decline in followers, the Catholic Church has experienced the largest decline. Nearly one third of people in the U.S. who were raised Catholic no longer self-identify as Catholic.
The traditionalist Benedict’s decision to embrace a sect led by Holocaust deniers, and reprimand American nuns for their social justice stance, has turned off mainstream Catholics. Meanwhile, the worldwide child sex-abuse scandals and Benedict’s role in its cover up—which is illuminated in the recent HBO documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God —have only helped to further erode faith in church leadership. As a result, thousands of parishes do not have a priest, and many others have shut down.
And in Europe, Catholicism is on the decline as well, with mass attendance down drastically in recent years.
Meanwhile the future of the church lies in the so-called Third World, including Africa and Latin America. One hundred seventy-six million Africans are Catholic, a third of Christians in Africa. And Latin America is home to 42 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Although only 25 percent of Catholics are European, half of the cardinals come from Europe. Africa and Asia are supplying the rest of the world with its priests.
“Europe today is going through a period of cultural tiredness, exhaustion, which is reflected in the way Christianity is lived,” said Portuguese Bishop Antonio Marto. “You don’t see that in Africa or Latin America where there is a freshness, an enthusiasm about living the faith.”
“It would be good if there were candidates from Africa or South America at the next conclave,” said Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican department for Christian unity. Koch referred to the secret election of the new pope at the Vatican.
“The universal Church teaches that Christianity isn’t centered on Europe,” said German-born archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who now occupies Benedict’s old position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The discussion of papal candidates in the Southern Hemisphere provides proof that the future of the Catholic Church is not in Europe.
For example, Peter Turkson, head of the Vatican’s peace and justice department, is considered the frontrunner from Africa. His criticism of Muslims, however, has raised doubts about his views on Islam. Another prospect is Wilfrid Fox Napier, the Archbishop of Durban who served in his position during apartheid, and is a friend of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Retired Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria comes from the Ibo people and was converted to Catholicism as a child. A nation with 20 million Catholics and the largest Christian population on the continent, Nigeria is shared among Protestants, Catholics and Muslims. The cardinal is known for his ecumenical tendencies and bridge building across faiths.