Wanted, a new pope: White, European and old

The list of contenders for the papacy is a representation of a 21st century global village. But the Church is still run like an Italian village running 200 years behind time.

Lakshmi Chaudhry February 12, 2013 11:24:31 IST
Wanted, a new pope: White, European and old

"A Québecois, a Ghanaian and a Nigerian are the bookie favorites in the #Popestakes, which means it'll definitely be an Italian," tweeted Siddhartha Mitter, taking a  jab at the Vatican's aversion to change. The resignation of Pope Benedict broke a 600-year old taboo, and that's about how much revolution the Catholic Church can tolerate for now.

"Everybody knows, that's how it goes," as Leonard Cohen would croon, but not that it will dampen the fevered speculation sparked by this unexpected boon: An off-season papal Oscars.

Almost every publication has its version of 'Who will be the next Pope?" The star line-up is delightfully diverse, and for good reason. The Ghanaian Peter Turkson is a TV star and a "people's person." The French-Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet has spent years in Latin America and is best known for issuing an apology for the Church's role in contributing to "anti-Semitism, racism, indifference to First Nations and discrimination against women and homosexuals."

Wanted a new pope White European and old

The resignation of Pope Benedict broke a 600-year old taboo, and that's about how much revolution the Catholic Church can tolerate for now. Reuters

Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria is the bookie favourite, an also-ran in 2005 who was pipped at the post by a German 'dark horse.' His other great asset is his age since the Church likes them old. Though the irony of replacing a pope who resigned due to the exigencies of aging with an octogenarian ought to give the cardinals some pause.

The last is Angelo Scola, who is powerful and, well, Italian.

There are any number of good reasons why the Church ought to make that much-postponed break from its hide-bound Eurocentrism. Foremost is the small matter of representation, as the New York Times notes: "Today, 42 percent of adherents come from Latin America, and about 15 percent from Africa, versus only 25 percent from Europe." And those European numbers are collapsing. “Christianity is in such free-fall in former Catholic countries, that the prognosis is not good,” historian Philip Jenkins tells the Times.

The prognosis for a different kind of pope aren't good either. It's not just a matter of skin colour. The idea of an American pope, for example, is no less 'radical.' The Vatican isn't racist, just infuriatingly parochial: "But while most of the world’s Catholics live outside Europe, most of the cardinals come from Europe, pointing to a central tension: while the Vatican is a global organisation, it is often run like an Italian village."

The rest of us may live in a global village, but the Church elders who pick the pope — the next one and those in the past — prefer to live in the distant past. In an interview given just before his death, liberal cardinal Carlo Maria Martini offered a clear-eyed assessment of the disease.

“Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up; our rituals and our cassocks are pompous,” he said of , “The church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the pope and the bishops.”

Change can't come too soon for a church that is already "200 years out of date.” But don't expect it to start at the top. It's still 1813 in Vatican time, after all.

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