Is It Time for an African Pope?

kwei-quartey-african-popeThe startling resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is the first since 1415, when Pope Gregory XII stepped down to help resolve a schism in the Catholic Church. At 85 years old, Pope Benedict cites his advanced age, failing health, and lack of strength as the reasons for his departure. Notwithstanding speculation that political pressures may have forced his hand, the Pope’s frail state has been evident in his recent public appearances.

Benedict’s legacy falls short of John Paul II’s, whose reign set a high bar in papal leadership, political activity, and world travel. The shy Benedict has been seen more as an academic and less a man of the people. His tenure was sullied by scandals within the Vatican and his failure to firmly address the disturbing and pervasive sexual abuse of children by countless Catholic priests. On HIV/AIDS in Africa, Benedict XVI made remarks that were potentially damaging to the fragile outreach efforts being made on the continent to fight the deadly disease: “If there is no human dimension,” he said, “if Africans do not help, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.”

Pope Benedict’s resignation has spurred discussion of a successor from the Global South. Catholicism has declined in increasingly secular Europe and America while it has risen in Africa, Asia, and South America. According to NPR’s data editor Matt Stiles, Africans made up only 6 percent of the world’s Catholics in 1970, but that number rose to almost 16 percent by 2010. In contrast, Europe’s corresponding numbers showed a precipitous drop from 40 to 24 percent respectively. It would make sense to appoint a pope who represents a demographic that’s a growth area for the church.

But Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson rejects statistics as the primary criterion for the selection of a pope. “It doesn’t go by representation…those type[s] of considerations tend to muddy the waters,” he said. Turkson has garnered much attention in the past several days as a possible papal successor. Born in Ghana’s Western Region, he is (by ecclesiastical standards) a youthful 64, a good age to begin a long papal tenure. He studied and taught in New York and Rome before being ordained to the priesthood in 1975. Apart from English and several Ghanaian languages, he speaks French, Italian, German, and Hebrew. Affable and even charming, he is well known to Ghanaians through his weekly religious TV program.

In 2003, Pope John Paul II elevated Turkson, then archbishop of Cape Coast, to cardinal status. Six years later, Benedict XVI appointed Cardinal Turkson president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. One “gaffe” has been cited as a potential obstacle to Turkson’s would-be ascendancy to the papacy. At an international gathering of bishops in October 2012, he screened a YouTube video titled “Muslim Demographics,” which made predictions about the massive growth of Islam in Europe, claiming for example that “in just 39 years France will be an Islamic republic.” Cardinal Turkson presented the video during a discussion period with the intention, as he insisted later, of highlighting “the demographic situation as a result of the anti-life tendency and culture in the Western world.”

Regardless of who becomes pope, Turkson knows the stakes are high. “We [the Catholic Church] need to repair our credibility,” he said, in an obvious reference to the child sex abuse scandal. As pope, Turkson would likely have to execute a delicate balancing act between modernizing the papacy in some way and maintaining boilerplate Catholic dogma on homosexuality, women in the priesthood, and abortion. He is unlikely to shift radically from basic tenets. Religious leaders in the developing world tend to be more conservative than in the West, and Ghana, Turkson’s homeland, was ranked by a WIN-Gallup International poll as the most religious country among 57 nations across the globe. Several sources are now reporting that Cardinal Turkson has defended Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill. Over the past several years in Ghana, there has been a fierce anti-gay sentiment that is closely tied to the country’s extraordinary religiosity.

Arguably, the cardinal has signaled some flexibility where Benedict showed rigidity. Rather than completely ruling out condom use, Turkson indicated that it could be useful in a situation of a married, faithful couple where one partner is infected. Nevertheless, in his view, abstinence and fidelity are the key to fighting the AIDS epidemic. He also remarked that the quality of condoms in Africa is poor, and that they could engender “false confidence” during sexual activity. In fact, that is a valid point. Issues of condom standards have come up in South Africa as well as in Ghana and Nigeria. Turkson’s pragmatic observation of this problem is one that a Western religious leader, Catholic or not, could have overlooked. It is a small example of how an African pope could advance a debate beyond the conventional Eurocentric perspective.

In his blog, “The Case for an African Pontiff,” Fr. Dwight Longenecker says, “The most important contribution an African pope will bring is to shift the world’s awareness away from the Western obsessions about sexuality and gender roles to the real issues facing the world and facing the church.” Although it’s highly debatable that sexuality and gender roles are not important global issues, Longenecker’s point is well taken. In the high-profile position of Pope, an African could provoke a subtle but important change in global attitudes toward Africa and focus more attention on a rising continent rich with promise and challenges alike.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Kwei Quartey was born in Ghana and raised by an African American mother and a Ghanaian father, both of whom were university lecturers. He lives in Pasadena, California where he runs a wound care clinic and is the lead physician at an urgent care center. He is the author of two novels, Wife of the Gods and Children of the Street, with Murder at Cape Three Points due out this year.