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A Third World Pope?

/ 08:03 AM February 18, 2013

After the stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, many people are getting excited over the prospects of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle becoming the next pope.

Cardinal Tagle is perceived to be a protégée of the outgoing pope who bestowed him the red hat in November 2012. At 56 years old, he is the second youngest of all 117 members of the College of Cardinals that will convene next month to elect Benedict’s successor.

A Third World Pope captures the imagination because the Sacred College has been a preserve of Western Europeans, mostly Italians since the end of the 13th century. A comparative study on the global Catholic population by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows why Western Europe has the grip on the Vatican.


In 1910, almost all Catholics lived either in Europe (65 percent) or Latin America (24 percent). A minuscule 5 percent of Catholics lived in North America and Asia Pacific while a tiny 1 percent lived in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Fast forward to 2010: Figures suggest the falling away of Catholics in France, Italy, Spain and other parts of Europe. From 65 percent the number declined to 24 percent.

The surge in Catholicism over the last century is in Latin America and the Caribbean which counted for 39 percent or an increase of 15 percent and in Asia Pacific with 12 percent from a measly 5 percent. North American Catholics slightly increased, from 5 percent to 8 percent. Meanwhile, the sub-Saharan African continent which had only 1.2 million Catholics in 1910 now has 171 million.

The seat of Roman Catholicism seems disconnected with changes in the geographical distribution of believers around the world, prompting a noted journalist to say the Vatican is an international institution but it is run like an Italian village. Indeed, since majority of Roman Catholics live outside Europe, the call to look beyond its sphere becomes even more significant.

Benedict’s renunciation of the papacy is a turning point for the Church, which has been deeply conservative for close to two millennia and observers believe an outsider to succeed him would make the institution more in step with the times, although I don’t see the Church turn around on its position on issues of celibacy, ordination of women, divorce and same-sex marriage.

The traditionalist Pope will hand over to his successor a Church beset with clerical sexual abuse problems, the falling away of Europe from the Catholic faith, Catholic-Jewish and Catholic-Islam relationship challenges, the inroads of evangelicals to Catholic bastions like the Philippines, Latin America, Africa, and the perennial problem of shortage of priests. Benedict himself waged war against secularism and relativism in this troubled period against the backdrop of globalization and rapid technological advances.

While he is acknowledged as a good theologian, remarkable scholar and teacher-pope, Benedict is lacking in skills in administrative work. Press relations nightmares like his comments on Islam and the Vatileaks scandal are said to be caused in part by his old age and frail health. He is stepping down amid persistent reports that the Catholic Church’s central government is not transparent and in general disarray.

One of his final acts is the appointment of German lawyer Ernst von Freyberg as the new head of the scandal-ridden Vatican bank. Freyberg replaced Ettore Gotti Tedeschi who was sacked by the board for lack of confidence, but Vatileaks documents say he was at odds with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone over issues that would have ensured the Vatican is accepted into a European list of “financially transparent countries.”


Talks of a rift between Bertone, the pope’s right hand man and Vatican diplomats led by former Vatican State Secretary Cardinal Angelo Sodano are also rife. Mind you, these stories are not from author Dan Brown who made money out of stories based on intrigues but these are insights offered by veteran Vatican journalists.

These developments suggest the College of Cardinals might be disposed to elect an outsider who will have the stomach to deal with factionalism and institute sweeping reforms. On the other hand, an insider or a “curialist,” familiar with the complex Vatican bureaucracy could be expected deliver the job.

* * *

What makes the upcoming conclave more exciting is that even bookies have come into the picture, picking favorites as if the papal election were like any presidential contest or the Oscar awards.

Bookmaker Paddy Power’s list of top five that the Conclave will choose from includes Third Worlders Peter AppiahCardinal  Turkson of Ghana, Francis Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria and Oscar Rodriguez  Cardinal Maradiaga of Honduras. Rounding the top five are Marc Cardinal Ouellet of Canada and Milan Archbishop Angelo Cardinal Scola. Cardinal Tagle is in the conversation but not in the bookies’ list.

Still, an indication that the Sacred College will elect a traditionalist lies in its composition. Nearly all of 117 cardinals who will vote were appointed by the late Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. Benedict gave red hats to 67, of which 37 are from Europe.

But the Conclave has always been full of surprises and even the strongest papabile will say anything can happen.

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TAGS: Benedict XVI, Luis Antonio Tagle, Pope
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