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What Would an African Papacy Look Like?

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 02/12/13

Many think there's a good chance the Cardinals could elect a non-European Pope
Joseph Conrad’s famous novella explored the themes of darkness and light through a journey into darkest Africa, and the continent of Africa has since been typified as a place of darkness, poverty, violence, superstition, disease and death. 

It cannot be denied that the curse of slavery, the pillage of colonialism and the violence of racial and inter-tribal warfare has blighted much of the beautiful African continent. Nevertheless, there are many good reasons to regard Africa today not as the heart of darkness, but as a continent of hope, youth and a bright future…especially for Catholics.

Christianity is in growth mode in Africa, and Catholicism is the largest growing single sector of Christianity. When Pope Benedict visited Africa in 2009 there were an estimated 158 million Catholics. By 2025 there will be 230 million, comprising one sixth of the world’s Catholics. The world’s largest seminary is in Nigeria and Africa produces the largest percentage of the world’s new priests. Africa boasts 16 cardinals, of which Peter Turkson from Ghana is at the top of many people’s list to succeed Benedict XVI.

Would it be possible to elect a pope from Africa? Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom writes, "The prospect of a Black African pope understandably excites Christians of all political persuasions." Cardinal Ratzinger himself, three years before his own selection as Pope, suggested that an African pope would be "entirely plausible" and a "wonderful sign for all Christianity." Could it be that he accepted the papacy envisioning that his would be a transitional reign from the radical papacy of John Paul II to an even more radical pope from Africa?

What would an African papacy look like? First of all, an African pope would bring a radically different perspective on global Catholicism. His understanding of the faith will be conditioned by the fact of Africa’s relatively recent conversion from tribal religions. Francis Cardinal Arinze, for example, was himself brought up within a tribal religion and converted to Catholicism. The long history of Europe infused with Catholicism at every level is, for Africans, a subject of study, not a primary experience. This would give the new pope a completely fresh slant on the Catholic faith.

This means that awareness of Africa and her potential and problems would rise in the minds of all Catholics. Just as John Paul II’s papacy opened the world’s Catholics to the suffering of Poland and the countries of Eastern Europe, so an African pontiff would bring the world’s attention to Africa.

An African papacy would also bring a new immediacy to the conflict between Islam and Catholicism. In African countries the two religions are in fierce competition which often results in violence and persecution. The open warfare between Christians and Muslims in Africa will shed light on the same conflict which bubbles beneath the surface in Europe and North America. An African pope would not only understand the conflict with Islam, but be involved in it first hand and also be involved in finding a solution.

The right African pope would also help shift awareness in Europe and North America away from some pet issues about which most Africans are unconcerned. The North American and European intelligentsia seem obsessed with equal rights, homosexual marriage, women’s ordination, contraception and gender issues. Most Africans don’t care two hoots about these issues. Indeed, they are horrified at what they perceive to be Western decadence. 

When it comes to economic issues Africans are concerned about peace and justice, but they want to challenge the Western nations about their continued economic colonialism. When it comes to issues of poverty and wealth, for many Africans, their concerns are immediate: will my child eat tonight? Is there a school for my daughter to attend? Will my mother and father have a hospital go go to? An African papacy will highlight the real needs of the poor and the global reasons for their poverty. They also see the struggle for equal rights at a more fundamental level. They want the right to earn a living, the right to eat every day, the right to have shelter and clean water.

Finally, we must remember that the pope is not essentially a political leader, a statesman, a diplomat, economist or a social worker. He is the spiritual leader of a billion Catholics worldwide. An African pope, while educated in the West, will balance a Western rational education with a lively belief in Catholicism as a supernaturally revealed religion. The urbane, educated liberalism of the West simply doesn’t connect with most Africans–who understand religion to be essentially a transaction between this world and the next. An African pope will help Catholics remember that their faith is first and foremost about the battle between good and evil and the struggle for the soul’s salvation.

This essential shift in perception at the most fundamental level is, perhaps, the greatest gift that an African papacy would bring to the church and the world. It would be a gift of light from the heart of darkness and a gift of renewal to a European culture that is aged and cold and which has now become the new heart of darkness.

Follow Dwight Longenecker’s blog, browse his books and learn more about his media work by connecting to his website:

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