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Africa and the Papal power game

By Hugo Odiogor, Foreign Affairs Editor, with Agency reports

When the son of a first generation immigrant from Kenya  announced in Chicago, the United States, US, in 2007 that he was running for the White House, many of those who heard  him thought he was embarking on a political hara-kiri. At that time, nobody thought the white political establishment will consider Hussein Mubarak Barry Obama  a serious contender for the office of the President of the US.

That was eight years ago. Today Obama is doing his second term. This paradigm could as well play itself out in the emergence of a new head of the Catholic Church, known for its tradition and conservatism even in the face of a fast changing world. Is the Catholic Church or the powers that govern the Papacy ready for a Black Pope?

That is the first issue. Put differently: can an African become the head of the universal Catholic Church worldwide? By extension, will Catholic orthodoxy, conservatism permit the emergence of an Africa as a Pope? When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen as the 265th Pontiff in April 2005, The British press took  turns  in deriding the German from the native of Baveria who became Benedict XVI.

He was metaphorically refered to as dog;  the English are protestants and do not hide their dislike for the German. The more liberal Guardian of London described him as “the most conservative and internally perhaps the least divisive choice made by the papal conclave”.

The Pope shocked the world on Monday, February 11 when he announced that he will leave office on February 28, 2013. According to the Dean of the College of  Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, the announcement was a “bolt from the blue”, .and left over 1.5 billion Catholics stunned and incredulous. Later  in his address,  Benedict said because of his “advanced age” and declining strengths, both of mind and body, he has to quit the papacy.

He said  he had “deteriorated to the extent that I have to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me”.

Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Adewale Martins of Lagos Metroplitan See
Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Adewale Martins of Lagos Metroplitan See

To  non-Catholics,  it was an announcement they would be hearing  for the first time in the past 600 years. In fact, the thought of a Pope resigning from office was almost considered to be an act of sacrilege. The question now is, what becomes of  Benedict after 28 February? Secondly, what  kind of political calculations will follow the election of a new Pope in March?


The prospect of an African becoming the Pope is a reality but the geo-political considerations and the intrigues involved in the business of the Papacy make  it a remote prospect.

When Cardinal Karol Woytila was chosen in 1978 from Poland, it was a strategic geo-political calculations to give the Polish workers that confronted the Communist Party in Poland a sense of belonging.

The West used the Pope to give a moral authority to the actions of the Lech Walesa-led Solidarity movement. The Papacy eventually became the silent hand that tore down the wall in Eastern Europe and eventually saw the end of the defunct Soviet Union. Before then, the Soviets had plotted the elimination of Pope John Paul 11, through Ali M. Agac, a Turkish national who shot the Pope and was recently released after serving his term.

Some Vatican watchers believe that after the Polish Pope, “there is no longer a sense that the Vatican exclusively belongs to the Italians”. Although as the Dean of Cardinals for 2O years, the outgoing Pope was planning a peaceful retirement in Bavaria, he went into the conclave as a clear favourite and he emerged as Benedict XVI.

His time as the head of the Catholic Church has been characterised by scandals and embarrassing leakage of sensitive information. Some observers are quick to attribute the Pope’s woes to some Italians who were not happy that a non-Italian was made the Pope in the first place.

So, how long would Italians tolerate the occupation of the Papacy by non-Italians? Where does the exit of Pope Benedict leave Africans and Latin American especially Brazilians who have the largest population of Catholics? Above all,  how democratic is the Catholic Conclave, which has the responsibility of electing Popes.

The demographic growth of the church in Africa, Asia and South America  favour Asia and Africa  which have  a population of 165 million. Ghanaian Cardinal, Peter Turkson,  has been mentioned as a favourite to replace Benedict XVI. While some argue that the era of an African Pope may have arrived, others  say  it may be too soon for Africa to produce a leader with the stature to command the whole church.

There are some strong contenders from Latin America, especially Cardinal Hummes from Sao Paulo with a tradition of engagement with the labour movement of Brazil or Rodriguez Maradiaga, the young and able Cardinal from Honduras.

The Age Factor

Popes are already old men when elected, so it is to be expected they should not normally be in office for long. In 2005, the 78-year-old Joseph Ratzinger was the oldest person to have been elected Pope after Clement XII in the 18th century.

In the selection of the new Pope, Cardinals that have gone above the age 80 are not eligible to participate. This rules out Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the former leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, just like Francis Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria.


There are still doubts over the reasons Pope Benedict XVI  gave for his resignation because his predecessors  braved old age and sickness to the end of life.

There have been debates about the propriety of the Pope’s resignation. Some have questioned the idea of “the one who sits on St Peter’s seat doesn’t step down for another, unless in death”. The Pope’s decision to resign has thrown up questions of what becomes of Benedict XVI  outside the Papacy? He is expected to live the life of a hermit in a monastery, where he will commit his life to serving the church through a life dedicated to prayer.

According to Vatican history, at least between 4 and 10 Popes resigned from office including Pope Benedict  IX, Pope John XVII, Pope Gregory  XII, Pope Marcellinus, Pope Silverius, Pope Celestine Pope Benedict  XVI  A Pope’s resignation  is canonically right but since this is the first of its kind in our generation, it naturally should elicit some controversy.

According to Colorado based Jossy Idam , “If the Pope is the Vicar and representative of Christ on earth, with infallible opinion, how can there be two living popes at the same time?” He argues that Pope Benedict  XVI “is creating a spiritual and political conundrum for his church. What do you do with a living, retired Pope? How are his fellow monks going  to feel seeing the man who once moved around in royal vestments and Popemobile in the Basilica coming to live with them in the “catacombs of the Vatican?”

The Fisher man’s Ring

There is also the question of what happens to the Pope’s ring and his robes when he leaves office, not through death, but through a voluntary resignation?

There is a specific rite concerning the Pope’s Fisher man’s  ring and there is no burning involved. Informed sources said, “When a Pope dies, the ring is not buried with him. Before burial, the ring is taken off and destroyed in the presence of the Cardinals by the Pope’s chamberlain”. This is to make sure that there’s no forgery in future and the ring, being the most authoritative sign of legitimacy.

The design of the ring is unique to each Pope.

Its destruction is also to confirm that authority has been transferred to another Pope. Only one papal ring exists at any given time and in one shape.


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