Even with black or Latin pope, don't expect major change

April 08, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Social progressives who are excited by the possibility of an African or Latin American pope should be wary of what they ask for. The leading candidates of color appear to lean closer politically to Clarence Thomas than to Colin L. Powell. And in the Latino political rainbow, closer to Linda Chavez than Cesar Chavez.

Pope John Paul II, the first pope from Poland, has made the election of a pontiff from someplace other than Italy all the more plausible and possible. That's good news for those who want to remind the world that Catholics come in more than one color.

In the next few years, Catholics in Africa are expected to outnumber Catholics in Europe.

That should give the cardinals a lot to think about in the conclave that will begin April 18. Since the conclave (Latin for "with key") is super-secret, speculation is rampant about the papabili, cardinals who are considered to be papal material.

The five most often mentioned candidates from the developing world are Nigerian-born Cardinal Francis Arinze, 72; Cardinal Claudio Hummes, 70, of Brazil; Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, 62, of Honduras; Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 68, of Argentina, who has Italian ancestry; and Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, 62, archbishop of Mexico City.

Each is known to be an advocate for the poor and against corruption in government, yet also is a strong conservative on Roman Catholic doctrine. Issues such as marriage for priests, artificial birth control, rights for homosexuals or an expanded role for women have not been high agenda items for these clerics.

Cardinal Arinze, for example, who could be the first African pope since St. Gelasius I led the church from 492 to 496, stirred a small walkout during a speech in 2003 at Georgetown University when he said the institution of marriage is "mocked by homosexuality." He also lashed out at "an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia."

While many consider Cardinal Maradiaga to be less rigidly conservative than other Latin American clergy elevated by Pope John Paul, the cardinal also is remembered for accusing American media in a 2002 interview of covering the church's pedophilia scandals "with a fury that reminds me at times of Diocletian and Nero [two Roman emperors] and more recently of Stalin and Hitler. The church should be free of this kind of treatment."

To be fair, popes, like U.S. Supreme Court justices, have a way of surprising us. Once they assume their respective thrones, they often turn out to be far more conservative or progressive than expected. It is possible that any of these gentlemen might enter the papacy as a conservative caretaker and turn out to be the biggest reformer since the Second Vatican Council. But the trends at present in the developing world suggest otherwise.

The Roman Catholic Church is facing a worldwide version of red-state, blue-state America. It has been losing church members and clergy candidates in progressive-minded European and American parishes and gaining them in the developing world, where social attitudes are more conservative.

When its greatest growth is found among the conservative-minded, the church has a lot of reason to go slow in making changes. That's a big setback for those who want the church to recognize, for example, that condoms can do more than abstinence alone to help fight AIDS in Africa.

Some cynics have raised the possibility of massive white flight from the Catholic Church if a black or a Latin American man becomes pope. I seriously doubt that. I believe the world has progressed much more intelligently than that. A bigger possibility, I suspect, is a defection by those who are frustrated that change in the church may only be skin deep.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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