The Case for an African Pontiff
February 12, 2013 By Fr. Dwight Longenecker
With Karol Wotyla’s election the Italian control of the papacy was blown wide open. John Paul II became the global pope. Traveling across the world, he was literally an international evangelist–an apostle of Christ for the whole world. The German Joseph Ratzinger consolidated the non-Italian papacy, and did his best to follow in JP2′s footsteps.
He served as a fine Pope and helped us make the transition from the ancien regime to another radical decision for the Catholic Church.
Now it is time for a Pope from Africa. Here’s why:
The Catholic Church in the developing world is young, vital and growing. Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom and John Allen in The Future Church have chronicled the growth and dynamism of the church in the developing world, but especially in Africa. In Africa the seminaries are full. The churches are overflowing. Religious houses can’t be built fast enough, the slowly building missionary work of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is finally bearing rich and abundant fruit.
The right African pope will not only represent these millions of African Catholics, but more importantly, he will shift the center of Catholic awareness away from Europe and North America in a stunning and game changing global strategy. John Paul II’s election suddenly changed the game plan of the cold war. Catholicism was a force to be reckoned with, and as George Weigel shows in his biography of Bl John Paul II, his papacy not only helped undermine the Soviet regime, but brought attention the inequalities and injustice in the Philippines, Central America and South America. Wherever he went John Paul brought to light the political and economic problems and peaceful change took place.
We have a humorous comic on our fridge which portrays how Americans look at the world. In childish writing over Europe is scrawled, “Old Stuff Here”. Over China it says, “They make our stuff”. Over Mexico it says, “Yard Workers” over Canada it says, “Spineless Fake Europeans”. Over the North Pole is scrawled, “Santa”. The map also shows the other countries and continents sized according to their importance. On second glance, the continent of Africa is missing completely.
The right African pope will help Europeans and North Americans stop and realize that the elephant in the room is the looming continent of Africa with its rich culture, its young population and its burgeoning economies. It’s a continent that has been abused by first European, and now Chinese, Russian and American colonialism and which is threatened by the advance of aggressive strains of Islamic hegemony. Furthermore, the continent is troubled by ancient ethnic divisions, huge problems of corruption, poverty and the wounds of war, genocide and violent tribal feuds.
The right pope will understand all these tensions and help bring unity and pride to the people of Africa–with Catholicism as the unifying force.
But the Roman Pontiff is more than a social, economic or political leader. He is first and foremost, the religious leader of a billion Catholics worldwide. 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. Most African Catholics (and most in the developing world) don’t give two hoots about women’s ordination. Some of them may still have social issues about polygamy, but they’re horrified at sodomy and cannot even conceive of something as bizarre as “gay marriage.” Without preaching endlessly on these subjects, but simply turning our attention away from them, the right African pope will spotlight what matters: life, family, justice, joy, youth and opportunity.
Africans have more important things to think about than women’s ordination or gay marriage. Their issues are things like getting a job, saving some money, improving their lives for their children, building a school or a hospital or a parish church. They’re concerned with the invasion of their countries by colonialist powers. They’re interested in peace and justice not in some academic Marxist textbook sort of way–but in real things like their own hungry children, their old people living in slums and their sons and daughters selling themselves on the streets.
The right African pope will shift our wealthy, decadent minds away from the petty problems of our dying culture of death and make us pay attention to a continent that is teeming with life.
Most of all, the right African pope will shift our attention back to the vital core of our faith. In Africa the Catholic faith is vibrant and strong, and most of all it is supernatural in its understanding. God is real. Angels and demons are real.
The barren results of a dully rationalistic academia which sells reason without faith are seen in our eviscerated Western Catholicism. Too often the Catholic church has become no more than social workers who dress up on Sundays. This kind of cynical, tired agnosticism is unknown in Africa. In the West we have too many greying clergy and nuns who sit in their big empty convents planning New Age retreats or managing retirement incomes. The idea that the Catholic Church was founded by the incarnate Son of God and that it is God’s instrument on earth for the salvation of souls, the victory over death and final eternal glory is considered to be unworkable, impossible and even worse: bad taste.
In contrast, the Church in Africa is thumpingly vibrant and strong. There’s no nonsense about the faith. The ancient primitive religions with their bloodthirsty practices are still too close for comfort. Africans understand the battle against the devil. They see it every day. They understand the forces of darkness and realize that the core of the Catholic faith is the monumental struggle between the powers of darkness and the force of Christ’s radiant light. The right African pope will bring a fresh awareness of the heart of the faith to the whole church.
At the Lambeth Conference some years ago the Anglican African bishops met with the other bishops of the Anglican Communion from around the world. When confronted with the gay bishop from American the Africans were horrified. The American Episcopal bishops were reported to have said to the Africans, “When you are more educated you Africans will be able to develop a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of human sexuality.” The African bishops exploded with charges of racism. “You American bishops are racist!” they cried, “We African bishops have more PhDs among us from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale than all of you American bishops combined.”
They were right. And that precisely illustrates the need for an African Pope. The right African pope will blow away the cobwebs, open our eyes to the realities of the world today and take us into the bright future church.
The right African pope will be a splendid, radical and relevant choice which will challenge the dull, aging liberal establishment of Europe and North America. He will stand up for the poor and the oppressed, he will bring joy and optimism to the church. He will connect with the young and vibrant peoples of the developing countries and capture the imagination of Catholics everywhere.
In addition to that–a black face is going to look fantastic in that white soutane and billowing red cape.