Wanted: an elderly white male
It's the cardinals' call which means the new Pope will most likely be of European origin, writes Colum Kenny
ANYONE really "shocked" to hear that Pope Benedict had stepped down needs to get a life. Surprised, perhaps. But "shocked"? The word was flung about last week as if Catholics could not get out of bed because of it all.
Not to worry. There will soon be another Pope, and he too is likely to be an elderly, white guy. He will be appointed by a College of Cardinals who are best known for their unimaginative orthodoxy. Most of them got their red hats from Benedict or from his conservative predecessor, John Paul II.
What would be a shock is if they decided to shake up Rome by appointing an outsider. They don't even have to pick a cardinal. Astonishingly, the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia states, "A layman may also be elected Pope, as was Celestine V (1294). Even the election of a married man would not be invalid. Of course, the election of a heretic, schismatic, or female would be null and void".
Television exposes physical frailty for all to see, and even a secretive organisation like the Vatican could do nothing to stop it revealing the decline of Benedict. He simply did the practical and wise thing by stepping down before he made a public show of himself. No big deal.
What would be a big deal is if he had first put in place ways of electing a Pope more fitted to the modern world. Rome currently represents a solidified slice of history that reflects a particular way of seeing the Church. But it does not have to be like this. St Peter let priests and deacons elect his successor in Rome.
The College of Cardinals is clearly not elected. But, more than that, it does not even reflect the spread of opinion within the Catholic Church. Or the geographic spread of Catholics in the world.
Europe has just 280 million Catholics but gets a whopping 62 cardinals out of the 118 eligible to vote. By comparison, the 480 million Catholics in Latin America have just 19 cardinals. Africa and Asia between them have more Catholics than Europe, but Europe gets nearly three times as many cardinals.
There is a grossly disproportionate number of Italian cardinals, reflecting their grip on the Vatican civil service. This civil service, known as 'The Curia' (Latin for a royal court), determines much within the Church, from how sex abuse complaints are handled to the treatment of priests of whom Rome disapproves.
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Almost one-quarter of the cardinals eligible to elect the next Pope this year are Italians (28 out of 118). They include two of the favourites, Angelo Scola and Gianfranco Ravasi. Given the nature of Italian public life, the influence of that country's cardinals in Rome ought to be a cause of some concern.
And for all that Rome boasts of the rapid growth of Catholicism in Africa, or about its vast flock in Latin America, the boys in charge are still firmly white and European. Between them, Germany and Spain have the same number of votes as does the whole continent of Africa.
According to a Vatican-based journalist last week, the European press (of Italy and Spain especially) see Europe as "the birthplace of Christianity or the Church". If so, the fact that Jesus was born and died a dark, Middle-Eastern Jew clearly escapes them. Or maybe all the stuff that happened before Christianity became the official religion of Rome is just discounted.
That Vatican journalist put her finger on an awkward truth. And that truth is that Church structures are culturally determined.
From an early stage, Christianity became embedded in the Roman Empire, and adopted some of its pre-Christian attitudes. At its best, the Church has adapted to the needs of men and women in various environments. At its worst, it has reverted to the high-handed and rigid methods of a Roman Emperor.
Of the cardinals now about to choose a new Pope, only 11 come from Africa and another 11 from Asia. Even in the unlikely event of an African or Asian being made Pope, that choice will be determined by Europeans and North Americans. This could make someone like Ghana's Peter Turkson look like an Uncle Tom.
So it seems probable that if the cardinals were to move outside Europe then they would pick a Latin American such as Argentina's Leonardo Sandri, who is of Italian descent and formerly a senior Vatican official. Then they can say that they opted for the "developing world", but ensure that their choice is of European stock.
Some people believe that the Holy Spirit guides the process of selecting Popes. Personally, I would not blame God for some of the men who have sat on the throne in St Peter's.
Catholics who talk this way about the Holy Spirit can sound naive, as if one of Michelangelo's figures might come alive and cast a kind of supervote at the Conclave of Cardinals. But other Catholics regard the Holy Spirit as a force that enters the heart of those who are open to divine presence in the world.
If a cardinal is politically conservative, theologically reactionary and culturally closed, then it does not leave a lot of space for the Holy Spirit to work wonders.
Meanwhile, lay Catholics, nuns and priests must pray that God guides Rome. For even the most spiritual of them has no direct say in the choice of their Church's next Pope. It is the cardinals' call.