By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, BlackNews.com Columnist
Millions of Catholics hoped, lobbied, and implored the conclave of cardinals that picked the successor to John Paul II to pick a man that was younger, dynamic, forward looking, and non-European. The Cardinals did just the opposite.
German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is more than two decades older than John Paul was when he took over the Vatican top spot in 1978. He is more doctrinaire, conservative, and contentious than John Paul. He also carries baggage of a questionable Nazi past, and is European, very European.
The choice of Ratzinger not only ignores the crushing problems that the Catholic Church faces in Africa and Latin America, it exacerbates them. A modern Pope with a modern message would lobby the Bush administration feverishly to prod Congress to free the $15 billion in increased aid that Bush proposed in 2004 for the fight against the AIDS/HIV plague and other infectious diseases in Africa. Congress has stonewalled the request. He would demand that wealthy European nations and Japan forgive the towering debt that African nations owe them. That had done much to deepen the poverty in those countries. He would demand that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund implement fair labor and economic development polices that allow African and the poorer Latin nations to attain a agricultural and industrial self-sufficiency.
A modern-era Pope would be the loud and active voice of the dispossessed. He would cultivate and nurture socially conscious priests, bishops and cardinals in African and Latin countries that would go forth and preach a message of social change to the landowners, industrialists, and political leaders in those countries. A modern-era Pope would recognize that hordes of younger Catholics have deserted the church in droves in Western European nations. They are angered and alienated by the church’s staunch refusal to allow women to play a greater role in church affairs, its ban on abortion, gay marriage, and imposition of celibacy on priests. While European churches have experienced a free fall in membership and church attendance, Catholic churches in Latin America, and especially Africa, have experienced spectacular growth.
At the present rate of population growth, in the next decade the overwhelming majority of the world’s Catholics will live south of the Equator. They will be even more needy, and impoverished, and in a desperate search for a powerful non-governmental voice to lobby for their needs. For many, the church will be their only hope to play that role. The continuing surge in numbers and fervor of Muslims, and the rapid growth of protestant Evangelicals in Africa and Latin America also confront the church with a fresh crisis. These religions have vigor, fervor, and passion. The Evangelicals promise dynamic spiritual renewal, and Islam promises political dominance.
Many speculated that Ratzinger was chosen to mark time, and to give the church a chance to catch its breath, regroup, and pick a more energetic, younger and dynamic Pope in the next few years. The cardinals did not drop the ball in picking a conservative theologian solely out of expediency. The church’s hierarchy has long been stuck in the mud of adherence to outmoded traditions. For nearly a half a millennium the Pope was Italian, conservative, and dogmatic. John Paul II was the first non-Italian chosen in five centuries. And then it took days and countless numbers of ballots before he could ascend to the Papal throne. John Paul was an outsider, a reformer and thus suspect.
He turned out to be the right choice for the times. His globe trotting forays to Asia, Africa and Latin America were the tonic that the church needed to revive its fortunes in those countries. But while John Paul was a social reformer, he was also a moral conservative committed to maintaining the hide-bound church traditions. There is no evidence that Cardinal Ratzinger is the social reformer that John Paul was, and much evidence that he is a social conservative.
From the moment that John Paul died, South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu virtually laid siege to the Vatican and demanded that the church pick an African or Latin as the next Pope. He reasoned that a non-European Pope that looked like the majority of the world’s non-white Catholics would be particularly sensitive to the plight of the world’s poor, and would be an eloquent champion for economic equality and social justice.
Tutu was realistic. He knew that that was unlikely to happen. But Tutu held out hope that in future years the cardinals would chose a man that could bring the church into the complex, modern world, and grapple with its problems. The cardinals didn’t make that choice this time. Tutu and the millions of non-white Catholics that hoped they would may not be willing to wait many more years in the hope that the church will see the light.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for BlackNews.com, a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).