Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Cardinals scramble to fill pope’s mitre

There is a tendency to see the election of a new pope in terms of the Olympics: Will the host nation take back the title or will the plucky little cardinal from Honduras succeed in his bid for gold?

Nationality certainly plays a role. It is widely felt that a pope from the United States would not be right because it would put the world's ­biggest Christian denomination in the hands of a son of the world's only superpower. The colonial pasts of Britain, France and Spain weigh heavily on the prospects of candidates from those countries.

Nevertheless, if a majority of the 117 cardinal electors expected to go to the next conclave are convinced that they have found their man it is unlikely that mere considerations of citizenship will stand in their way.

Insiders say the election of a pope is a two-stage process. The cardinals first decide what the most important challenge facing their church is, then find the man they think can tackle it best. But because most of the issues are geographically specific, geographical origins matter.

When Pope Benedict XVI was elected, the outstanding problem was believed to be the secularisation of Europe. Seen from the Vatican, this is a cancer that is spreading from Europe into Latin America and threatens to infect the rest of the world.

During the outgoing pope's reign and because of the clerical sex abuse scandals that broke during it, the disease has only become more virulent. This is why talk of an African leader for the world's 1.2-billion baptised Catholics may be premature.

In Africa, as in Asia, the church is still growing. The problems there are to do with the relationship with Islam and the degree to which Catholicism can integrate local religious traditions. Neither issue looks as critical as the departure elsewhere of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Catholics because of abuse. That puts into contention experienced pastoral clerics such as Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, and Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the archbishop of Vienna, who was swiftly rebuked by Benedict for suggesting that the tradition of priestly celibacy might have been a cause of the problem.

Secularisation is less of an issue in North America, where the church exists in a more intensely religious environment. But it too has been hit by abuse scandals. That makes Marc Ouellet, the French-Canadian head of the Vatican department for the appointment of bishops, a credible early favourite.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is in Rome itself, where the Curia, the central administration of the Catholic church, has been left unmodernised and, as leaked documents demonstrate, bitterly divided by Benedict's turbulent reign. In his resignation statement, the pope made clear that his job required someone fit and vigorous – a message widely interpreted as an acknowledgment of his failure to keep order in the Curia. That would argue for a successor both versed in the Byzantine ways of the Vatican administration and sufficiently independent of mind to bend it to his will. And that is a tall order. – © Guardian News & Media 2013

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and receive a 40% discount on our annual rate..

Related stories


Subscribers only

Q&A Sessions: Zanele Mbuyisa — For the love of people-centred...

She’s worked on one of the biggest class-action cases in South Africa and she’s taken on Uber: Zanele Mbuyisa speaks to Athandiwe Saba about advocating for the underrepresented, getting ‘old’ and transformation in the law fraternity

Update: Standard Bank rejects climate proposal

Climate considerations are pressing Standard Bank shareholders to push for the recusal of those with fossil fuel ties.

More top stories

Wildlife farming vs Creecy’s panel

The departments of environment and agriculture legislation are at odds over modifying the genes of wild animals

Drugs and alcohol abuse rage in crime stats

Substance abuse has emerged as a reason for the spike in crimes during the first quarter of 2021.

UPDATE: Magashule tries to tip the scales on Ramaphosa in...

The suspended secretary general argues that the rules the party relied on to sideline him are invalid but those informing his attempt to suspend the president are lawful

Modack charged with Kinnear murder

Nafiz Modack is the second person to be charged with killing Charl Kinnear and five others are accused of conspiracy to commit murder, among 61 other charges

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…