After an African-American president, an African pope?

October 5, 2009

turksonIf you start seeing pictures of the man at the right or hearing his name now and then, here’s why.

On the international Godbeat, it’s never too early to start speculating about who will become the next pope. The current head of the world’s largest church, Pope Benedict, is admirably fit at 82, but facts like that never discourage avid Vatican watchers. “Vaticanistas” look beyond the present pope to find who else stands out in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Who’s on his way up? Who’s taking on important jobs? Who’s out there publishing books or giving lectures or visiting other cardinals or doing anything else that looks like — perish the thought! — a subtle campaign in an unofficial race whose candidates never throw their birettas into the ring.

(Photo: Cardinal Turkson, 13 April 2005/Max Rossi)

It looks like Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana is now firmly in this group known as the papabili, or possible popes, thanks to an important job he’s doing this month. He’s the relator, or secretary general, of the Synod for Africa, a major meeting of African bishops in Rome to discuss the Church’s future on that continent.  Previous cardinals who served in such posts include the future popes John Paul II and Benedict. Like another African cardinal once tipped for the job, Nigeria’s Francis Arinze (now 77 and retired), he counts among his plus points an on-the-job familiarity with Islam. John Allen, the veteran vaticanista for the U.S.-based National Catholic Reporter, headlined his story on Turkson “Say hello to Africa’s next great hope to be pope.”

Coming after the first non-Italian pope in centuries, it was unlikely that the 2005 conclave would take another daring leap and choose a non-European. The next papal election, whenever it comes, could be different. The received wisdom after the last one was that the Latin Americans had the best chance.

Cardinals file into the Sistine Chapel for conclave, 18 April 2005/poolBut you never know what the coming years will bring. Catholicism is growing in Africa, in contrast to Latin America.  One of Latin America’s best candidates, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, is a player in the current political crisis in his native Honduras and his prospects could depend on how that develops. And you have to wonder if the example of a precedent concerning a world figure outside the Church — the first African-American president, Barack Obama — could exert an indirect influence.  Some Catholics may read that and fire off a comment saying politics has absolutely nothing to do with papal elections. Not directly as in the past, but cardinals don’t all live in Sistine Chapel-like isolation from the rest of the world either. Turkson has strong credentials, as do other papabili, and the advantage of personifying some additional quality — hope? equality? change in continuity? —  could well work in his favour.

(Photo: Cardinals file into Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, 18 April 2005/Osservatore Romano)

P.S. — For what it’s worth, the Dublin-based bookmaker Paddy Power still has Arinze topping its betting list with odds on who will be the next pope. Turkson is nowhere among the 44 names mentioned (including Bono in last place). Paddy Power took the 2005 conclave so seriously that it sent a man out to Rome to keep up with  the buzz. Will Turkson’s name appear on this list after the Synod for Africa is finished?

UPDATE: At a meeting with journalists in Rome on Monday, Cardinal Turkson was asked about this speculation, Catholic News Service reports. “An African pope? Why not?” he asked. “If by divine providence — because the church belongs to God — God would wish to see a black man as pope, then thanks be to God,” he said.

Follow FaithWorld on Twitter at RTRFaithWorld


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Makes sense.

If the church is going to shore up falling numbers by taking advantage of poorly educated third world populations, it is expected that those people will be represented in the Vatican.

And that means an African, or South American Pope is on the cards.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

The RCC has already had 3 African popes. Do your homework. You can check the NAACP website where they proudly post their biographies.

As to the previous comment about Church numbers falling. This is not the concern it was 10 years ago. Vocations have been on the rise for some time. The only falling numbers are that of liberals in her ranks.

Posted by Irenaeus | Report as abusive

If he is from Ghana, the headline is not exactly accurate in calling him African-American, is it?

Posted by Stephen | Report as abusive

Scratch that.

Posted by Stephen | Report as abusive

Irenaeus, if I hadn’t already known there were African popes before, I would have learned it from the first paragraph of the John Allen story I linked to in this post. But this was not the issue here. The last African pope died in the year 496, far further back than the last non-Italian pope before John Paul II, so electing one would not be as uneventful as you seem to present it here. You seem to think I said he would be the first, but that’s not written anywhere in the post.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Many people were certain that Cardinal Arinze would have been the Pope last time. Instead it is Pope Benedict. I would not have been surprised if it had been Arinze, who now has the Pope’s last job.

However, one is presuming this as a purely secular election. If one is a beleiver one must presume the hand of God in the election.

As for failing numbers, it depends on what news service you listen to. But from the surveys I rezad it is rising.

Posted by Dan Costello | Report as abusive

The subject of religious success is not one that Christianity is particularly happy to discuss.

It is happy to point to surveys on total believers (eg. Tick the box if you believe in God), and to leave it at that. But such surveys are not indicitive of the true situation.

The level of actual involvement in religion is in decline. Those who identify on a survey as Christian, are now less likely to actually practice the belief.

The levels of non-practicing Christians, agnostics and Athiests are on the rise. Decades ago these things were unheard of. Now their numbers are significant. And in turn, the level of fundamentalist christians is dropping.

Church attendances levels are dropping. Less people are becoming priests or members of the cloth. Fewer people regularly follow religions rituals

And even if numbers of Christians are rising, it is not in line with population growth. As a percentage of global population, practicing theists are falling. Even the World Christian Database indicates this, and it is known for it’s bias.

And there is a direct inverse relation to the level of education in a nation, and the level of theism that can be found. The sad truth is that the future of religions is in the lands of the uneducaded. The Middle East, Africa, South America. Places where education is low or non-existant, non-theists can be marginalised, and religion can superimpose itself on the vulnerable and young.

The next time the Church claims that Theism is on the rise, ask yourself how many of those believers are just ticks in a box?

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

“it is known for it’s bias” should be:
“it is known for its bias”.

Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive

Who cares? Just shows how gullible people are to do what some guy wearing a funny hat says and give him their money. Oh well, it’s their money to give. No skin off my snout. I’d like to put on a funny hat and tell people they owe me money, too, but I guess the catholics have a monopoly on that. Oh well, they’ve been at it a long time and have the routine wired.

Posted by Oblivion | Report as abusive

The need for a black pope is greater than ever, he and Obama can sit side by side touring the world in their pope mobile. They would be a dynamic duo that will cause millions of heathens to accept the Lord of the cross.

Posted by moetheshmo | Report as abusive