Pope election: It matters if you are black or white

By Akrita Reyar | Updated: Mar 13, 2013, 17:42 PM IST

Akrita Reyar

There is an interesting story regarding the Pope’s election that dates back to late 14th century. On the death of Pope Gregory XI, both France and Italy staked their right to the papacy. After a lot of political and diplomatic lobbying, Urban VI, an Italian, was chosen, but he turned out to be a controversial choice owing to his quick temper. There are tales about how he came to blows with a cardinal, following which his election was declared null and void. So within five months, Clement VII, of French origin, was selected in a second conclave. This only added fuel to the fire and each of the Popes claimed the election of the other one to be invalid. To end the impasse, a third Pope was elected in Pisa, but this was not to be and only more confusion ensued. At the end of this all, all the three Popes were removed from their posts and Martin V was elected in the region which falls in Germany today.

The episode is both peculiar and hilarious, but it underlines how temporal the election is to the chair that is essentially spiritual in nature. It also brings out clearly the desire of different regions and races to have their man (women are barred) elected to the helm of the supreme Catholic body. Earlier, if there were European nations that were scheming and plotting to install their Cardinal, in a more well knitted post colonial global community, the buzz is about whether the Pontiff at the Vatican will be Black or White.

Black in media parlance used for reporting the much hyped election of the new Pope does not necessarily mean a person who is Black or an African, but anyone who is not a White, and that could denote an Asian or Hispanic as well.

Why the debate has triggered interest is for the fact that this is possibly the first or second time (first being in 2005) when there is a wider, even if not total, acceptability about a non-White being a shepherd to the Catholics around the world. If elected, this would be the first ever in the history of Church and indicative of a slowly maturing thought process, where Black man is not necessarily the White man’s burden.

It remains to be seen though about how actual reactions will be if a Black Pope were to become a reality. Even Barack Obama is still not completely accepted by the entire White community as the President of the most powerful country on Earth.

Meanwhile, of the eligible cardinals, 28 hail from Italy, 34 are from elsewhere in Europe, 19 are from Latin America, 14 are from the United States and Canada, 11 are from Asia, 11 are from Africa and 1 is from Australia.

This break up clearly shows how Europe is the bastion of Cardinals, but it also shows that the clout of those outside Europe is not marginal.

But is it only about colour? Most definitely not. Colour and race are just adding zing to an essentially secretive but curiosity evoking event. The choice of the Pope and the region he hails from assume importance in the wake of the influence that the Church has in different parts of the world.

The fact of the matter is that the Church is losing its hold in European countries and finding new footholds in Asia and Africa. Of the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, nearly half are based in Latin America alone, which is probably why Sao Paulo Archbishop Odilo Scherer of Brazil and Argentina’s Cardinal Leonardo Sandri are being touted among top contenders.

Africa is where the religion is spreading fastest from where Francis Arinze of Nigeria and Peter Turkson of Ghana are in the race.

The Church is also growing rapidly in Asia, with major population centres in the Philippines, China and even India.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan is turning out to be popularly reported and may end up helping people in the West to connect with Catholicism which is facing challenges from new concepts like contraception, homosexuality, abortion and unequal status of women.

Other than them, names of Vienna Archbishop Christoph Schonborn, Canada’s Ouellet, Archbishop of Montreal and Archbishop of Prague Cardinal Dominik Duka are doing the rounds.

However, Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan, continues to be the person with the best chances. He is Italian and his election would mean continuation of the status quo.

Since the first conclave in 1276, a non-European Pope has never been elected. It remains to be seen whether the Church is ready to change with times.