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Papal Succession: Concerns of Growing Catholic Populations in Africa and Latin America

Following the funeral of Pope John Paul II, thoughts have turned to his successor and the major challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church. While the Church’s influence is waning in Europe, it is growing in Africa and Latin America. And about a third of the 117 cardinals who will choose the next pope are from the Third World.

Joining VOA New Now’s host of Encounter, Carol Castiel, to discuss the likelihood that the next pope might come from the developing world was Sulayman Nyang, professor of African Studies at Howard University in Washington. A native of the Gambia, he has written extensively on Islam and Christianity in Africa and is active in interfaith affairs. Professor Nyang noted that one of the cardinals from Nigeria, Father Francis Arinze, is frequently mentioned as a potential successor to the Pope. He said that some of the major issues for Africans, especially those in Nigeria, deal with power sharing by Christians and Muslims, relations between church and state, and religion in the schools.

Cardinals from Brazil, Argentina, and Honduras are also frequently mentioned as possible successors to Pope John Paul II. A specialist in Latin America, Mary Hunt of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual headquartered in Maryland, explained that Protestant and evangelical groups have challenged Catholicism’s former hegemony in Latin America in the past 20 years. She also noted that “liberation theology,” which focuses particularly on how the poor understand the Gospel, has gained strength in the region since the 1960’s, largely because of difficult socioeconomic and political conditions.

Under the 26-year pontificate of John Paul II, Mary Hunt said, the pressure on communities to conform to Vatican teaching discouraged many progressive Latin Americans from remaining in the Catholic tradition. She suggested that Latin Americans were seeking a “new model of Church,” one that is adequate to the economic and political realities they face. She said that Catholics in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile are particularly concerned with local control in contrast to “top-down” styles of management. Other major issues include the ordination of women and the ways that laypeople can share in decision-making. According to Ms. Hunt, Latin Americans are looking to the Church for leadership on “moral-economic issues,” such as debt repayment, and on human rights and reproductive health. And because of the HIV-AIDS pandemic, the issue of using condoms is very real in the minds of many Catholics in Latin America. She explained that questions of reproductive choice and divorce are important not only because of religious doctrine but because of the way they affect national laws and politics.

Sulayman Nyang said HIV-AIDS is a burning issue throughout the African continent and noted that the teachings of the Catholic Church often collide with the “realities on the ground.” He said that some conservative Muslim groups and Catholics find common cause in opposing birth control and the use of condoms. Professor Nyang emphasized that this is one of the areas where the selection of the next pope will be most critical to the future of the Church. He believes the person who is chosen will need to serve as a “moral bridge” between North and South.

Professor Nyang said that, if an African cardinal were to be chosen, it would replicate in the spiritual world what has already happened in the diplomatic world – namely the elevation of Kofi Annan as U.N. Secretary-General, which helped integrate Africa into the mainstream of international politics. Sulayman Nyang also noted that on Friday George W. Bush was the first American president to attend a papal funeral, which indicates that Protestants and Catholics have “healed their wounds significantly.” According to Professor Nyang, the next pope must assure that all people of the Abrahamic tradition – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – can work together on humanitarian concerns.

Mary Hunt said there are many reasons why choosing a new pope from the developing would be desirable. But from her perspective, the most important issue is not that of geography but of ideology. She believes the selection of John Paul II’s successor will determine whether the “progressive forces” in those countries will have greater influence and whether the new pope will function as a “symbol of unity.” Ms. Hunt said the Catholic Church worldwide is now facing three major challenges – the use of geo-political power as a counter-balance to injustice, the construction of a more “horizontal model” for the Church with greater participation of the laity, and issues of population and development.

Sulayman Nyang said he thinks the main challenges for the next pope involve the relationship between church doctrine and “modernity,” the conflict between progressive and conservative forces, and questions of poverty, disease, and education, especially in the developing world. He noted that one of the most important legacies of John Paul II was the growth of Muslim-Catholic dialogue and Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

For full audio of the program Encounter click here.