(CNSNews.com) – There is no obvious frontrunner to succeed Pope Benedict XVI when the College of Cardinals meets next month, but his shock resignation announcement Monday unleashed speculation that someone not from Europe may be elected to the post for the first time in more than 1,000 years.
In recent years, Catholic Church congregation growth has been fastest in Africa and Asia and relatively static in Europe.
Many predictions in the last two papal elections proved inaccurate, but among names in the spotlight is that of an African cardinal who has made waves in the past with comments about homosexuality and withholding Mass from pro-abortion politicians.
At two top European bookmaking firms early on Tuesday none of the four contenders seen as most likely to succeed Pope Benedict were European. Both William Hill and Paddy Power had two Africans, an Argentine and a Canadian at the top of their lists.
They were Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana, 64, who is president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, 80, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, 68, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and a former archbishop of Quebec; and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, 69, president of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in the Roman Curia.
Further down their lists both bookmakers had plenty of Europeans, mostly Italians, led by Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71, archbishop of Milan.
Pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger) is German, and his immediate predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was Polish. No pope has been born outside of Europe since the great schism with the Eastern Church, in the 11th century, and according to the Catholic Encyclopedia the last pope believed to be from Africa, Gelasius I, died in the late fifth century.
Pope Benedict, 85, announced Monday he would retire at the end of February, citing health and age, and calling the decision one “of great importance for the life of the church.” He is the first pope in nearly 600 years to step down.
The College of Cardinals will hold a conclave in the Vatican in mid-March to elect his successor.
His departure comes at a time when congregation numbers continue to surge in Africa, especially when compared to the trend in Europe.
According to the Vatican’s 2010 Statistical Yearbook of the Church, which covers the years 2000-2008, the number of Catholics around the world grew during over that period from 1.045 billion to 1.166 billion.
Numbers in Africa grew by 33 percent, in Asia by 15.6 percent, in Oceana by 11.4 percent, in the Americas by 10.9 percent – and in Europe by 1.17 percent.
Of the world’s total number of Catholics, the proportion living in Africa grew between 2000 and 2008 from 12.4 to 14.8 percent, while the proportion in Europe declined over that period from 26.8 to 24.3 percent, it said. Africa has also led the way in the growth in number of Catholic priests.
‘Family … mocked by homosexuality’
An African pope would represent a continent where priests and laity are largely regarded as orthodox in their beliefs, and one where concerns have grown in recent years about the growth of Islamic radicalism. In Arinze’s home country, more than 700 Christians were killed last year alone by the violent Islamist group, Boko Haram.
Arinze is viewed as a conservative, who during a 2003 commencement speech at Georgetown University sparked a protest walkout with comments about homosexuality.
“In many parts of the world, the family is under siege,” the Nigerian cardinal said. “It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce.”
Arinze is also on the record as saying priests should refuse to administer the Communion sacrament to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. At a 2004 press conference at the Vatican, he was asked whether a politician who was “unambiguously pro-abortion” should be denied Communion, and replied “yes.”
“The person is not fit,” the National Catholic Register quoted him as saying. “If he shouldn’t receive it, then it shouldn’t be given.”
Whatever the patterns in church growth worldwide, the body that will elect the next pope is dominated by Europeans.
Only cardinals aged under 80 may vote. Currently there are 118 cardinal-electors, of whom 62 come from European countries (led by 28 Italians). Thirty-three cardinal-electors come from the Americas (including 11 from the United States), 11 from Africa, 11 from Asia and one from Oceania.
A decade ago, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was quoted as telling a German newspaper that Pope John Paul II should be succeeded by an African.
“For all its condemnation of racism, the Western world still has reservations about the Third World,” he told Die Welt.
When John Paul II died in 2005, Arinze was viewed as a strong contender to succeed him, but Ratzinger won the cardinal-electors’ vote. The Nigerian is now eight years older – 80 – a factor that could count against him.
The current pope was 78 when elected, making him the oldest pontiff at election since Pope Alexander VIII, who was 79 on election in 1689.