Many have welcomed the election of a non-European cardinal as a Roman Catholic pope. Prior to the election of Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, there seemed to be general consensus that a pope from either Latin America or Africa would be a welcome break with the dominance of Europeans over the leadership of the Catholic community.
Using the pre-conclave debates around the preferred region from which the pope should come from and his nationality, or should we say race, let us examine how issues of race and region have come to influence and interface with both national politics and international relations.
For starters, the election of a non-European seemed to be a logical thing to do for the conclave. It is a known fact that the whole of Europe has seen a major slump in religiosity. Church attendance and belief in the super-natural has taken a dive and has been replaced by liberalism, or what others term a godless humanism.
Some may view the situation there as representing the classical tension between modernity and tradition, with the church unable to adapt to modernism and therefore unable to reconcile itself with the advances made by humanity in the areas of science and consciousness.
With their strong base in numerical terms and continued adherence to traditional value systems, the Latin American and African churches remain the hope for the Catholic Church.
On the other hand the push for a Latin American or African pope exposes the pitfalls of an essentialist approach to change, equating the necessary changes that must happen within and about the Catholic Church as requiring change in the region of origin or even the race of a leader. These have been advanced in simplistic, if not shallow, terms.
While no one can argue against the strong symbolism of changing the leadership of an organisation to replace a block, in this case white and European, that used to dominate and dictate terms to the other, it is equally important to ensure that whoever emerges as a replacement of the former ruling block does so with a new ideological and political make-up different from that of the former ruling group.
Failure to effect fundamental, and not just symbolic, changes has the danger of in fact entrenching old ruling patterns by giving legitimacy to and retaining the status quo, having clothed it only in acceptable garments, in this case regionalism and race.
By simply choosing a Latin American or African pope would not and will not mean that the Catholic Church will take a quantum leap and start addressing the fundamental problems that many on the two continents may have felt as alienating points from the way the church is governed and has failed to respond to their material conditions of poverty, dictatorships and wars.
To illustrate this point let us take a few examples in the world of politics. Very few people can dispute the fact that the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s former prime minister did not lead to marked improvements in the lives and status of women in Britain. Instead, many working-class women had the gains of their century-long struggles being reversed by Thatcher’s austerity programmes and her spirited offence in advancing and entrenching capitalism with her now infamous slogan “There is no alternative (to capitalism)”.
Similarly, the successive leadership of Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan as general secretaries of the United Nations did not lead to the improvement of the conditions of live of African people, nor the alteration of the power structures of the UN, which continue to exclude Africa from influential positions. Instead Africa’s plight got worse under the burden of policies advanced by the UN affiliate body, the World Bank.
As many critical scholars and activists have noted, apart from its symbolic meaning, Barack Obama’s current reign as US president has not led to fundamental and positive changes to the condition of life for African-Americans. Nor has it brought any distinct benefits to black people in general; the world over.
Does it therefore mean that race and region are not important in the world of politics?
While important, it is critical that the essentialism of race and region are countered and corrected by an insertion of a correct ideological examination of changes in leadership. We therefore need to ask ourselves what the change of leadership of the Catholic Church should mean, or be like. What outlook should be adopted by Pope Francis that will assure some of us that the change is not just symbolic, but that it will indeed lead to meaningful changes?
Already, Pope Francis has been modelled as the “pope of the poor”, hence even his choice of name after Francis of Assisi, a monk who dedicated his life to helping the poor. Yet, the real test will not just be in being seen to be helping the poor, but in posing uncomfortable questions to the ruling classes across continents about the source of poverty and hunger when all figures show that the world has enough food to feed everyone and yet there are many who go bed with empty stomachs. While others throw away excess food daily.
The pope will have to reflect on the words of his late fellow Latin American, the Archbishop Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara of Brazil, who once commented: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Yes, the Catholic Church gave the world the late Mother Theresa, who is still venerated. But did she pose the difficult questions on why they are poor?
If he was indeed to position himself as the “pope of the poor” Francis would do well to revisit the teachings of some of his fellow Latin American priests, who were unfortunately suppressed by the church during the 1980s. These are the liberation theologians, some of whom were themselves Jesuit priests like him, who did not just work with the poor, but also asked uncomfortable questions against repressive regimes and supported working-class struggles.
Names like Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Jon Sobrino and Óscar Romero, both from of El Salvador, and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay come to mind when one thinks of Catholic priests who stood firmly against capitalist oppression and exploitation of the poor.
With so much poverty in Africa caused by the looting of its resources by imperialist forces and their local agents, the looting of oil resources in the Middle East and perpetuation of wars there, the destruction and looting of the rain forests in Latin America, the exploitation of working people in North America, the exploitation of workers in Asia and the rampant looting of national treasuries by banks in Europe; will Francis turn like Romero from his initial conservative views?
Commenting on the assassination of his close friend and progressive Jesuit friend in 1977, Rutilio Grande, who had created self-reliance groups among the poor in El Salvador, Romero is quoted as having said the following: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought: ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.'”
It should be the choices that a leader makes and how he chooses to define his reign, whether as a real champion for the poor who will ask and advance difficult questions, not simply his race or nationality that will define whether such a leader is a force of real change.
Will Francis have his Romero moment?