Rebel Theologian Says Obama Paves Way for Black Pontiff

Catholic cardinals impressed by Barack Obama’s rise to power may be encouraged to elect the first black pope, according to a Brazilian theologian once silenced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became pope.

Leonardo Boff said the chances of an African such as Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana becoming the next pontiff are slim after Pope Benedict XVI named most of the 117 cardinals who will choose his successor in a conclave next month. Still, Obama’s election as U.S. president may open up the Vatican’s old guard to change, easing opposition to contraception and women priests, he said.

“Without a doubt Obama’s presence is going to be felt among the cardinals,” Boff, a former Franciscan friar who studied with Ratzinger at the University of Munich in the 1960s, said in a phone interview. “We already have a black president, so why not a black religious president?”

Boff was an early exponent of Liberation Theology, a movement started by Latin American priests during the Cold War that sided with the region’s poor. As head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, Ratzinger accused the campaign of Marxist tendencies, and in 1985 he silenced Boff for publishing a book critical of church leadership. Boff left the church in 1992, later accusing the future pope of “religious terrorism.”

Benedict’s ‘Failure’

While the 74-year-old Boff said he respects Benedict’s intellect, he called him an “authoritarian” and a “failure” as pope, citing his handling of a sex-abuse scandal that led to charges of pedophilia against thousands of priests and shook the core of the church’s mission as a bearer of morality.

“Benedict never questioned one of the underlying causes of pedophilia, which is the sexuality of priests and sex education in the seminaries,” Boff said in a Feb. 15 interview from Araras, a farming village and tourist enclave in the jungle-covered hills outside of Rio de Janeiro. “He considers celibacy a law set in stone.”

An African or Latin American pope with real-life pastoral experience would be more sensitive to the need for renewal, and could use his monarchic power to single-handedly reverse doctrine on celibacy and other divisive issues, he said.

“It all depends on the pope coming from the third world,” said Boff, author of more than 60 books on religion and adviser to political protest groups including Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement. “Continuity won’t suffice now. We had someone who was intelligent, but as pope he was a failure.”

Vatican Reaction

A senior Vatican official said calling the pope a failure due to sex scandals in the church is like blaming Obama for weakness in the global economy. While an African pontiff may be elected, to think he’d reverse teaching on contraception or women priests is to think a non-Catholic could become pope, said the official, who asked not to be identified because he the Vatican’s deliberations are confidential.

The conclave to pick the next pope may take place before March 15 if all voting cardinals arrive in Rome on time, Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi told a press briefing on Feb.

16. Vatican officials would like to have a new pope in place before Easter, Catholicism’s most important holiday, which is on March 31 this year, daily Repubblica reported on Feb. 17.

From Latin America, Honduran Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga is one cardinal capable of modernizing the millennia-old institution and inspiring a dwindling flock, said Boff. He said a more likely choice, with greater traction among the Vatican leadership, is Ghana’s Turkson, who’s currently second behind Milan Archbishop Angelo Scola in the running to succeed Benedict, according to Dublin-based bookmaker Paddy Power Plc.


While Boff said he doesn’t know Turkson personally, he said his comments in favor of a more Africanized church are “semi-revolutionary” for the Holy See. Turkson has said that choosing a pope from the developing world, where more than half of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live, would go a long way toward strengthening the church’s influence in emerging nations.

While three popes in the church’s earliest days hailed from North Africa, territories at the time under Roman Empire rule, there’s been no African Pope in the modern era.

Choosing a Latin American or African pope could also help Vatican finances at a time when parishes in Germany and the U.S. are still reeling from the cost of lawsuits and dwindling church attendance sparked by the sex-abuse scandal, Boff said.

“The Vatican faces an enormous financial crisis because its two biggest sources of funding are falling apart,” he said. “The church, out of financial necessity, is going to opt to become a more simple church.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.