African Catholics Look to Black Pope to Safeguard Tradition

Ugandan property broker Joseph Nsubuga has a message for those who think choosing an African pope would lead the Catholic church to become more flexible on such divisive social issues as abortion or homosexuality: Think again.

“An African pope would fight the homosexuality vice which has infiltrated our society,” the father of six said as he exited Sunday mass in the Kampala suburb of Kiwatule on Feb. 17. “The Pope would fight abortions and contraceptives since they are condemned by the faith.”

Africa is the fastest-growing region for a church with 1.2 billion members worldwide. The number of baptized Catholics on the continent more than tripled between 1980 and 2010 to 185.6 million, offsetting a decline in the flock in Europe and slower growth in the U.S. The shifting Catholic demographics and the African faithful’s conservative social values have helped make Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson one of the favorites to succeed Benedict XVI at oddsmakers William Hill Plc and Paddy Power Plc.

“The church is doing well here because Africans are notoriously religious,” Emmanuel Abbey-Quaye, assistant secretary general of the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said in a Feb. 11 interview in the capital, Accra. “Africans have strong cultural values which, in consonance with the church, frown on many issues including homosexuality.”

Naming an African pontiff would break from a tradition that the Catholic church be headed by a European which dates back to the death of Syrian Gregory III in 741.

Conclave Begins

Tomorrow the 115 voting Cardinals, including 11 Africans, will be sequestered in the Sistine Chapel to begin their secret conclave to choose a new pope. Given that more than half were appointed by Benedict, with the rest named by John Paul II, there is little reason to expect a new pope to be any more progressive on social issues, especially if he’s African.

Much of the opening day of the conclave is taken up by prayer and there may be a single vote in the afternoon, limiting the chance for a decision tomorrow. On the following days, the Cardinals will cast as many as four ballots.

“If the Catholic church is serious about tradition and wants to continue that tradition, it would be in their interest to look at an African candidate,” Rothney Tshaka, a theology professor at the University of South Africa, said in a Feb. 14 phone interview from Pretoria. “People who are of African descent or on the African continent identify with conservative values.”

Criminalizing Homosexuality

Of the 68 countries that ban abortion or permit it only to save a woman’s life, 21 are in Africa, according to the New York-based Center for Productive Rights. Of the continent’s 55 nations, only South Africa and Tunisia allow abortion on demand.

Africa accounts for 36 of the 78 countries that criminalize homosexuality, according to the Brussels-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. The continent has “the worst laws on the books when it comes to homosexuality and other sexual minorities, a phenomenon which is in part rooted in bad colonial-era laws and political situations, religious autonomy, strong negative belief in cultural and family values and the evil of patriarchy,” the group said in a March 2012 report.

Seeking Change

Some African Catholics nevertheless believe the new pope needs to embrace more progressive views and do more to tackle what they see as social and economic injustice.

For Nigerian engineer Donatus Ezekwo, 56, Catholicism has provided an alternative to his grandparents’ traditions, such as a veneration for their ancestors and a conformity to an ethnic and clan identity, while preserving some of the values they espoused. He backs the church’s opposition to homosexuality, yet still sees scope for modernization in other areas.

“On celibacy, I think most Africans appreciate it’s a tall order and are sympathetic to a review,” he said while waiting for the traffic to disperse after Feb. 17 mass at the Holy Trinity church in Abuja. “That’s the sort of agenda I would expect an African pope to pursue at the Vatican.”

Accountant Bayo Arowolo, 35, one of Ezekwo’s fellow congregants, wants Benedict’s successor to ensure the church focuses on helping the more than 400 million Africans who live on less than $2 a day.

“While the Latin American church found a new mission in working against poverty, in Africa it has remained complicit and profited despite poverty,” he said. Appointing “an African pope will only be meaningful if he can put these issues on the agenda, otherwise it will just be another symbolic gesture and no more than that.”

Geographic Breakdown

The church’s African flock is biggest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has 37.8 million Catholics, followed by Nigeria with 23.8 million and Uganda with 14.2 million. The church’s ranks grew about 40 percent in the three countries between 2000 and 2010. The north of the continent remains predominantly Muslim -- Libya, Morocco, Niger, Tunisia and Algeria each have less than 100,000 Catholics.

Choosing an African pope would help raise the profile of the world’s poorest continent within the church.

“An African pope will be recognition that African Catholicism has come of age,” Martin Essilfie, parish priest at the Sacred Heart church in the central Ghanaian town of Winneba, said in a Feb. 16 interview. It will “integrate African culture and socio-economic priorities into mainstream Catholicism.”

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