Africa: Pontifex Africanus – Could the Next Pope Be African?

By Luke Lythgoe

In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s shock resignation, bookmakers and international media alike are heralding the prospect of Rome’s first black African pontiff.

With the shock resignation this morning of Pope Benedict XVI, the international media has gone into overdrive in an attempt to predict the next spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Could the world finally see its first black pope?

The Church (with more than one billion followers worldwide and counting) has had three ‘African’ popes in its history – all from the North African provinces of the Roman Empire and none since the fifth century. However, the latest papal election could very realistically see the first black – indeed, first truly non-European – pope.

In recent years, the Catholic leadership has become increasingly global in makeup, finally starting to represent Catholic demographics across the planet. Catholicism is truly global, with the majority of the Catholic community living in the Americas today. Second place goes to Europe, and third to Africa. However, over the last decade the number of Europeans adhering to the Catholic faith has been in decline, while Catholicism in Africa is on the rise.

In November last year, the Catholic Church made headlines when it created six new cardinals, none of whom were European. When put into context, the gesture was hardly revelatory – Europe still accounts for 55% of all 210 cardinals – but it did go some way to diluting Europe’s dominance in the College of Cardinals.

But now, with Benedict XVI’s upcoming resignation, the possibility has opened up that an African could take the top job. Although bookies’ odds have been changing since the Pope’s announcement this morning, there are currently three clear favourites, all with similar odds. Of the three, two are African and the other is Canadian.

So who are the Africans that could soon have a direct hotline to God? What are their backgrounds, their main views, and what could the Church’s future be with them at the helm?

Ghana’s guy: Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson

Next Pope? A number of bookmakers (including Ladbrokes) have placed Turkson as odds-on favorite to be next pope.

– Born October 11, 1948, in Wassaw Nsuta, Ghana.

– 1992: appointed Archbishop of Cape Coast.

– 2003: created and proclaimed Cardinal by Pope John Paul II.

A relatively youthful candidate at 64 years old, Turkson has been tipped as a possible successor to Benedict XVI for a number of years now. He has served as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, charged with ensuring the acceptance of Catholic social teaching worldwide. He also chaired a synod of African bishops at the Vatican in 2010, and is proud of the Church’s progress on his home continent.


Turkson has spoken out and campaigned on a number of issues. A keen gardener, he is vocal on the environmental impact of global businesses – particularly relating to open-cast mining in his native Ghana. Speaking of the social impact of such mining, he explained, “When you move people off land they have been farming, you are also taking away their jobs and livelihoods. People think mining companies bring jobs, but when we visited those areas we found far more jobs were lost than new ones created.”

The IMF and its handling of the global economic crisis have also come in for criticism from the Ghanaian cardinal, who has called for a “true world political authority” to regulate the world economy.

Turkson has spoken out against conflict across the African continent, and has made specific comments pertaining to the Rwandan genocide. “[The Rwandans] were supposed to be 80% Catholic, but they forgot they were Catholic, and they forgot they were Christian”, he said.

Nigeria’s nominee: Cardinal Francis Arinze

Next Pope? Arinze generally trails slightly behind Turkson and Canadian cardinal Ouellet in most bookies’ odds, although a handful (including William Hill) have him as odds-on favorite.

– Born November 1, 1932 in Eziowelle, Nigeria.

– 1967: appointed archbishop of Onitsha.

– 1985: appointed and proclaimed Cardinal by Pope John Paul II.

Francis Arinze hails from particularly humble origins, as the son of poor farmers in the small town of Eziowelle, Nigeria. One of the prominent positions he has held since arriving in Rome has been to head a commission ensuring that non-Latin masses (first permitted in the 1960s) did not deviate too far from original doctrine.


Arinze has also held positions dealing with the Church’s relations with other faiths. With roots in Nigeria (almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims) his background provides an obvious advantage. He is keen to reconcile other faiths and served John Paul II during his historic rapprochement with the Jewish faith. He likes to remind Muslims that the Virgin Mary is mentioned 34 times in the Quran, a fact which he says provides the foundations of possible conciliation.

Arinze tends to take conservative positions which have previously been controversial. In 2003, he angered faculty members at Georgetown University with a controversial address condemning the enemies of the family.

“[The family] is opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia”, he said. “It is scorned and banalised by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce.”

The other candidates

Of the other Africans in the College of Cardinals, 11 are under 80 years old and so qualify as cardinal electors and have a vote in the papal elections. (There are 118 cardinal electors overall.)

However, of these African cardinals only Turkson and Arinze have been given odds by bookmakers (alongside some other less serious candidates such as Father Dougal Macguire from sitcom Father Ted and Bono). Suffice to say that none of these African ecclesiastics are being seriously considered as papabili (papal material).

If the race for first black pope is between Turkson and Arinze, then one major factor will undoubtedly be age – although it is difficult to say in whose favor this will be. Arinze is already 80, two years older than Benedict XVI on his election in 2005 – a man who is now citing age and ill health as reasons for his shock resignation. However, Turkson’s perceived youth (at the sprightly age of 64) has also been cited as a weakness in his candidacy.

Then there are the other challengers for the ‘triple crown’, the most promising of whom is Canadian Marc Ouellet who would not be as headline-making as a black pontiff, but would nevertheless be the first New World pope. Of course, predicting any papal election is no easy feat. However, this time round, the selection the Cardinals make has the exciting potential to of turning the Catholic Church into a much more conspicuously global institution.

Luke Lythgoe is a writer and editorial assistant at Think Africa Press. He graduated from the University of Cambridge with a BA Hons in History. His interests include imperial structures and their legacies and international politics. Luke can be contacted at or follow him on Twitter on @ljlythgoe.


Posted by on Feb 18 2013. Filed under Community News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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