Moment may have passed for Latin America to provide pope

Analysis: In 2005 Benedict emerged and now too the odds are against success

Analysis:In 2005 Benedict emerged and now too the odds are against success

The announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation caught most Latin Americans by surprise, with much of the world’s most Catholic continent occupied with the distinctly pagan rituals of carnival.

But as happened after the death of Pope John Paul II, many Latin Americans are again wondering if the Europeans who dominate the papal conclave might be ready to turn over the church’s leadership to someone from the region that is home to more than 40 per cent of the world’s Catholics.

Despite its continued weight inside the universal church, recent decades have witnessed a veritable Protestant reformation across Latin America, with tens of millions of Catholics abandoning Rome to join a dizzying array of home-grown evangelical Protestant rivals.


A Latin American pope, so the argument goes, could help stem the tide.

But the problem is the lack of any compelling candidate.

In the immediate aftermath of Pope Benedict’s announcement the most widely tipped of the Latin candidates has been São Paulo’s archbishop, Cardinal Odilo Scherer. At just 63 he is young for a cardinal and so would benefit if the conclave decided it was time to hand the papacy to a younger man.

But it is difficult to escape the impression that his immediate inclusion among the candidates is down to his position as the leading cardinal in the world’s most populous Catholic nation.

‘Very capable’

Since his elevation to Brazil’s largest archdiocese Cardinal Scherer has shown little of the charisma or strong leadership qualities that one imagines the cardinals will require in the next pope.

One priest who has worked with him in São Paulo questioned his emergence as Latin America’s leading candidate. “He is a workaholic and very capable. But he is a civil servant, more of a middle manager than a leader,” said the priest, who asked not to be named.

Cardinal Scherer’s immediate predecessor, Cláudio Hummes, was a more charismatic leader of the São Paulo church and is well known in the Vatican thanks to his position as head of the Congregation of the Clergy. But at 78 he might be considered too old for an organisation that has just seen its head retire for the first time in centuries.

Dom Hummes had been widely tipped in 2005 as a possible successor to John Paul II for the same reason that Cardinal Scherer is today. But according to several reconstructions of the count that elevated Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy he was not even the top- ranking Latin cardinal.

The runner-up slot then was supposedly occupied by the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Dirty war

At 76 he is still eligible. But his elevation to the papacy could lead to renewed scrutiny of the Argentinian church’s role in the country’s Dirty War, when it offered support to the military junta in its brutal campaign of murder of left-wing dissidents.

In 2005 Cardinal Bergoglio, who was the head Jesuit in the country during the dictatorship, was accused by a local human rights group of complicity in the death of two Jesuit priests murdered by the regime, a charge which he has vigorously denied.

Politics could also hinder the chances of another cardinal frequently cited as a possible Latin pope, the popular Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa in Honduras.

As head of the church’s Caritas charity organisation he is well known across the church.

But he drew the ire of many Latin American leaders when he was seen to have given sanction to the 2009 coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya, whom he accused of turning into a Honduran Hugo Chávez.

But church insiders caution that the conclave that elects Pope Benedict’s successor will most likely be driven by personal rather than regional considerations.

“The cardinals will not sit down and decide now is the time to choose someone from Africa or Latin America,” says Derek Byrne, the Irish-born bishop of Guiratinga in Brazil.

‘Qualities and abilities’

“It will depend on the person and how well they all know each other. For example, they might look at Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, not because they think it is time to turn back to an Italian but because of his qualities and abilities.”

Such an intimate selection process could benefit two other lesser-known Latin cardinals serving in the Curia: Argentina’s Leonardo Sandri and Brazil’s João Braz de Aviz, two lesser names cited as possible candidates to become the first Latin American pope.

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America