Africa gives the Vatican bragging rights.
It is the one significant part of the Catholic world that is on the rise, with near explosive growth. The question is whether Africa's enthusiastic response to the missionary church should be rewarded with the election of an African pope.
The idea certainly resonated with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, in 2004, when he told German TV that "we are ready for a black pope" and called Africa the "spiritual lung of the world." He said much the same in 2009 when he visited Cameroon and Angola (he went to Benin in 2011).
But the 115 elector cardinals, whose conclave to elect a replacement for Pope Benedict begins Tuesday afternoon, may not be ready for an African pope just yet, given the fact that the Latin American church is much larger. About 40 per cent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics are Latin Americans – Brazil and Mexico having the biggest Catholic populations.
"It would certainly be encouraging for the [next] pope to be non-European," said Father Norman Tanner, professor of church history at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, noting the church's decline in Europe and North America.
An African pope is not out of the question. While only 11 of the 115 elector cardinals are African (compared to 60 from Europe and 33 from the Americas), they are widely expected to present a united front in the conclave. "The Africans might vote as a bloc," said veteran Vatican watcher and author John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter.
If they do, it could give them a considerable advantage because bloc voting typically does not happen among cardinals from other regions. It has been widely reported that Italy's 28 elector cardinals – the biggest single potential bloc – are divided on whom to back.
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is one of the leading candidates to replace Pope Benedict, who resigned on Feb. 28. The bookmakers put him in third place, behind Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan and Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil, and ahead of Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec.
La Stampa newspaper's Vatican Insider section says there are three other "credible" African names: Robert Sarah of Guinea, Wilfrid Napier of South Africa and Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the Catholic Church is especially strong.
Cardinal Turkson has talked about the remarkable rise of the church in Africa. It obviously fills him with pride that the African cardinals are overseeing a vibrant church so close to the continent – Europe – where church attendance is in free fall – along with the proportion of citizens who are Catholic.
In a speech at the University of Toronto's Regis College last September, he noted that there were only 29 million Catholics in Africa in 1962 (the year the Second Vatican Council started). The figure today is 186 million, which means almost one in five Africans is Catholic. The African Catholic population grows 3.8 per cent a year, a figure that bishops in Europe and the Americas can only dream about. Africa has 40,000 priests, up from 15,000 in 1962, and 700 bishops, up from 400.
In his Toronto speech, he called the African church "magnificently nurtured with the tireless and indeed heroic ministry of the missionaries."
Father Denis Isizoh, a Nigerian priest who works for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, said "Africans are naturally religious" and "are disposed to Catholicism."
Nigerians, he said, have adapted Catholicism to their own rhythms and culture. "The masses are long and the people talk directly to God, as if they're talking to God personally," he said. "They will sit on the ground for hours and pray."
The church also appeals to the conservative nature of many Africans, who generally take a dim view of abortion and homosexuality. The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights says that 21 of the 68 countries that ban abortion or permit it only to save a woman's life are in Africa. Tunisia and South Africa are the only countries on the continent that permit on-demand abortions.
Cardinal Turkson came dangerously close to lobbying for the papal throne – considered taboo in the College of Cardinals – when he told the Associated Press the day after Pope Benedict's resignation announcement that he's up for the job "if it's the will of God."
If he wins, African Catholics would be thrilled and the Vatican would no doubt claim that the time had come to select a pope from a thriving part of the global church. But Cardinal Turkson would not be the first African to become pope. Victor I was pope from 189 to 198 (the dates vary by a few years, according to various sources). He was probably born in Leptis Magna, in what is modern-day Libya, and did well enough to be canonized.