An African pontiff would illustrate the universality of the Church, says Alexander Lucie-Smith For the United States and for the entire world, it seems a new age has dawned. Rut before we all rush to accept Barack Obama as our personal saviour, who can solve the problems of global warming and heal the planet while dispensing cosmic justice, it is worthwhile noting that we have been here before. The arrival of a youthful Tony Blair just over a decade ago was greeted as a new beginning and a fresh way of doing politics; 30 years ago Jimmy Carter became president on a tide of enthusiasm that swept away a Republican Party that had been seemingly irrecoverably soiled by Watergate. Yet both Carter and Blair left office in very different atmospheres. While Jimmy Carter is today widely liked, it is hard to remember that he was once one of the most despised men in the world. and that America's international reputation stood at an all-time low when he left the White House On the January 20 1981. Even his departure was humiliating, the Iranians releasing their American hostages only after President Reagan had taken the oath of office. As for Blair, if he can, over the corning-decades, emerge as a new Jimmy Carter, he will have achieved much.
But every president or prime minister has his day, and it seems churlish to point out that enthusiasm for Obama will at the very least, wane with the passing of time. His election is historic. He has proved that the Democrats are not the inept bunglers incapable of electoral success that they seemed four years ago. Even more significantly, his campaign managed not just to get people to register to vote, but actually to vote on the day as well, and it was this influx of new voters that brought him to the White House. While it may be premature to consign the achievements of Karl Rove in building what seemed a natural Republican majority to the dustbin of history, a new winning coalition of interests has emerged which might perhaps represent America 's Democratic future. A visible part of this coalition has been the African-American community, which was solidly behind Obama, and which voted in unprecedented numbers.
Thus the excitement with which Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta greeted Obama's election is not just understandable but to be shared. In an interview with the Italian daily La Stamina the archbishop, a former president of the American bishops' conference, compared Obama's election to the first man on the moon, meaning, one assumes, that both represent great leaps forward for the human race. However, it was La Stampa's interviewer, perhaps seeking an Italian angle on things, who brought up the question of whether the election of a black pope were possible. There is in fact only one answer to that question, as a moment's reflection will make clear. The archbishop answered that the cardinals could certainly be inspired by the Holy Spirit to vote for a black successor to Peter at the next conclave, which. he added, he hoped was as far off as possible. But of course, as the Archbishop hardly needed to point out. this has no connection with the election of Mama. but rather owes much to the internationalisation of Curia and College of Cardinals that was initiated by Blessed John XVII. The election of Barack Mama in the United States does not make the election of a black (which effectively means African) pope any more or less likely. The cardinal-electors are hardly likely to be swayed by events in the United States; there are no insuperable barriers to the election of an African pope that are suddenly overcome through the rise of Barack Obama.
However, at some hard to express gut level, the election of the first black president and the possible election of a future black pope are connected. The election of President Obama is, to use a mightily overworked phrase, an "iconic moment", which suggests that the long struggle for justice that black people have been engaged in is now completed. This is in itself debatable, but Archbishop Gregory seems to think that with the coming of Obama. the struggle for civil rights has effectively been concluded.
What is certainly beyond question is that all people of good will want justice and reconciliation between races. and want to see the dream of Dr Martin Luther King become reality. Nor is this a merely a nice thing we would all like, but an urgent and pressing need in the United States, as elsewhere. It is intolerable that the promise of equality contained in every democratic constitution has not been fulfilled. The election of Obama is a sign of a growing equality, a closer justice; but Obama is the inheritor of the hard work and sacrifices of those who took part in the Civil Rights movement; he himself did not bring this advance about single-handed. He was not at Selma and Montgomery, which is not of course to belittle him, but to show how his victory is the victory of the many not the one. still less "The One". Obama's election is not some messianic miracle, but one step on a long journey initiated many generations ago.
The desire to see a black pope, which was expressed by no less a figure than the then Cardinal Ratzinger before the last papal election. comes from a parallel though different movement within the Catholic Church. There never has been a campaign for racial equality inside the Catholic Church, because there never was any need for one, at least not in theory. Numerous Catholics have campaigned for racial equality in society motivated by the simple realisation that Catholicism means universal charity: everyone can form their own list, but mine would include, among many
others. St Peter Claver, Archbishop Desmond Hurley of Durban. Bartolome de as Casas, and those American nuns who, in full habits, marched through Selma, Alabama, in the hot springtime of 1965. The desire to see a black pope is not rooted in a wish to see the Catholic Church abandon its glass ceiling with regard to race given that the first pope was an illiterate fisherman from Galilee, the glass ceiling was smashed many years ago.
Rather, the desire to see a black pope is to see an unmistakeable sign of the internationalisation of the Church's central structures to which Archbishop Gregory refers. There was a time when Curia and Papacy were by default Italian; until the 19th century it was almost impossible for Cardinals resident outside Europe to get to Rome in time to take part in the conclave. In fact the first American cardinal to get to Rome before the conclave doors banged shut was Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore in 1904, thanks to an exceptionally swift Atlantic crossing. Now, with modern travel and communications, synods of bishops and meetings of the Sacred College are easily arranged, and, the atmosphere of the Curia is truly international. Thus the election of a pope from Africa would be a sign that the Church is international at every level, including the highest. Or, as Archbishop Gregory puts it in his interview. that the Church had given a sign of its true global identity. This is something the Church does at every papal election, but the conclave that elects a pope from Africa will give a sign that few can miss, and at which all will rejoice.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a moral theologian and author of Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007)