Questions about the Third World "papabile"

I could have sworn, during the first few hours after the papal funeral, that I saw National Catholic Reporter superstar John L. Allen Jr. on at least three cable news shows at the same time. It was amazing and predictable and, let me add, he was doing a great job keeping a straight face as, over and over, the anchor people kept trying to find new ways to ask him the same question: Who are the front runners in the political race to be the next Holy Father?

I think it was on CNN that one anchor said something like, "So the lead is that we basically don't know?" To which Allen flatly answered, with that serious look of his: Yes, the lead is that we just don't know.

Meanwhile, journalists keep quoting that old Vatican saying that cardinals who enter the conclave as "papabile" -- or likely popes -- come out as cardinals. Everybody knows that is almost always true, but you can still search Google News for papabile and get 1,370 references. Journalists know the questions are all but meaningless, but we cannot stop asking them, even if it angers -- or worse, amuses -- the insiders and experts we are interviewing.

So the anti-Borg here at GetReligion has not been anxious to bring you all kinds of links to the best and worst of the "who is the next pope" coverage. There have been waves of it already and the waves will only get higher, especially now that the cardinals have chosen to remain all but silent. There are hundreds of stories about that silence.

Still, there are new angles to cover. I think the most interesting is linked to the rise of the Third World cardinals and the tensions that must exist behind the scenes between this voting bloc and the cardinals of the "frozen chosen," the Catholics in the declining sanctuaries of Europe and the West.

If this topic interests you, you might want to check out this major New York Times feature story on the clout of the Third World cardinals or even this recent column from Nicholas D. Kristof about the state of Christianity in Africa. Then there is this nice summary feature by reporter David Blair in The Daily Telegraph, titled "Centre of Christianity moves to Africa." Here is a crisp summary:

The pews of Africa's churches now hold 390 million worshippers_ more than three times the total of 35 years ago. Over the next two decades, Africa's congregation is likely to grow by another 200 million, causing a huge shift in the character of the Christian faith. Its heartland will move decisively southwards, away from the empty churches of Europe and into the developing world.

The Centre for the Study of Global Christianity, an American think-tank based in a Protestant seminary, is charting this transformation and its findings are dramatic. Already, its study of "World Christian Trends" shows that white Europeans and Americans account for only 43 per cent of the world's Christians.

None of this comes as any surprise to Africa's clergy, who are well used to conducting three-hour services before packed churches.

Then again, you may simply want to read the Atlantic Monthly cover story that planted the seed for all of these Third World stories in the first place -- "The Next Christianity" by scholar Philip Jenkins. Or you can click here to read it on a Catholic education site.

It's time for some serious questions about the Third World church, which is very much alive, but mysterious at the same time. These churches are said to be "conservative" and "orthodox," but what do these words mean in the context of the Third World, as opposed to the "Culture Wars" context of North America? If questions about homosexuality are the "elephant" in the American Catholic sanctuary, what are the unspoken questions in Africa, Asia and South America? Can Third World cardinals thrive in the dense bureaucracies of the Vatican?

If you see anyone asking these questions in print, please let us know.

UPDATE: You just knew this was coming -- a rate the papabile blog. My reaction? Only one blog of this kind at this point in the primaries?

Please respect our Commenting Policy