Pope leaves mixed legacy—will successor be Black?

Pope John Paul II, who died April 2, leaves a mixed legacy. In his native Poland, and elsewhere in the Communist world, he was a catalyst of revolutionary change in the ’80s, but this same anti-Communism caused him to ally with Reagan and the U.S. in the Cold War, and move against the Liberation Theology current in Latin America. Few eulogies recall the bitter dispute between the Vatican and Nicaraguan priests serving in the revolutionary Sandinista regime. Recounted the Haitian writer Jean-Pierre Cloutier in a 1987 essay, Theologies: Liberation vs. Submission:

In Nicaragua, the Pope called Liberation Theology…a schism, siding with a staunch critic of the Sandinista government, Managua Archbishop Miguel de Obando y Bravo… The Pontiff went even further in barring Fathers Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, respectively ministers of Culture and Education, from performing religious functions. Similar measures were taken against Maryknoll Father Miguel D’Escoto, minister of Foreign Affairs, and Father Edgard Parrales, Nicaraguan ambassador to the Organization of American States. In early 1985, each received a letter ordering him to resign from his post or be suspended from priesthood. The four said they would ignore the Vatican orders. Father Miguel D’Escoto commented by saying that his decision had always been the same, to serve God by serving his people.

John Paul II also cracked down on the autonomy of the local church in Chiapas, Mexico, where a post-Cold War "Indigenous Theology" emerged. In 1993, the Vatican ordered that Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the foremost advocate of Indigenous Theology, step down, accusing him of doctrinal errors. When the Zapatista revolt broke out months later, it became obvious that Bishop Ruiz was the only man in a position to broker a peace dialogue, and the Vatican backed off. But it continued to try to rein in local diocese efforts to organize the Indians of Chiapas. (See WW4 REPORT #62)

However, John Paul II also moved to institutionalize certain aspects of Indigenous Theology—if only to politically contain the current. In July 2002, he canonized Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the Nahuatl Indian to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in 1531, the first indigenous Mexican to be made a saint. (Dallas Morning News, April 3)

With the threat of Communism gone after 1989, the Pontiff offered occasional warnings of the dangers of unrestrained capitalism. In 2000, he issued a limited apology for the Church’s complicity in anti-Semitism and genocide. In 1984, he issued an unequivocal apology for the Church’s persecution of Galileo, although he never did for the 1493 Papal Bull endorsing the colonization of the Americas—despite protests from Native rights groups. He vainly attempted to head off the 1991 Gulf War through mediation, and forthrightly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. (See WW4 REPORT #s 65 & 77). He made certain efforts to promote a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and he appointed the first Palestinian, Father Elias Michael Chacour, as special consultant to the Holy See on Christian-Jewish dialogue. (See WW4 REPORT #87)

In a similar spirit, there is now speculation that the next Pope could be from Latin America or Africa–which, contrary to popular assumptions, would not be unprecedented. There have actually been three confirmed African popes, although the last was over 1,500 years ago: Victor I (189-199 AD), Miltiades I (311-314) and Gelasius (492-496). All three are today saints. (AOL Black Voices, Nov. 18, 2003)

Asia, Africa and Latin America have 44 of the 117 cardinals eligible to vote for the new Pontiff—compared with 58 from Europe and 11 from the U.S. Voting, to begin later this month, continues until one cardinal is backed by a two-thirds majority. (UK Mirror, April 4) But the distribution of cardinals has not kept pace with demographics. In 1900, 68% of the world’s Catholics were in Europe; today just 25% are, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. (CSM, April 5)