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Black Pope Wouldn't Be a First Like Obama Is

By Mike Tighe   |   Thursday, 06 Nov 2008 04:49 PM

Speculation in Roman Catholic circles that Barack Obama’s election as president could roll out the red carpet for a black Pope implies the historically inaccurate idea that such an event would be a first.

However, if the church’s cardinals selected a black Pope after Pope Benedict XVI dies, he wouldn’t be even the second or the third. But he would be the first in 1,500 years, according to beliefnet.com, a Web site that covers a wide range of religions and denominations.

And it’s a possibility, as Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria was touted for years as a potential candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II, before Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Pope John Paul’s nearly 27-year reign had marked a papal first, as he remains the only Polish Pope.

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who welcomed Obama’s election as "a great step forward for humanity and a sign that, in the United States, the problem of racial discrimination has been overcome," indicated to the Italian newspaper La Stampa that it bodes well for a black Pope.

The 60-year-old Gregory, the first black to lead the U.S. Catholic bishops, told the newspaper that Pope Benedict believes electing a black Pope would "send a splendid signal to the world." That’s especially true in light of the fact that even the chance of becoming a priest was remote for a black in the United States as recently as 50 years ago. Many who even tried were steered instead toward becoming a brother, a religious status that falls short of priestly ordination.

Although Obama’s election lends credence to the fact that anything is possible, it’s important to acknowledge several facts before becoming lost in the hubris:

  • The Catholic Church never has been, and never will be, a democracy. Indeed, the voters in the College of Cardinals caucus behind closed doors. That makes it hard even to find out who finishes second unless a disgruntled faction leaks it.

  • Technically, it’s possible for even a layman to be elected Pope, although Obama is out of that picture because he’s not Catholic. But it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a layman to become Pope. The cardinals who vote just won’t go there.

  • A bigger Catholic conundrum in the United States is wondering when, or whether, a U.S. prelate might sit on Peter’s throne, a thorn in the side of those who believe the odds are stacked, unfairly, against that possibility because Rome considers the U.S. too materialistic for such an honor.

    Meanwhile, the cardinals could elect a black candidate when they choose a successor to the 80-year-old Benedict, Gregory said. Popes almost never retire, but serve until death.

    "My own election as head of the U.S. Bishops Conference was an important signal,” he told La Stampa, according to Times Online. In 2001, the American bishops elected someone they respected regardless of his race, and the same thing could happen with the election of a Pope."

    Many in church circles considered Cardinal Arinze a front-runner in 2005, based partly on his status and achievements, and partly on the fact that Africa is a growth area for the Catholic Church. The denomination of about 1.4 billion worldwide also is strong among Hispanics.

    To set the historical record straight, if Arinze or another black eventually were elected pontiff, he would be the fourth in church history, according to beliefnet.com. The others were Victor I, who was Pope from 186-197 and who decided that Easter should be celebrated on a Sunday; Pope Militiades, who served from 311-314; and Pope Gelasius, who sat in Peter’s chair from 492-496. All three eventually were named saints.

    A beliefnet.com forum discussing black Popes includes an important caveat: These three served during a time when racial prejudice was not an issue.

    'It's important to recognize that, while there were three black Popes in the early days from Africa, it was during a time when we didn't have racial prejudice,” biblical scholar Cain Hope Felder of Howard University's School of Divinity was quoted as telling DiversityInc.com. “There was no concept of race in the modern sense."

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