Zero Hour at the Vatican: Bitter Struggle for Control of the Catholic Church

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The members of the curia are worried about the latest developments in Latin America, where there is a shortage of tens of thousands of priests, and where many rural churches are abandoned. Millions are defecting to the Protestant Pentecostal churches. The Protestant pastors are true entertainers, their services are shows for tens of thousands of people, they sing and dance, and many sell CDs by the millions.

The Catholic Church hasn't found an effective response yet, though it has made some rather helpless attempts. Some Catholic priests, known as pop padres, are now holding their services in giant venues, and their masses have come to resemble pop concerts. Still, this hasn't stopped the growth of the Protestant churches.

Africa too is hoping for a change of course. In 2010, 15.5 percent, or about 180 million of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, were Africans. Thanks to demographic changes, their continent, along with Asia, is among the major growth regions in the global faith market. Tens of thousands of church institutions built by missionaries in the last 150 years, such as schools, hospitals, orphanages and AIDS wards, feel like islands of hope on a continent plagued by mass poverty. The church wields considerable political influence in countries that are unable to perform their social duties. The Catholic Church is considered the only functioning national institution in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example.

But the popularity of Pentecostal churches and Protestant sects is also on the rise. Both proclaim a simple feel-good gospel, a much more appealing message to many of the poor than the doctrines of the Catholics, Anglicans and mainstream Protestants. An African pope could be more adept at meeting this challenge; at least many Africans think so.

The churches in Africa are still filled on Sundays. White missionaries rave about the deep religiosity and strong faith of the Africans, and about their colorful liturgy and experience of spirituality. Some believe that Africa exudes the rejuvenating force that could revive the leaderless official church of the north. The church does a lot of good in Africa, and yet it is also controversial. Catholic preachers are among those in Uganda who are fomenting hatred of gays in Uganda. And on the subject of AIDS, most Catholic dignitaries in Africa adhere to the recommendations of old men from the Vatican, demonizing the use of condoms. When it comes to birth control, same-sex marriage, homosexuality or assisted suicide, they are often even more dogmatic than the Vatican. 'Obama of the Vatican'

"For God's sake, let's hope it's not an African!" Stefan Hippler, a foreign priest in South Africa, said in April 2005 before the white smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel marking the beginning of Benedict's papacy. The ultra-conservative Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria, now 80, was among the favorites at the time.

This time around, though, Hippler would consider 64-year-old Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson a good choice. The Ghanaian, already dubbed the "Obama of the Vatican," is multilingual and has been a member of the Roman curia for more than three years. He is also ranked highly on gambling sites. Turkson is relatively young and open-minded on social issues. He represents positions of Liberation Theology and advocates a cautious correction of course on the issue of condoms.

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