Southern Discomfort in Election of Pope

Christopher Dickey and Mac Margolis on the election of an African or Latin American pope.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty (L),Franco Origlia/Getty (R)

The greatest divide in the Catholic Church is the Tropic of Cancer. No, not the infamous old Henry Miller novel, but the actual line of latitude that circles the globe just south of Miami, Luxor, Calcutta and Beijing.

Above the Tropic, there’s a crisis of faith, but a surfeit of popes.

Indeed, all the popes in history – even the African popes of early Christendom – have come from north of the line. Yet in Europe and the United States, certainly, the church is in crisis. Below the Tropic, on the other hand, the Catholic Church continues to grow dramatically. So the conventional wisdom in Rome is that the future lies in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia. And the cliché of every conclave is that this time there could be a pope who comes from the south and speaks for its peoples.

In fact, this time the first part of that prediction may come true. One of the cardinals from Brazil, Odilo Scherer of São Paulo, is deemed by the most seasoned Vatican watchers to have a very good chance. And a cardinal from Ghana, Peter Appiah Turkson, has been near the top of the bookmakers’ charts as the next pope to be, or at least to bet on, since the day Benedict XVI announced his resignation.

But whether either of these men – or other less-touted contenders from Argentina and Honduras, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sri Lanka -- truly will speak for Catholics beneath the Tropic is another matter entirely.

Turkson probably blew his chances with his fellow cardinals when he gave several interviews right after Benedict announced he’d resign and seemed almost to be campaigning as the Great Black Hope for the Holy See. The affable and loquacious-to-a-fault Turkson also managed to turn off many who would have hoped an African would bring more worldly tolerance to the job than all those pasty Europeans. In an interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN he tried to sidestep the issue of rampant pedophilia in the Catholic Church by suggesting homosexuality (not at all the same thing) was just not an issue for Africans because it was just so unacceptable in their culture.

That is an interesting position for a cardinal from Ghana to take, given that the former Ministry of Women and Children in Accra has just been renamed the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, with a commitment to make sure gays and lesbians have equal protection under the law.

Scherer, on the other hand, is a Brazilian who’s not only of German descent but very much of German culture, which is almost certainly one of the reasons he gained such favor with the ex-Benedict from Bavaria. No, Scherer’s not a “boy from Brazil”; there’s no taint of exiled Nazis in his past. But he did grow up as one of 11 children from a family of German immigrants in the rural town of Cerro Grande in the southernmost state of Brazil, far from the excitement and openness of Rio. When it comes to Latin personalities, he’s more cold fish than carioca.

In Brazil, Odilo (born Otto) Scherer is known as a quiet, discreet, studious and ultra loyal Vatican insider. After a stellar rise from padre to bishop, he became a cardinal in 2007, at age 58, one of the youngest to reach that rank in the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. He served for eight years in the Congregation of Bishops, the Vatican body that names bishops around the world. He also served on the board of the Vatican Bank – a post that could come back to haunt him, even if his ostensible role was as a reformer of a notoriously corrupt institution.

The Brazilian press is hyperventilating over Scherer making the shortlist as proof positive that this rising Latin regional power has finally arrived on the world stage. Of course he is conservative when it comes to issues like same sex marriage and abortion. Nobody would be talking about him as a potential pope were he otherwise. But he’s also worked to be in tune with the ambitious, plugged-in culture of the present in São Paulo. He uses Twitter on his iPhone and shows occasional flashes of humor. “I hope the path to heaven is even more congested than the streets of São Paulo,” he tweeted after a particularly bad traffic jam.

But Brazil, like several other Latin American countries, has had a history of deep ideological and social divides among its clergy. Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI the priests who rose through the ranks were those considered reliably rightwing. And it’s clear the Brazilian clergy, whether for political, personal or pastoral reasons, are not crazy about Cardinal Scherer.

When journalist J. D. Vital, a scholar of the Brazilian church, asked around about Scherer's chances of becoming pope, he got an earful. “Only those who don’t know him, could think he has a chance,” said one influential priest and former Scherer aide cited by Vital. “Authoritarian,” “cold,” and “someone who doesn’t listen,” are some of the qualifiers being whispered about Scherer in the Brazilian church. Vital, who spent hours with senior Brazilian clergy to write his recent book,, The Making of a Bishop, heard again and again  that for all the talk of Scherer representing the new face of Catholicism, his popularity in Rome simply is not mirrored among men of the cloth.

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One clear indication: Scherer twice failed in his bid to be elected president of the Brazilian National Conference of Bishops. One of the country's most prestigious clerics, 88-year-old Dom Serafim Fernandes de Araujo, archbishop emeritus of Belo Horizonte, has decided not to travel Rome. Whether infirmity or utter lack of enthusiasm is the reason remains unclear.

Of course, sheer patriotism makes many Brazilians, and not a few people in other southern climes, thrill to the notion that someone from the south, however northern his background, finally wears the papal crown and speaks infallibly in the service of the Lord. But if Scherer is the first “southern” pope, in fact, many in the south may soon be reminded of a famous line from the Tropic of Cancer written by Henry Miller novel: “I have found God, but he is insufficient.”