Published: April 16 2005 03:00 | Copyright The Financial Times
Some Nigerians refer half-jokingly to the “coup from heaven” that took place in 1998 – the sudden death of General Sani Abacha, the repressive military dictator, a few months after a visit by Pope John Paul II.
For many in Africa it would take another miracle for Cardinal Francis Arinze, the Vatican-based Nigerian who was part of that papal delegation, to succeed as pontiff. The continent has not produced a Pope for more than 1,500 years, since St Gerasius I, believed to have been of African parentage, in the 5th century.
A combination of three factors underpins Cardinal Arinze’s potential for the papacy which Vatican watchers believe make him a favourite to succeed Pope John Paul II.
First is the rapid increase in the number of Catholics in Africa, now estimated at 135m, or 13 per cent of the world total. The second is his experience in reaching out, like John Paul II, to other religions, coming from a continent where established Christian churches bump up against Islam and a fast-expanding Pentecostalist movement. The third and most controversial is his adherence, again in the mould of the late pontiff, to rigid Catholic mores with respect to the family, gay unions, abortion and contraception.
Among Cardinal Arinze’s posts during his 20 years in the Roman Curia he has served as president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, an ecclesiastical institution that aims to promote links between the world’s religions. Hailing from a nation that lies on the fault-line between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, his knowledge of Islam is seen as an asset by many Catholics who think the next Pope should bridge the gap between the west and Islam in much the same way as John Paul II was a bridge to the Communist countries during the cold war.
As Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Arinze enjoys high standing as a cleric, appealing to the traditional wing of the church. But his conservatism places him at the heart of the heated debate about the church’s stance towards contraception, particularly in Africa, which is grappling with the combined impact of rapid population growth and the spread of HIV/Aids.
While the Catholic Church in Africa has become increasingly involved in the response to the epidemic and awareness about the disease, its continued opposition to the use of condoms outrages many HIV/Aids activists. Placing the emphasis instead on sexual abstinence, Catholic leaders have frequently challenged the effectiveness of condoms as a weapon against infection and argued that they encourage promiscuous behaviour.
At a local level, this position is sometimes muted, and individual priests and nuns have distributed condoms for disease prevention. But only a minority of senior Catholic churchmen have condoned condom use.
One, Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenberg in South Africa, has maintained that condoms can be seen “not as a means of preventing the transmission of life, but rather as a means of preventing the transmission of death to another”. Bishop Maurice Piat of Port-Louis, Mauritius, has described condoms as “a stopgap, a lesser evil”, while arguing that HIV/Aids should be fought “not with rubber but with human resources”.
As the epidemic took root in Africa, Cardinal Arinze did not openly address the issue of whether condoms should be promoted. “He opposed poor moral values, just as John Paul II did. It wasn’t a question of whether condoms are a good or bad thing, but more about discouraging promiscuity,” said Father Felix Ajakaye, a spokesman for Nigeria’s Catholic secretariat. “Being a good Catholic does not mean you are old-fashioned.”
Experts say upholding strict Catholic marriage doctrine is problematical in many African societies, in view of the widespread practice of traditional weddings, informal unions, polygamy and inter-denominational marriages, in a continent where different brands of Christianity are often mixed together and distinctions between them blurred.
The 72-year-old Cardinal Arinze’s conservative instincts may be seen as a strong point should he be promoted on the thinking that he could convey those values to Africa’s burgeoning Christian population, of which Nigeria accounts for the largest part – some 20m. His views are unlikely to set him against those who fear the Vatican could be hijacked by liberal thinkers.