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Going Global With A New Pope?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, you probably heard that girls are now getting the majority of Associate's, Bachelor's and Master's degrees. We'll talk with a scholar who says that that is in part because the educational system is failing boys in a big way. And we'll hear from parents too, coming up later in the program.

But first we want to talk more about Pope Benedict XVI's stunning decision to step down at the end of the month. He is the first pope in centuries to abdicate, and because there's no mourning period, the speculation has already begun about who will replace him, with cardinals from Ghana, Nigeria and Argentina being mentioned. And that's noteworthy because there has not been a pope in modern times who was born outside of Europe, although only a quarter of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics now live in what is now Europe.

We're joined now by Professor Anthea Butler. She teaches religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and I hope she doesn't mind my mentioned she's also a practicing Catholic. Thank you so much for joining us.

ANTHEA BUTLER: Thanks for having me. I prefer to say that I'm a dissenting Catholic.

MARTIN: OK. Well you can tell us more about that...

BUTLER: But practicing is good.

MARTIN: OK, you can tell us more about that in a minute. So first, Professor Butler, why is it that all of the popes in modern times have come from Europe?

BUTLER: Well, I think that's in part because they've had just, you know, basically all of the numbers; B) it's been very much a western, European enterprise; and C) if you think about sort of a missions history of 19th and early 20th century, the axis of the church's strength was always in Europe. And these other places, like America, Africa, Latin America, always think(ph) about as mission colonies.

So in a sense, you know, you have popes that come from the strongest place of the faith, Western Europe, but that's not the case anymore.

MARTIN: Where is the center of gravity of the church? I think it might be surprising to people to hear where the demographics really are.

BUTLER: Yeah, the demographics really are in Latin America, they're in Africa, they are in Asia. And so what, you know, some people refer to as a two-thirds world, that's where the real axis and the life of the church is right now, and I think that it would do the cardinals well to think about that as they meet in conclave.

MARTIN: Well, what are some of the issues, though, facing the church? And I do want to talk about some of the candidates, the potential candidates, if I can use that term, you know, in a moment. But in the United States we often talk about sort of the shrinking numbers of people who are attracted to the priesthood, in the United States and in Europe.

A number of the issues involving the Catholic Church in recent years have been that. And also, of course, these sex abuse scandals. What about in Latin America and Africa and Asia? Are those the same issues that the church is confronting there, or are they different?

BUTLER: They are the same issues, but they are confronting different sets of issues. I would say that the sex abuse scandals have hit them in the same way, but the press is very different, how they get dealt with. So where we see this on the front page of the newspaper, it doesn't get the same kind of press, although people do know about it.

The kinds of issues that they're dealing with are, you know, interfaith or interreligious issues. So in Latin America it's the encroachment of Pentecostals and evangelicals on the Catholic Church and sort of taking away from their numbers. And Africa, you know, in some places in Africa is the clash between Christians and Muslims. In Asia it's the same thing, but it's also about, you know, demographics, numbers, geography.

So yeah, I believe that you'll have to sort of start to watch and see how these things will really affect their choices and affect the choices of what's being done in the church, but we can't just simply think about that in terms of how we see this in North America or in Europe.

MARTIN: There are - two cardinals from Africa are getting a lot of attention in the Western press in particular right now, Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson and Cardinal Frances Arinze from Nigeria. Cardinal Turkson was actually asked about this a couple of years ago in an interview, and he drew the comparison with other leaders of African descent who've risen on the world's stage. Here he is.

CARDINAL PETER TURKSON: We have Kofi Annan from Ghana being the secretary general of the United Nations. He had problems but he still did it. And now it is, you know, Obama of the United States, and if by divine providence, because the church belongs to God, if God would wish to see a black man also as a pope, thanks be to God.

MARTIN: Understanding that divine providence is understood to play a role here, do the politics of, or what in the United States we would call the optics of the situation, weigh on the cardinals? Do they consider such matters?

BUTLER: Well, they need to. Whether or not they'll do it is another thing. But I think the optics are these right now, and this is really important to say. One is, you have a church that has been battered by scandal, and this has been part of Benedict XVI's legacy. I mean you have the sex abuse scandals that has just gone like wildfire everywhere. That's one.

He's had his butler who stole papers from him and got them published everywhere. You then have - on top of that you had a Vatican Bank scandal. So to have somebody like a Peter Turkson from Ghana helps to change the optics a lot for the church and I think that that's a way that they can point in another direction, to somebody who's a lot more vibrant, who has, you know, a vibrant ministry in Africa and will be able to bring a different face on the church.

MARTIN: Are they theologically in line with this Pope Benedict XVI, who has described - if I could just sort of use laymen's terms, as being a conservative, very concerned about sort of the fundamentalist or sort of a very conservative sort of view of the church, are these potential candidates from the developing world in line theologically with Pope Benedict XVI?

BUTLER: Yes, they are. Most of them have either been appointed by him - there are a few that also have been appointed by John Paul II. So in that sense, yes, they are very much in line, because Benedict was very concerned with conservatism and having what he would call a smaller but a purer church. The question now will be even despite the fact that these men who have been appointed by him will be conservative, what will be their legacy?

How will they want to shepherd the Church in a different direction, because these are very different times than 2005.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you mentioned that you consider yourself - you prefer the term dissenting Catholic rather than practicing, although you'll tolerate practicing. Can I ask what you mean by that, and is it in part that decision...

BUTLER: What I mean by dissenting is that I don't agree with everything, and you know, one - yeah. Let me just explain that. I think it brings up something that Pope Benedict himself said in his statement. His statement he said, you know, I've searched my conscience, and conscience is a very important thing for Catholics. And in my conscience I have a hard time dealing with a church right now that won't deal with the sex abuse scandals, that won't deal with issues of just, you know, plain things like birth control, what we're going through in this country right now, with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops pushing back on the healthcare mandate and claiming that's really just freedom - I think it's a stretch in their definition. But then I'm not reading it the way that they are. So, you know, there's a lot of us who don't believe everything that the Catholic Church practices, but we still consider ourselves to be Catholics.

And so I like to think of myself as little C Catholic sometimes, in that I want to be able to reach out to my Catholic brothers and sisters, but I don't agree with everything that the Catholic Church teaches at this particular point in time, no.

MARTIN: Hopefully we'll speak more as this process goes forward, which it will do very quickly. Professor Anthea Butler teaches religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and she reached us - we reached her in Philadelphia. Professor Butler, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BUTLER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.