Sunday, February 17, 2013

First African Pope? Why? There Have Been Three Already

I used to require students in my classes on race, racism, and race relations to read Randal Robinson's seminal book entitled "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks" (2000).

More than just a few of them, both undergraduate and graduate, were surprised to find out from Robinson that in the first millennium there were three popes in the Catholic Church who were African or of African descent.

If you are in doubt or just curious see Chapter 1 (Reclaiming our Ancient Self) of Robinson's book or see Cyprian Davis, a professor of Church History at St Meinrad School of Theology, for a fuller online discussion.

The Liber Pontificalis - which Professor Davis points out is a biographical record used by the Catholic Church to chronicle details of each pope -  lists the three African popes as:
Pope St Victor I (ca186-198)
Pope St Miltiades (311-14)
Pope St Gelasius (492-496)
Are you as surprised as my former students were?  I mean this record is hardly known, is it not?  Just today I asked a few catholics I know and each one was quite emphatic that all popes from the time of the early church till now were of European descent.

They obviously don't know their own history.

There is a more troubling reason - well annoying really - for raising this issue here.  If you read some of the media commentary now there is the strong suggestion that it is necessary or desirous for the next pope to be African or black.

We have already dealt with the issue of an African pope so let's consider the notion of a black pope.

I think it important to note that all three popes above were north Africans from what is now often referred to as the Mahgreb.

It is very likely that some will point out that the residents of the Mahgreb are mostly Arab (brown) and not black like those south of the Sahara.

This is foolhardy territory for a host of reasons.

Foremost is the historical fact that the Catholic Church predates the constructed concept of race.  In fact, when each of the three African popes served the church the concept of race was not even in circulation.

What we have come to know as race today is a relatively new concept that started to gain currency in the 16th century when the rule of the Catholic Church in Europe was being vehemently contested.

The idea of race is alien to the three Abrahamic religions even though there may have been phenotypic recognition and even discrimination on the basis of skin color preferences for example.

Race is obviously more than just a narrow reference to skin color.

That aside, I think it preposterous to expect that putting a black pope into the Vatican will change anything about an institution that is older than the concept of race itself.

This is the same kind of essentialist nonsense that gave us a black man in the White House and I need not remind any thinking person that Obama's race has not improved the behavior of the institution he heads.

On the contrary to essentialist expectations, Obama is the most vile of modern presidents to inhabit the institution of American government despite the color of his skin.

And, Africans and black and brown people anywhere have fared worse under his reign despite his black skin.

Similarly, a black pope is no more likely to make gay people feel any safer inside the Catholic Church nor is he more likely to adopt changes that will allow women to be priests.  And you can forget about condoms and the right to an abortion too.

If anything the next pope should be chosen on his will to expose pedophilia in the ranks of the church - that would be a great leap forward no matter where he may come from.

But all we can be sure of now is that the Catholic Church will continue to stand and that the next pope will be a man.



cosmicyoruba said...

I really enjoyed reading this! I've always been aware that there were African popes but did not know much about them.

It is very likely that some will point out that the residents of the Mahgreb are mostly Arab (brown) and not black like those south of the Sahara.

This is foolhardy territory for a host of reasons.

I completely agree with your reasons. For me it's even more silly because the indigenous people of the Maghreb are Amazigh (Berber) and there are Amazigh clans that are indeed Black. Not to mention, looking at the time period in which these North Africans became popes, this happened before the Arab invasion of the region so these popes have a higher chance of being Black as we know today than Arab.

Ridwan said...

Hi Cosmicyoruba:

Great to hear from you and thanks kindly for adding needed detail and complexity to my post.

It is very likely as you say that one if not all of the three African popes hailed from the Amazigh.

I watched a discussion on RT today where a few commentators were pointing out that a black pope would consolidate the growth of Catholicism in Africa.

Some mention was also made that a black pope was necessary to stem the expansion of Islam on the continent.

It boggles my mind. And I wonder what the fallout will be - if any - when a pope from Europe or perhaps 'Latin America' is chosen instead?

Peace to you.