In an era of progressive change, it is common that optimistic pundits around the world hint that, sooner or later, a black man could rise to be the most influential religious figure in the world. A black Pope!
In the last 600 years of papal history no Pope has ever abdicated. But Monday's announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he was resigning at the end of February could present an extraordinary opportunity for either Peter Turkson, 64, a Roman Catholic Cardinal from Ghana who has been serving as cardinal since the 1950's or Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze, once the world's youngest bishop, but at 80 years of age, no longer.
Pope Benedict was known as 'God's Rottweiller' when he was a cardinal
An optimist might say... "Turkson and Arinze's conservative stance should win over the conservative cardinals in the 120-strong electoral college, while their appearance would appeal to the liberals". When you add in the 10 African cardinals eligible to vote, that the next Pope will be African is a slam dunk.
Whilst pundits have begun to tip the likes of Turkson and Arinze to take over from Pope Benedict XVI, the odds of a black pontiff in a historically European Vatican lie in the hands of the liberal and progressive cardinals. A historically small group...
In spite of their conservative stance, Turkson and Arinze are most certain of the votes of liberal cardinals. The select group of holy men who believe in racial equality will undoubtedly welcome the idea of a Pope from the developing world. Especially given the fact that the developing world continues to make up a significant slice of Catholic church membership – one in four Catholics is African.
Despite a new election rule at the Vatican stipulating that a new Pope needs the backing of two-thirds of the electoral college, there is a conjecture that highlights the enthusiasm about the prospects of a black Pope among many non European Catholics. The number of non European Catholics keeps on swelling. A 2010 Pew Forum study showed that there were some 516.5 million Christians in sub-Saharan Africa against a mere nine million a century earlier.
No doubt, the emergence of a black Pope would be the icing on an era of tokenism, especially for a continent that boasts of a 23.6 percent share of the world's Christians. Many see the Vatican as being rather lopsided in its representation of Africa in an era where Christianity is practiced more outside of its historical borders.
The Middle East, North Africa -the birthplace of Christianity - count 0.6 percent whilst Europe, counts 25.9 percent. In 1910, 66.3 percent of Christians were Europeans and only 1.4 percent were African. Asians made up 4.5 percent in 1910 and now make up 13.1 percent of the Christian population. The Americas registered 27.1 percent in 1910 and are now 36.8 percent.
Yet, whilst the largest flocks of the Catholic Church are Latin Americans and Africans, the Papal seat has never been occupied by a non-white. The election of the United States' 44th president, the first black person to occupy the White House, was hailed around the world. But will it be out of the ordinary to see a non European becoming the 266th Pope?
But one structural reason may prove too much for this optimistic vision. Pope Benedict was known as 'God's Rottweiller' when he was a cardinal, for his tough conservative views. During his tenure, he has appointed many cardinals who echo his views. The visionary election of an African pope may prove one step too far for the cloistered bishops in Rome.