At the time of writing, Irish betting shop Paddy Power is offering 3/1 odds on Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana being the next pope. Just yesterday, with odds of 11/4, he was the clear favourite.
Photo: Paddy Power
InTrade is also offering good odds, with 22.5% likelihood.
That’s a big deal. Turkson is not only black but he is from Africa, and would be a clear change from an almost uninterrupted line of white, European Popes going back two millennia. What’s more surprising, Turkson isn’t the only black candidate in the running. Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria is another black, African contender who currently has 25/1 odds on Paddy Power.
It’s a pretty amazing moment — there have been a few black candidates for Pope in the last few decades, but none have come this close. In a show of goodwill, Paddy Power is offering to refund all losing bets if a black Pope is elected.
The buzz around Turkson for the papacy could indicate that the Catholic Church is finally acknowledging a key demographic shift. The New York Times reports that as many as 16 per cent of Catholics now live in Africa, and many observers believe the religion’s future lies with the continent.
Turkson could be a good choice — he’s well-liked within the College of Cardinals and known as a a great communicator. His age may also count in his favour — at 64, he is over a decade younger than Benedict was when he became Pope. The Cardinal even seems to be angling for the job, telling reporters this month, “I think in a way the church is always and has forever been ready for a non-European pope.”
But while Turkson is the favourite, it remains more likely that a European Pope will be chosen — in fact, we get the impression that odds of 3/1 for Turkson could be inflated.
As Naunihal Singh notes over at the New Yorker, if we’re talking about demographics we should probably be thinking about a Pope from Latin America, where 40 per cent of the world’s Catholics live. In fact, any kind of Spanish-speaking priest would probably make sense — Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina is currently placed at 14/1, and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from the Philippines isn’t too distant at 33/1.
Then, as always, there’s the Italians. Right now the second and third favourites at Paddy Power are from Italy, and we shouldn’t be too surprised if the Vatican’s bias for a local hero comes back into play — especially after two non-Italians in a row. One Italian candidate, Archbishop Angelo Scola, is currently at joint odds with Turkson on Paddy Power. Together, the two Italian favourites have odds of 9/20.
Then there’s the Africa issue. The Catholic Church in Africa is very disconnected from the rest of the Church. While Catholics in Europe talk about sexual politics and theological disputes, in Africa they talk about exorcism, animism, the growth of Islam, and condemnation of Western economic policy.
Turkson’s personal views are conservative, and sometimes controversial — he has been perceived as anti-gay by some observers. A Church that has seen so many scandals in recent years might be seeking someone seen as more open and liberal.
That’s before we even get into a particularly thorny issue — racism and racial sensitivity.
Turkson himself seems to know that this could be a problem. In an interview in 2010 with the National Catholic Reporter, Turkson, who lives in the Vatican, told John Allen Jnr:
The other day, for instance, somebody asked me about a black pope. I told him that obviously anybody who becomes a priest can become a bishop, a cardinal, whatever. But I also said point-blank that unfortunately, our world today is too colour-sensitive. This is the truth. Somebody could report that in a way that makes me sound racist, which would be unfortunate, but I think the truth needs to be said. When it comes to a black pope, a lot of people say it doesn’t matter, but the truth is that it would matter a lot.
When Allen asked him if racial sensitivity makes a black pope more or less likely he responded:
I can’t say what the cardinals might be thinking, but I can say this: I wouldn’t want to be that first black pope. I think he’ll have a rough time.
It’s worth noting that, even if he won, it’s unclear whether Turkson would really be considered the “first black Pope.” In the Catholic Church’s first 500 years of existence, Popes Victor I, Miltiades, and Gelasius I all came from Northern Africa, though whether they would be considered “black” or “African” today is a matter of debate.
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