African Americans won both Best Actor Oscars this year. Now it looks like the next Pope may be black. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican?s doctrinal chief, says an African papacy would ?only be to the Church?s benefit? and a ?wonderful sign for all Christianity.?

Cardinal Ratzinger, 74, is viewed as a major decision-maker in the conclave that will eventually choose the Pope?s successor. He says that the Church?s African leaders have all the qualities required for the papacy and that it?s entirely possible that the ?next Pope may come from there.? Yet he admits that racism could prevent an African succession and that there are still ?great misgivings in the West about the Third World.?

Cardinal Ratzinger is the most powerful figure in the college of cardinals, and his most of his African colleagues share his conservative politics. The most obvious African candidate for the papacy is Cardinal Francis Arinze, a 69-year-old Nigerian. He was already a stand-in for the ailing Pope at a ceremony to open an African synod.

Another possible candidate is the newly created Cardinal Wilfred Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa. A Franciscan and a moderate, he is youthful (for a Pope) at 61 years old. Also in the running is Msgr. Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kisangani of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is just 62 and not yet a cardinal.

Italian cardinals want their country to regain the papacy the next time, after losing it for the first time in 476 years with the election in 1978 of the Polish-born Pope John Paul II, who is now 82 years old. However, Italy?s share of the College of Cardinals is now at an all-time low of about 15 per cent. Half a century ago it was about 60 per cent.

Western Europe has also lost its domination of the college of cardinals, in favor of Latin America, Africa, Asia and now also Eastern Europe?all places where Catholicism is still growing. The great majority of practicing Catholics live in the developing world and an African papacy is the logical outcome of this trend.

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