e-mail us
New cardinal symbolizes direction of global Catholicism

NCR Staff

After watching 800 Hondurans scream their new cardinal’s name and gyrate like teenage girls at a Ricky Martin concert, after reviewing waves of media speculation about the possibility of a Latin American pope, those who followed the Feb. 21 consistory in Rome found themselves asking this question more than once:

Is Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, 58, cardinal of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, the future of the Catholic church?

To borrow a phrase from former President Clinton, it depends on what you mean by “is.”

Most handicappers believe that after John Paul’s long pontificate, Rodríguez is unlikely to be elected pope. Electors are expected to lean to an older man.

But in the sense that Rodríguez symbolizes the direction global Catholicism is heading -- Third World, multilingual, multicultural, more invested in social concerns than doctrinal debates -- he may well be the face of the future.

To the delight of crowds at the Feb. 21 consistory, it is a face with a prodigious capacity to smile.

Rodríguez is emblematic of a coming “Latino boom” in the College of Cardinals. Of 135 cardinals under 80 and thus eligible to elect the next pope, 27, or 20 percent, are Latin Americans. Among the 23 cardinals 65 or younger, however, eight are Latin Americans -- 35 percent. (Add in the one Spaniard and one Portuguese, and the “Latin-Iberian block” becomes 43 percent of the 65-and-under group).

The Latin flavor of the college is thus destined to grow.

On Feb. 24, Rodríguez gave five journalists an hour-long interview that ranged from the state of Central America’s fragile democracies to his love of piloting a plane. He learned English by reading aviation manuals.

A Salesian priest, Rodríguez entered seminary at 16, yet has led anything but a sheltered clerical life. He is an accomplished pianist who also holds a degree in psychoanalysis from a secular university in Austria. He speaks seven languages, including English.

As one of only eight cardinals under 60, Rodríguez’s theological formation occurred largely after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He studied moral theology and calls Fr. Bernard Häring his “mentor.”

Häring, a German Redemptorist whose emphasis on “responsible freedom” as opposed to blind obedience frequently irked Vatican authorities, taught at Rome’s Alphonsian Academy, where Rodríguez studied in the early 1970s. His 1974 thesis, a study of Paul’s moral thought, breathes the air of the council’s personalistic approach. He wrote that the moral life cannot be reduced to “a series of prohibitions,” but instead should be a loving response to God’s “call to the dignity, the nobility, the ideal of a new creature in Christ.”

Rodríguez studied for a semester in Newton, N.J., in the late 1960s, and has visited the United States several times since. From 1995 to 1999 he served as president of CELAM, the federation of Latin American bishops’ conferences.

Rodríguez has taken few clear stands on contested doctrinal issues or matters of church politics but is widely respected as a champion of social justice. He said he lives in a part of the world where poverty breeds such desperate acts as kidnapping babies at supermarkets and ransoming them to their mothers in exchange for groceries.

“I am quite clear that justice is the agenda for the 21st century in all our countries in Latin America,” he said.

Uppermost on this agenda is cancellation of Third World debt, which Rodríguez has called “a tombstone pressing down on us.” In June 1999, Rodríguez and rock star Bono from U2 joined forces at a G-8 meeting to present a petition with 17 million signatures demanding debt relief.

Unlike some Latin American prelates who have risen to prominence under John Paul, Rodríguez was never identified with right-wing reaction against liberation theology, a blend of post-Vatican II Catholicism with leftist political movements during the 1970s and 1980s. He earned a reputation as a mediator between his country’s military government and the more liberal wing of the church. “All extremism is fatal,” he said in 1983 as auxiliary bishop of Tegucigalpa.

The moral authority Rodríguez enjoys was evident in 1997, when a commission he chaired recommended converting Honduras’ military police into a civilian force. Shortly after the commission finished its work, Rodríguez went to Houston for minor surgery. In his absence, parliament elected him the country’s new chief of police, though he declined to serve.

Rodríguez said Latin American societies badly need formation in democratic values. Within the church, he spots an incongruity in leaders who preach democracy and practice absolutism.

“We that have Indian blood in our veins have the temptation to be chiefs,” he said. “Many times when you have a layman that is given a small part of authority, he becomes a chief. When you have a pastor in a parish, he says, ‘In my parish I am the one who commands.’ That’s not the way to build democracy.”

He is upbeat about collaboration with laity. Rodríguez said that 15,000 men and women fan out every week in his country to read scriptures, preach, and in some cases take Communion to parts of Honduras that priests rarely see. There are only 400 priests in the nation of 6 million Catholics.

Observers in Honduras report that Rodríguez himself lacks contact with people at the grass roots. At the same time, he is said to be among the more approachable cardinals.

A long-time observer tells of watching him on a plane surrounded by passengers wanting his attention. One especially zealous man walked Rodríguez down the corridor as they got off; when Rodríguez attempted to say goodbye, explaining that he needed to use the restroom, the man simply walked in with him.

Rodríguez took it all in good humor.

Because he has a responsibility “for the whole church,” Rodríguez said he is concerned that the church grow in collegiality. Yet he said he does not chafe under curial control. “In general, the ocean is very big,” he said. “We have a great feeling of freedom.”

The new cardinal claims to be unimpressed by talk that he could become pope. “It makes me laugh,” he said. “I know that when the time comes, the Holy Spirit is the one that is going to act.”

Does he think the Holy Spirit might lead the Latin Americans to vote as a block?

“Who knows?” Rodríguez says. Then a characteristically wide grin: “That would be a good sign of collegiality!”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

For the complete text of Allen’s interview with Rodríguez, go to NCR’s Web site http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm

National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001