He’s from one of the poorest, smallest and most troubled countries in Latin America, but Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga has so much star power and charisma that he’s often mentioned on short lists of candidates to succeed Pope Benedict XVI.
The archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Rodríguez Maradiaga would cut a striking contrast to the ailing, scholarly Benedict. He is tall, with a youthful look that belies his age (70). He can play the saxophone, can fly an airplane and has taught college-level chemistry and physics. He has campaigned for third-world debt relief alongside U2 rocker Bono.
At a time when the church is looking to consolidate its support in the developing world, scholars say the selection of Rodríguez Maradiaga would send a clear sign about the Vatican’s future orientation — at least geographically — toward the global south. His choice would electrify the faithful in Latin America, home to roughly 40 percent of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Catholics.
Rodríguez Maradiaga is the first-ever cardinal from Honduras and only the second prelate to reach that rank from Central America. But he is a well-known figure at the Vatican and beyond, now serving his second term as president of Caritas Internationalis, which directs Catholic charities and social service organizations around the world.
After arriving in Rome this month for the conclave, Rodríguez Maradiaga played down the significance of national or regional factors for the cardinals considering whether to elect the first non-European pope in history.
“It doesn’t really matter so much whether he is European or not; it depends more on the huge challenges that the new pope today has to face up to,” he said in an interview with Italy’s RAI television network. “More than the question of nationality, we need to think who is the most appropriate person for responding to these challenges.”
As he rose through the church hierarchy over the years, Rodríguez Maradiaga developed a reputation as an untiring advocate for the poor who has taken a dim view of what he has called “neoliberal capitalism,” saying it “carries injustice in its genetic code.”
His country, Honduras, has the world’s highest murder rate, and its rampant corruption and lawlessness have made it a haven for transnational drug traffickers in recent years. The cartels have repeatedly threatened Rodríguez Maradiaga’s life; the window of his office was shattered by gunfire in 2010.
Said to be fluent in six languages, including English and Italian, Rodríguez Maradiaga has run into trouble with organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Defamation League because of his candor.
He drew ire with comments made a decade ago that likened media coverage of the church’s sex abuse scandals to the persecution of Catholics in the Roman era and under Stalin and Hitler. His suggestion that Jewish interests were driving the coverage in order to divert attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only made matters worse.
Still, Vatican observers see him as a plausible candidate because of his global profile, pastoral talent and proven abilities as an administrator.
“Rodríguez Maradiaga seems ideally cut out for the part of ‘Missionary-in-Chief,’ ” Vatican chronicler John L. Allen Jr. wrote in the National Catholic Reporter, describing him as “a charismatic polyglot with vast experience of playing on a big international stage.”