“God is Brazilian,” goes a well-known saying in the world’s largest Catholic country. Soon, the pope might be too.
Head of the diocese of Sao Paulo, South America’s largest, Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, 63, would be a pick at once novel and conventional.
As the first New World pope, his selection would be a nod to the shift south of the global church, away from Europe and toward Latin America and Africa.
Yet born to German parents in the cattle state of Rio Grande do Sul, he would also represent the continuity of European linage at the head of the modern church -- becoming the second ethnic German in a row to sit on the throne of St. Peter. He has been gently critical of the Vatican’s handling of a series of scandals. But considered by observers to be a moderate conservative, few see him as the kind of leader who would radically alter the path of the church.
“In a sense, he could strike many cardinals as a safe bridge between the church’s past and its future,” John Allen, a long time Vatican watcher, wrote of Scherer in the National Catholic Reporter.
Scherer has chastized the Brazilian supreme court for a ruling last year allowing medical abortions of severely impaired fetuses, has denounced same sex unions in his home country, and has said he sees little gain from changing church rules on clerical celibacy.
Though now presiding over a diocese on the other side of the world, Scherer has spent significant time in Rome, studying there as a seminarian and being posted in the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops from 1994 to 2001. Since rising to the role of archbishop in 2007, however, Scherer has also become viewed as an outspoken, dogged theologian willing to take calculated risks.
He has butted heads with students and staff who opposed his choice to head the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo, steadfastly standing by his decision in the face of strikes and protests. He has talked of the moral imperative of backing environmental protection in Brazil’s rain forest. He has praised aspects of the controversial liberation theology movement in Latin America, a neo-Marxist religious doctrine aimed at boosting the poor. But he has done so without presenting himself as a radical.
In South America’s largest city, he is known for riding Sao Paulo’s subways and popping up on Brazil’s late night talk show circuit. In 2009, he bantered with Jose Soares – the David Letterman of Brazil – over everything from premarital sex to contraception. He laughed as his host, after asking if priests could donate blood (yes, they can), followed up by asking whether they could also donate semen.
“He is a theologian and represents the views of the Vatican, but he’s also coming from a social reality where there is a marked difference from what the church actually teaches,” Kenneth Serbin, a University of San Diego historian whose research has focused on the Brazilian Catholic church. “Coming from this social and cultural situation is going to make him more sensitive for the need for change on some of these issues.”
But, Serbin added, “he is going to be seen by many progressive Catholics in Brazil as someone that’s too conservative.”
He has also been described by some as anything but charismatic, but is viewed as an introspective and formidable theologian -- not wholly unlike Benedict XVI.
He is, however, more intimately familiar with the church’s challenges than most of his peers – if also accused of not doing enough to combat them. And he hails from a nation of 192 million seen as a fast-rising global economic power alongside China, India and Russia.
Brazil is also a microcosm of changing religious sensibilities. Over the past decade, the Roman Catholic Church there has suffered a surge of conversions toward Pentecostal and evangelical faiths seen as both more permissive and pragmatic than Catholicism. At the same time, Brazil saw a sharp rise in those who have abandoned organized religion all together.
In response, the Brazilian church has gone on the offensive – with priests like the Rev. Marcelo Rossi responding to the challenge by staging massive, evangelical masses filled with music and lively celebration. According to the National Catholic Reporter, Scherer responded to such attempts by saying: “Priests aren’t supposed to be showmen.”
Eliza Mackintosh in London contributed to this report