Cardinal Opportunity

A visit with Honduran Cardinal Rodriguez, who is often mentioned as a contender to become the next pope. For good reason.

During a visit to Houston last spring, I sat down to a full Central American breakfast — eggs, several meats, refried beans sprinkled with white cheese, an assortment of breads, a large bowl of peppers — in the dining room of a friend of a friend who has known Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, the first Catholic cardinal to hail from Honduras, since her childhood. If you've encountered Rodriguez recently, it's probably in a sentence or paragraph in a list of leading contenders to become the next pope of the Roman Catholic Church.

But on this morning, many months before Pope John Paul II's final decline began, Cardinal Rodriguez was simply eating breakfast with friends, and he deflected questions about papal politics with a genial ease that suggested months, even years, of practice. Back then, it would have been not just unseemly but politically clumsy to comment on succession. And it would be an insult to the multilingual, highly educated, and widely traveled Rodriguez to suggest he is anything but sophisticated in social and political matters.

After a few morning pleasantries, I was able to steer the cardinal toward his personal interests. These include airplanes (he is a pilot and, semisecretly at age 62, an avid builder of model airplanes); music (a classically trained pianist, the cardinal honks a mean saxophone and said that had he not chosen to enter the priesthood, he would have played in a jazz band); corruption (in earlier conversation, he'd criticized the two main political parties of Honduras for allowing themselves to be perceived as “big thieves” or, alternately, as only slightly less harmful “little rats”); and, of course, the global economic order. It is an order that, Rodriguez said, has piled enormous debt on the Third World through the connivance of corrupt dictators, leaving millions in a state of poverty so dire that only massive debt relief by the developed nations can begin to address it.

Such debt forgiveness should already have been granted, the cardinal insisted, as a matter of simple humanity, the concern any animal shows to others of its kind that are suffering. “Dogs have no problem recognizing other dogs when they see them,” he said. “It is only we human beings who seem to have trouble recognizing our own species.”

As he finished the comment, the cardinal's eyes sparkled. He'd tossed off a bon mot that applied an essentially spiritual point of view to a policy problem that might otherwise be considered beyond the sphere of religion. The ease with which he turned breakfast banter to discussion of fundamental humanity surprised me into a few seconds of the kind of wonder that only first-rate intellects ever create.

Now, nearly a year later, I am wondering whether — perhaps hoping that — I sensed something beyond mere intelligence at that breakfast table.

As has been pointed out with mind-numbing repetition in recent days, John Paul II will be long remembered for his role in the fall of communism and, through his travels, in the transformation of the Roman Catholic Church into a truly global institution. Because of a natural unwillingness to speak even slightly ill of the recently dead, there has been far less prominent mention of the former pope's rigid conservatism, his insistence, for instance, that members of the church adhere to dictates on reproductive rights that seem, to this American non-Catholic, absurd and even cruel, given the overpopulation and health problems caused around the world by lack of access to birth control information and devices. Likewise, the church was during John Paul II's reign blind and deaf to the problem of sexual misconduct by Catholic priests, thereby losing the confidence of significant percentages of a whole generation of U.S. Catholics. In John Paul II's hierarchical conservatism, there was also no place for the affinity that some Latin American clerics showed for the poor and their struggles against oppressive governments. This so-called liberation theology was too close to the godless Marxism John Paul II had opposed in his native Poland.

Cardinal Rodriguez is certainly no liberal in regard to reproductive or sexual issues; in fact, he stirred widely reported controversy just a few years ago by suggesting in an Italian magazine interview that the problem of sex abuse by Catholic priests had been overblown by the U.S. press in ways that reminded him of “the times of Diocletian and Nero and, more recently, Stalin and Hitler.”

But Rodriguez has been for some time one of the most energetic and effective anti-corruption and pro-human rights advocates in Honduras and across Latin America. During his trip to Houston last year, I was allowed to follow the cardinal closely for a time. I found him, in the political dimension, unexpectedly bracing and up to date.

In a local public television interview of the sort that usually produces unexceptional religious bromides for a sleepy Sunday-morning time slot, Rodriguez didn't just advocate in a learned way about the massive debt relief that he feels developed nations should grant impoverished Third World countries, both as a matter of conscience and self-interest. He also proposed the creation of a global corruption court, modeled after the United Nations' War Crimes Tribunal, so heads of state who flee with government assets can be tried and their stolen fortunes returned to their respective national treasuries.

A commencement speech the cardinal delivered not long afterward at St. Thomas University in Houston centered on globalization, the changes it has wrought on society — for good and ill — and the duties it imposes on ethical men and women of the First World. One line struck me as especially powerful: “If we accept the globalization of wealth, technology, and power, without the globalization of human rights and human dignity, then we have failed in our duties as educated Catholics.”

And just last month, the Associated Press reported, Rodriguez publicly criticized mining concessions that cover large portions of his country. “The indiscriminate exploitation of our mines and forests with no ethical commitment is placing at risk the very purpose of creation — human life and future generations,” Rodriguez said.

If only he could run for president. Of the United States, I mean.

The boy who would become Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez was born in December 1941, months prematurely, in a country where the available medical technology for preterm birth was hot-water bottles and love. Close friends say he came very near to death repeatedly as a small child. Some point to those early experiences as key to his decision to dedicate his life to God; others suggest that he has always had an innate religious acumen, a native ability that, as one close friend says, makes him “like a speed reader in spiritual matters.”

Over the last year, Rodriguez regularly downplayed the possibility that he might become pope, insisting that Honduras needs him far more than Rome, that he and his fellow cardinals would look to the Holy Spirit to guide them in the choice of a new leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Friends I have known for some time say that Rodriguez is wrong, that Honduras and the rest of the world need him in Rome as a global voice for humanity and an advocate for bridging the enormous gap between rich and poor that is a root cause of the despair that breeds war and its ugly cousin, terrorism. Some of these friends say he is the “real deal,” and when they say it, they are not speaking entirely of worldly matters.

Despite my mother's best attempts to inculcate me with the Greek Orthodox brand of Christianity, I find myself tending increasingly toward agnosticism. So I really don't feel comfortable speaking to Rodriguez's spiritual attributes.

But the papacy has a profound political component that shapes the world of all people and all faiths. By failing to denounce forcefully enough, a pope can allow a Holocaust; through the power of his personality, a pope can bring down a seemingly unassailable dictatorship. In the secular, political sense, for a modern world of global change and challenge, I cannot imagine a better pope than Cardinal Rodriguez. Religious judgment I leave to those of more certain faith.

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