ROME – Though it’s likely apocryphal, the story goes that during British rule of India, colonial officials became concerned about poisonous cobras in the city of Delhi and decided to offer a bounty for every dead snake. Enterprising locals, naturally, began to breed cobras in order to collect the reward. When the British discovered the ruse and withdrew the offer, breeders set their now-worthless cobras free, thereby making the problem significantly worse.
The so-called “Cobra Effect” is a classic illustration of what’s come to be known as the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” Quite often, actions designed to accomplish one outcome actually generate a cascade of other effects, most of which the actor never envisioned or desired.
Right now, Pope Francis may feel trapped in his own version of the “Cobra Effect” vis-à-vis the Vatican document Fiducia Supplicans on the blessing of persons in same-sex unions.
One principal consequence of the controversy surrounding the document, ironically enough, would appear to be to have given conservative critics of the pope a chance to kick the tires on possible candidates in a future conclave, meaning contenders who might steer the church in a different direction.
Right now, perhaps no one’s stock as a papabile, or candidate to become pope, has risen as much during the furor over Fiducia as Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who also serves as the elected leader of the African bishops as president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM).
A recent headline in the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, atop a piece by veteran Vatican correspondent Franca Giansoldati, says it all: “The profile of Cardinal Ambongo advances among the future papabili: He led the African blockade of the blessing of gay couples.”
The reference is to the fact that the 64-year-old Ambongo was the prime mover in a Jan. 11 statement from SECAM which declared Fiducia Supplicans a dead letter on the continent. African prelates, it said, “do not consider it appropriate for Africa to bless homosexual unions or same-sex couples because, in our context, this would cause confusion and would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities.”
Of course, the SECAM statement is hardly the only negative reaction that Fiducia has generated, but it’s especially notable for two reasons.
To begin with, it marks the first time the bishops of an entire continent have said that a Vatican edict will not be applied on their territory. Given how difficult it generally is to get an unwieldy body of bishops to agree on anything, the compact and rapid fashion in which SECAM responded is, inter alia, a testament to Ambongo’s leadership.
Moreover, the SECAM statement is also striking for the manner in which it was worked out in concert with the pope and his top advisors.
Ambongo has told the story in a conversation with a French Catholic blog. After soliciting the responses of the African bishops’ conferences to Fiducia, he flew to Rome to share them with the pope. Francis asked him to work with Argentine Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Ambongo did, consulting the pontiff along the way, so that when the SECAM statement appeared, it carried a de facto seal of papal approval.
In other words, Ambongo found a way for the Africans to have their cassava and eat it too – opposing the pope, at least indirectly, but without seeming disloyal. That’s one of the most difficult needles to thread in Catholic life, and the artful fashion in which Ambongo pulled it off has turned heads.
Here’s how Soldati summed things up in her piece for Messaggero:
“At this very delicate juncture, Ambongo has carved out a primary role, demonstrating to the College of Cardinals an indubitable capacity for mediation as well as great courage, to the point that there are those now looking at him as a possible candidate in the next conclave, in a hypothetical future, whenever it may be: A cardinal-elector from a growing continent, anchored in tradition, faithful to the principle of synodality, who knows curial mechanisms well, and with a perspective capable of facing a complicated future.”
“In sum,” wrote Soldati, “all the qualities for a future Black pope.”
A member of the Capuchin Franciscans, Ambongo earned a degree in moral theology from the prestigious Redemptorist-run Alphonsian Academy in the late 1980s. In the years following, he worked in a parish, taught in seminaries and held various leadership positions within the Capuchins until he was made a bishop in 2004 at the young age of 44.
In 2016, Ambongo became the Archbishop of Mbandaka-Bikoro and, like his mentor, the late Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, soon found himself thrust into the maelstrom of Congolese politics. When then-President Joseph Kabila delayed elections in 2016 to remain in power, Ambongo became a tribune of the pro-democracy opposition and helped to negotiate the St. Sylvester Framework Agreement that paved the way for new elections in 2018.
Ambongo certainly doesn’t lack for boldness. His outspoken environmental advocacy, including criticism both of giant global oil and mining companies as well as local politicians who do their bidding, has generated death threats over the years; at one point, he called himself “a person in danger in Congo.”
He obviously enjoys the favor of Pope Francis, having been named a member of the pontiff’s Council of Cardinals in 2020, taking the place of Monsengwo, and then being confirmed in that position in 2023. He also hosted a successful papal trip to Congo last February. Yet as the ferment over Fiducia has illustrated, he’s also capable of breaking with the hallelujah chorus that always surrounds any pope when he believes a matter of principle is at stake.
Thus, Ambongo could appeal to conservative cardinals seeking a change, but he’s also earned the respect of Francis loyalists for the dialogical way he’s handled himself. His résumé certainly bespeaks gravitas – a trouble-shooter and statesman in national politics, the continental leader of a body of bishops, and a papal advisor with insider’s knowledge of Vatican reform efforts.
Whether that’s recipe for a future pope is anyone’s guess. What seems a safer bet, however, is that it’s the profile of prelate who matters, now and for some time to come.