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S.Africa’s Napier: no-holds-barred, media-savvy cardinal

If Catholic cardinals want the next pope to embody the complexities and contradictions of the modern Church, they should look no further than Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa.

On one hand, the 71-year-old archbishop of Durban staunchly adheres to a rigid ideology that many believe is damaging the Roman Catholic Church in its quest to remain relevant in the 21st century.

On the other, Napier has shown a willingness to challenge traditional alliances and ways of thinking, and he has adopted modern methods of communication.

Most recently, he voiced strong condemnation of South Africa’s ruling ANC party and the myriad controversies plaguing its officials.

Not only was this attack against a political ally unorthodox, so too was the manner the ageing cardinal launched it.

Rather than taking to the pulpit with his message, Napier wrote a blog post attacking the countrys leaders for putting their own self-interests ahead of their constituents.

The social media savvy cardinal then sent a link to his nearly 5,000 followers on Twitter, a web site fuelled by the sort of transparency the Catholic Church shunned during the decades-long child sex abuse scandals.

“The article was so out of character for him and such a brave thing to do,” said Carlene Mettler, his secretary of 20 years.

Napier, one of eight children of mixed race — known as coloured in South Africa — was born to farmer parents in the 1940s.

He was an opponent of the apartheid regime while ascending the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

For someone forged in the struggle against racist rule, his consternation with the African National Congress (ANC)is akin to breaking dogma.

The last time Napier challenged the government also resulted in a much-publicised row.

In a 2008 interview with the Australian news program “Dateline”, Napier lambasted a government-sponsored condom distribution initiative that aimed to bring down South Africa’s staggering HIV prevalence rate.

“At the moment, if you go on a policy of condom distribution as the only solution to HIV and AIDS, you are telling people that they cannot take control of their own lives,” he said in the interview.

Despite occasionally taking on the government, Mettler maintains Napier is still “fiercely loyal to the teachings of the Catholic Church”.

He gets requests to conduct outdoor marriages, “but he feels marriage is a sacrament and must be done in a church, so he refuses them,” said Mettler.

Napier’s uncompromising loyalty to the Church’s hierarchy has enraged critics. When a series of child sex abuse scandals broke out in 2002, he refused to expel all of South Africa’s accused priests.

The sexual abuse controversy has figured prominently at the current papal conclave.

Napier is among a delegation of cardinals who are pushing for more information on the “Vatileaks” scandal, where hundreds of confidential papal documents were leaked to the press last year by former pope Benedict XVIs butler.

“If we’re going to make a good decision, I’m sure we’ll have to have some information on that,” Napier told The Australian newspaper outside a closed-door meeting in Rome.

He also confirmed the group would discuss reforming the Roman Curia, the central government of the Catholic Church.

Unless the Church finally tackles these thorny issues, which have plagued it for more than a decade now, the small steps forward taken by leaders like Napier may be too little, too late.

Seen as having strong pastoral skills, Napier was born on March 8, 1941. He was ordained as a priest in 1970 and rose through the Church hierarchy to be installed archbishop of Durban in 1992 and raised to cardinal in 2001

At school he played football and earned the moniker Rhino.

“We called him Rhino because of his build. When he got the ball very few could dispossess him,” his brother Peter Napier told a local daily, The New Age.

Outside the Church, he enjoys fixing cars and used to service his own vehicles. “He still enjoys opening the bonnets and assessing engines,” according to Peter.

He holds a BA degree in English and Latin.