TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – To many, Honduran Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga embodies the activist wing of the Roman Catholic Church as an outspoken campaigner of human rights, a watchdog on climate change and advocate of international debt relief for poor nations.
Others, however, see him as a reactionary in the other direction: Described as sympathetic to a coup in his homeland and stirring accusations of anti-Semitism for remarks that some believe suggested Jewish interests encouraged extra media attention on church sex abuse scandals.
Both images will follow him into the Sistine Chapel conclave along with other cardinals named as possible successors to Pope Benedict XVI.
EDITOR'S NOTE: As the Roman Catholic Church prepares to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, The Associated Press is profiling key cardinals seen as "papabili" — contenders to the throne. In the secretive world of the Vatican, there is no way to know who is in the running, and history has yielded plenty of surprises. But these are the names that have come up time and again in speculation. Today: Rodriguez Maradiaga.
Maradiaga, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, is among a handful of Latin American prelates considered to have a credible shot at the papacy if fellow cardinals turn, for the first time, to a region with about 40 percent of the world's Catholics and a growing roster of dynamic church leaders.
"Of course, the day will come for a pope from the south, as it came for one from the east," Maradiaga was quoted as saying in a 2008 interview with the Milan-based newspaper Il Giornale in reference to Polish-born Pope John Paul II. "At no time have I thought of myself as papabile," the Italian word for papal candidates.
Perhaps more than the other Latin American papal contenders, however, the 70-year-old Maradiaga carries a complicated and, at times, contradictory resume. That could worry some papal electors looking to tone down controversies after wrenching abuse cases around the world and turmoil inside the Vatican walls over embarrassing leaked documents on finances and internal power plays.
Maradiaga, who was named as cardinal in 2001, was mentioned among the possible papal successors in 2005 following the death of John Paul II. A lot has happened since to both raise his profile and possibly dim his papal chances.
In 2007, Maradiaga was elected president of Caritas Internationalis, the Catholic Church's largest aid network. At Caritas, however, he felt the sting of the Vatican after accusations of working in tandem with relief agencies that may veer from Catholic teachings such as bans on birth control. The Vatican later issued a document outlining how all church-affiliated charity groups must not mix with others that could contradict Catholic tenets.
Still, the Caritas post further enhanced his credentials as a powerful Catholic voice for aid and economic justice, including years as the Vatican's spokesman with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on the issue of developing world debt.
At a speech in 2006 in Cincinnati, he urged the United States to more to ease illegal immigration by fostering economic development "instead of trying to build walls or putting the National Guard on the border."
He also has linked climate change to "irresponsible attitudes" on environmental protection and called on governments to view employment as a "human right." He once said that "neoliberal capitalism carries injustice and inequality in its genetic code."
Maradiaga even was part of diplomatic flap with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — which could win the cardinal backers in Latin America as well as tarnish him. Chavez called the Honduran cardinal an "imperialist clown" in 2007 after Maradiaga was quoted as saying that Chavez "thinks he's God and can trample upon other people."
"His ecclesiastical career has been rising, unstoppable and flawless for nearly three decades," said Honduran Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno.
But others see his reputation as indelibly stained by his apparent support for a coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya in 2009 when he ignored court orders to drop plans for a referendum on constitutional changes.
A few days after Zelaya's overthrow, Maradiaga read a pastoral letter signed by 11 bishops in which the Honduran church sided with the coup. It echoed claims by Honduran businessmen and media outlets that Zelaya's liberal administration was aligned with Chavez and posed a threat to democracy.
The Organization of American States expelled Honduras and the international community sanctions approved sanctions and refused to recognize the de facto government headed by Roberto Micheletti. Maradiaga argued that Honduran "democratic institutions are in place." That brought a split in the Honduran church.
Regional leaders of the order of the Dominicans made a letter public in which they urged church followers to categorically reject "the blow inflicted" by the coup." Central American Jesuits said "the coup imposes an authoritarian and repressive regime on the country through unconstitutional means."
Maradiaga responded by drawing an analogy to Pope John Paul II's opposition to radical church movements in Latin America, which also polarized worshippers and Catholic leaders in the region. Maradiaga, who supported the pope, called it a "sad episode" of divisions that weakened the church.
For more than a decade, meanwhile, Maradiaga has faced questions over comments made to the Italy-based Catholic publication "30 Giorni" in which he apparently claimed Jewish interests in the media pushed for expansive coverage of the church's sex scandals as a way to divert attention from Israel's disputes with Palestinians.
Maradiaga quickly tried to clarify his remarks, saying they he never intended to suggest Jewish-led conspiracies played a role in media coverage of Vatican affairs. But last month, in a letter to The Miami Herald, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz described Maradiaga as an "unrepentant sinner" whose selection as pontiff could severely damage decades of efforts to build better ties between Catholics and Jews.