The Catholic Crisis in Latin America

Even an Argentine Pope Can't Save the Church

When the conclave of Cardinals met in Rome this month to elect Pope Benedict XVI’s successor, few predicted that Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina would emerge victorious. However, the fact that a Latin American Cardinal would rise to the throne of St. Peter took almost no one by surprise. Latin America is home to nearly half of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, but there had never been a Latin American pope. Further, the Vatican had been anxious about the dramatic decline of Catholicism across the region in the last decade. Mexican journalist Diego Cevallos, a seasoned observer of religious life in Latin America, had aptly captured the sentiment in 2004 when he noted that, although the Vatican had once seen the area as a “continent of hope,” it now thought of it as a “continent of concern.” 

The picture in Brazil and Mexico, the world’s two largest Catholic nations, tells a thousand words. According to Brazil’s 2010 census, 65 percent of the population is Catholic, down from over 90 percent in 1970. Similarly, between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of Mexicans that identify as Catholic dropped from 88 to less than 83 -- the largest fall recorded to date. If these trends persist, by 2025 about 50 percent of all Latin Americans will be Catholic, down from approximately 70 percent today. Such a decline would offset any gains the church might make in its new continent of hope, Africa.

Just as worrisome for Vatican officials is the apparent loss of Catholic influence over social policy in Latin America. In recent years, politicians from both the left and the right have defied the church in ways that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. In 2009, officials from Mexico City legalized abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage and adoption. The threat of excommunication did nothing to change their minds. In 2010, Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner legalized same-sex marriage. She responded to the opposition mounted by Bergoglio by branding him a relic from the past “reminiscent of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition.” In 2012, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, raised in the historically Catholic Christian Democratic Party, enacted an anti-discrimination law that included sexual orientation as a category for protection against the strenuous opposition from Catholic officials. Piñera is now pushing legislation to legalize same-sex civil unions.

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