Pope Francis, then bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, visiting the Villa 21-24 slum in Buenos Aires, 1998.
Pope Francis, then bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, visiting the Villa 21-24 slum in Buenos Aires, 1998.
Parroquia Virgen de Caacupe / Courtesy Reuters

Pope Francis has adorned the cover of Time, Rolling Stone, and even The Advocate, a magazine for gay news. World leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have lined up to praise him. The pope’s rise to global popularity has been quick, boosted by a surprising and often blunt message of economic and social justice. Many observers have attributed that message to a self-conscious embrace of his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth-century Italian friar who was famous for choosing a life of poverty, and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI's perceived lack of attention to economic and social concerns. But Francis’ roots in Latin America, and the political and social currents of his home country, Argentina, have played a major role as well.

At the time of Francis’ election as pope last year, the hope was that his papacy might revive the church in Latin America, which is home to the world’s largest Catholic population, almost 500 million people, but one that has been in steep decline. According to the Latin American Public Opinion Project, in 2012, the overall percentage of Catholics in the region stood at 65 percent; in the early 1980s, Catholics made up nearly 90 percent of Latin American’s population. For now, there is no hard data showing that Francis has accomplished his mission, but the early signs are encouraging. Last July, as Brazil was rocked by protests against government corruption and poverty, Francis visited -- his first international trip as pope -- and some three million people, including the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil, gathered for mass at Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach. It was the largest crowd estimated to have ever gathered there.

Francis’ popularity around the world, and particularly in Latin America, reveals something else about his papacy, one year in: his relationship with the region runs both ways. Even as he has tried to buoy the church there, his experiences in Latin America have helped transform the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, particularly when it comes to economic and social justice and support for gay rights. From the radicalism of Latin American Catholicism to a wave of social progressivism making its way through the region, often on the heels of populist, left-wing governments that have taken power in recent decades, Latin America has increasingly influenced Francis’ papacy.


Francis’ vigorous denunciation of poverty and inequality and calls for wealth redistribution are best reflected in his first papal pronouncement last year, Evangeli Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel, in which he urged leaders from across the globe “to fight poverty and inequality,” and called on the rich to share their wealth. Citing the “idolatry of money” and criticizing “unfettered capitalism as a new tyranny,” he exhorted politicians “to guarantee all citizens dignified work, education and healthcare.” Not surprisingly, these comments raised the ire of the U.S. right, with some commentators insisting that Francis’ comments were not only an attack on capitalism but a veiled criticism of Washington.

The pope’s critical views of capitalism are not surprising given that poverty and inequality are endemic in Latin America. According to the United Nations, Latin America dominates the ranking of the world’s top ten most unequal nations, with half of the entries: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras. But Francis’ comments resemble the leftist rhetoric of many Latin American politicians, including Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. They have based their populist messages on blasting the liberal economic reforms that Washington, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank advocate and which they see as privileging market gains over social welfare and the fight against poverty.

Francis is hardly just copying these leaders in his language; there appears to be a growing alliance of convenience between the pope and left-wing governments in Latin America. Many left-wing Latin American leaders have recently embraced the pope and his economic message as a way to lend credibility to their own policies and shore up support at home. Take the relationship between Francis and Kirchner in Argentina. Kirchner was openly hostile to him when he served as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the de facto head of the Argentinian church. They particularly butted heads during a debate over a same-sex marriage law in 2010. But now, apparently sensing that they each stand to gain from a better relationship, the ice has thawed. When Kirchner visited the Vatican in March, Francis greeted her warmly. Describing their meeting later, Kirchner said that they “spoke of social justice and of our rejection of the economies of exclusion and inequality, the economies that kill.” 


Francis’ economic message has more religious, yet still expressly Latin American, roots, which are evident in the region’s most significant contribution to Catholicism: liberation theology. Liberation theology mixed Catholic thinking on social justice with Marxist critiques of capitalism. The movement’s origins lie in the 1960s, when the church, fearing that it was becoming alienated from the people, placed priests in factories and other workplaces throughout Latin America, especially in Argentina. For many priests, the experience proved transformative, leading them to the realization that the church needed a theology that would free the masses from the chains of capitalism and that would stress fighting social and economic injustice in the here and now, rather than focus on seeking salvation in the afterlife. 

Liberation theology’s emergence in new Vatican language is ironic, since Francis was not among those Latin American priests who fell under the movement’s spell in its heyday. As head of Argentina’s Jesuit Society from 1973­ to 1978, he sought to curb the adherence to liberation theology among Jesuit priests, reportedly helping the Argentinian military persecute two young priests associated with the movement for their activism on behalf of the poor in the slums of Buenos Aires. The Vatican has vehemently denied that charge. But at the time of his papal appointment, right-wing defenders of Francis cited this record to calm fears among conservatives that the new pope was a left-wing sympathizer.

So what explains Francis’ apparent about face on liberation theology? One popular theory is that he had secretly been a devotee of it for many years. A 2013 profile in the New York Times noted that the new pope has “an affinity” for the movement and had “studied with an Argentine Jesuit priest who was a proponent of liberation theology.” Another popular view is that Francis grew fonder of liberation theology after living through Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis, when the government defaulted on billions of its sovereign debt, impoverishing thousands and forcing Fernando de la Rúa, who was president, to resign amid violent protests. Many Argentines blamed the crisis on the privatization programs, loan obligations, and other financial reforms pushed by the IMF and the World Bank.

Whatever the case, Francis’ interest in liberation theology has spread through the Vatican. Last September, Francis met with Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian theologian who gave name to the movement with his 1971 book, A Theology of Liberation, which regarded Jesus as less of a savior than as a champion of the poor. The Vatican had also announced plans to begin the process of canonization for Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Salvadorian priest that was assassinated by the country’s military regime in 1980 and who is now revered by many as a liberation theology martyr. Meanwhile, the Vatican’s semiofficial newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, has  undertaken a full campaign to rehabilitate the movement in its pages, with positive press about why “liberation theology can no longer remain in the shadows.”


More surprising than Francis’ endorsement of economic populism and even liberalization theology are his views on social issues, homosexuality in particular, which suggest an even deeper Latin American influence on Francis’ papacy. On a flight back from Brazil last July, he told reporters: “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” Then, in an interview in September, he called on Catholics to “get over their obsession with abortion, contraceptives, and homosexuality.” Most recently, in an interview in March, Francis insinuated that he supported same-sex civil unions and that the church would tolerate them -- for economic reasons. “Matrimony is between a man and a woman,” he said. But moves to “regulate diverse situations of cohabitation [are] driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care.” 

Francis’ approach to homosexuality stands in stark contrast to the attitudes of previous popes, including Benedict, who was known for his unbending adherence to church doctrine on issues of gender and sexuality. In no small measure, Francis’ tolerance of homosexuality is a reflection of the development of gay rights in Latin America, and of the gay rights battles that entangled Francis when he served as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In the last two decades, a gay rights revolution has swept through Latin America. It was born, curiously enough, in Francis’ home city. In 1996, the Argentinian capital enacted Latin America’s first gay rights legislation, a stipulation in the city’s charter that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. This law was followed by a 2002 ordinance that granted same-sex couples in Buenos Aires a range of marriage-like benefits, including hospital visitation rights. The law was later expanded to other Argentinian cities and towns and paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage at the federal level in 2010, which 70 percent of the public supported.

Like his turn to liberation theology, however, Francis’ role in helping secure gay rights to Latin America is ironic. Before he became pope, he was mostly known for an epic war of words in 2010 with Kirchner over the same-sex marriage bill. He characterized the bill as “a destructive attack on God’s plan,” and she, in turn, branded his words “reminiscent of medieval times and the Inquisition.” But Francis’ behavior was more complicated than his rhetoric suggests. Indeed, it was marked by a pragmatism animated less by doctrine than by his engagement in everyday struggles. Once it seemed that the same-sex marriage bill was about to pass, Francis proposed a compromise in which the church would endorse same-sex civil unions. But he was unable to sell the deal to the other bishops in the Argentine Conference of Bishops. According to the New York Times, for Francis, the civil union compromise was “the lesser of two evils” and “a position of greater dialogue with society.” Following the bill’s passage, Francis met with representatives from Argentina’s leading gay rights organizations. According to the Spanish daily, El País, Francis expressed his support for same-sex civil unions to the representatives, but declined to call them marriage. At the end of the meeting, the activists gave the future pope a rosary painted with the colors of the rainbow, which he promised to use in his prayers.

As other countries in the region have moved to follow Argentina’s example, the pope has remained noticeably quiet, another sign of Francis’ pragmatic support for gays rights in Latin America. There was no comment from the Vatican when, in May 2013, Brazil became the world’s largest Catholic nation to allow same-sex marriage, which singlehandedly raised to almost 50 percent the population of Latin America that is covered by same-sex marriage protections. The Vatican said nothing when, in August 2013, Uruguay legalized same-sex marriage. The silence speaks volumes. In 2005, when Spain became the first Catholic-majority country to pass a same-sex marriage law, Benedict excoriated Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero during a trip to Spain for his support of the law. He even urged Catholic public servants to refuse to sign same-sex marriage certificates. 

As Francis tries to stem the decline of the church in Latin America, his experiences in his home country and throughout the region have helped transform the Roman Catholic Church and change old attitudes. By doing so, if his popularity is any indication, Francis may well help save Catholicism in Latin America -- and worldwide.

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