The Catholic Crisis in Latin America

Even an Argentine Pope Can't Save the Church

Catholic worshippers sit in the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador, 2013. (Ulises Rodriguez / Courtesy Reuters)

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.

It is no wonder, then, that the conclave of Cardinals went for a Latin American pope. The Vatican is banking on Pope Francis, as Bergoglio is now called, to save Catholicism in Latin America or, at the very least, help slow its decline. But there are reasons to believe that the church’s hopes are unfounded -- even misplaced. 

For one, it has not gone unnoticed that the new pope’s country of origin makes him an odd choice if the goal is to excite Latin American Catholics. Argentina is widely known as a European society in exile. It is, The Washington Post’s Anthony Faiola has written, “a nation apart,” and for that reason “many [are] likely to see the rise of an Italian Argentine as largely unrepresentative of the region.” Beyond that, though, the particularly dark history of the Argentine Catholic Church poses an even bigger challenge: nowhere else in Latin America is the Catholic Church’s reputation for advancing democracy and human rights more tarnished.

During Argentina’s last stint of military rule, between 1976 and 1983, the Catholic Church became an accomplice to the Dirty War, a war against left-wing dissidents and sympathizers that left between 10,000 and 30,000 dead. In 2011, Jorge Rafael Videla, the dictator who ruled the country from 1976 and 1981, said in an interview with El Sur magazine that he had discussed the policy of “disappearing” opponents of the regime with Cardinal Raúl Francisco Primatesta, and the country’s papal nuncio, Pio Laghi, and that “they had suggested ways for dealing with the situation. Military commanders have also testified that some priests sanctioned the practice of dumping the drugged bodies of those who had been tortured into the open seas as “a form of Christian death.” The church has even admitted its support for the dictatorship and apologized for it. In a 1996 statement, Argentina’s Conference of Bishops “[implored] God’s forgiveness for the crimes committed then by sons of the church, whether as members of the revolutionary guerrillas or as members of the state or the security forces.” That apology has not spared the church from prosecution. In 2007, Buenos Aires chaplain Christian von Wernich was convicted to life in prison for being a participant (not an accomplice) in multiple cases of murder, torture, and illegal imprisonment. 

What role Bergoglio played during the Dirty War remains contested. The most serious accusation, made by investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky in his book El Silencio, is that Bergoglio, as head of Argentina’s Society of Jesus, failed to protect two young priests, who had been working to improve the lives of the poor in the barrios of Buenos Aires. According to Verbitsky, Bergoglio fired the priests because he disagreed with their embrace of Liberation Theology, the Marxist-influenced philosophy that encouraged Catholics to work against social and economic injustice. The priests were subsequently captured and tortured. The Vatican has vigorously defended the new pope as the victim of “a left-wing anti-clerical conspiracy” and points to the fact that Bergoglio eventually arranged for the release of the young priests. But the controversy is unlikely to die anytime soon. For one thing, one of the victims accused Bergoglio of “handing him over to the military death squads” before his death in 2000. The other, still alive, released a statement after Bergoglio’s appointment declining to comment on the controversy other than to say that “he is reconciled to the events.”

Other controversies, too, are likely to keep pressure on Bergoglio, including the charge that he was aware and condoned the very sordid practice of the military regime stealing children and babies from left-wing dissidents for adoption by military officials. As part of an ongoing government investigation into this matter, in 2011 Bergoglio was forced to testify in court. His testimony, as reported in the Argentine press, was “evasive, bordering on contemptuous.” It left human rights activists, including the famed Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, outraged.

Beyond Bergolgio’s personal baggage, there are other reasons to doubt whether he will be able to revive Catholicism in Latin America. Although Catholics in the United States and Western Europe Catholics are leaving the church atop a tide of secularism, in Latin America, Catholics are leaving because they find other religious options more appealing. The decline of Catholicism in Latin America has been met with an explosion in Protestantism. It is estimated that approximately 15 percent of all Latin Americans are Protestant -- a startling figure considering that, as recently as the mid-1990s, only about four percent were Protestant. The most “extreme” case is Guatemala, where approximately 30 percent of the population is Protestant and three presidents have identified as Evangelical.

In Brazil, an estimated 500,000 people are thought to be leaving the Catholic Church per year, with the bulk of them converting to Protestantism. Those flocking to the Evangelical mega-churches of Rio de Janeiro cite the Catholic Church’s authoritarianism and strict hierarchy -- embodied, curiously enough, in the pope -- as the primary reason for leaving. By contrast, they point to the opportunities that Protestant churches afford for women and minorities to ascend the ranks. In addition, they appreciate the positive message of self-empowerment and teachings on how to accrue wealth and prosperity. It is hard to imagine that Bergoglio’s message and example of humility and frugality, however virtuous, will resonate with these folks. 

Of course, the new pope might be more successful rekindling the faith of those who still identify themselves as Catholics. But even this mission will be an uphill struggle, given the Catholic clergy’s rigid conservatism. Of the 70 percent of the population of Latin America that considers itself Catholic, only 40 percent say they regularly attend church and follow the church’s teachings. The Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay have even lower rates. In Bergoglio’s own home turf, Argentina, the drift is most acute: of the 78 percent of Argentines who regard themselves as Catholic, only 20 percent regularly practice their faith. 

Among the reasons that non-practicing Catholics cite for not adhering to their faith, a sense that the church is out touch trumps all the rest. Nothing demonstrates this better than the church’s stance on homosexuality. Rooted in the belief that homosexuality is a sin, the church has opposed same-sex marriage and civil unions and anti-gay discrimination legislation in the face of growing support for gay rights across Latin America. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Argentina in 2010 with almost 70 percent of the public’s support. Indeed, it was the extraordinary public backing that brought Fernández de Kirchner around to the legislation. Prior to 2010, she had not expressed any interest in promoting gay rights. Elsewhere in Latin America, support for gay marriage ranges from 50 percent in Uruguay, the country most likely to follow on Argentina’s footsteps  (a bill to legalize gay marriage cleared the Uruguayan Senate last December), to 40 percent in Brazil and 38 percent in Mexico.

As fate would have it, the fight for same-sex marriage in Argentina consolidated Bergoglio’s reputation as one of the most out of touch priests in Latin America. As head of the Argentine Catholic Church, he was, of course, expected to lead the fight against same-sex marriage. But there was something especially ugly in the way in which Bergoglio attacked the bill. In a letter to Argentine monasteries, he labeled it “a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.” Bergoglio further characterized the bill in the media as “a project of the devil to destroy God’s plan.” This rhetoric did little to change the popular view that the Catholic Church opposes gay rights not because of doctrine but because of bigotry. As such, Argentina’s largest gay rights organization, FALGBT, responded to Bergoglio’s ascension to the papacy by noting that “The appointment of someone who believes that marriage equality is a demonic plan is a bad sign for equality.” Hardly any voices within the Latin American church have challenged the orthodoxy on same-sex promoted by Bergoglio and his predecessor at the Vatican, who argued in his 2012 Christmas speech that same-sex marriage “destroyed the essence of human nature.” The only church official to speak in favor of same-sex marriage in Argentina, José Nicolás Alessio, a priest from Córdoba who called homosexuality “a blessing, a gift from nature,” was promptly relieved of his duties.

To be sure, some of the new pope’s ecclesiastical priorities, such as highlighting inequality in what is the world’s most unequal region, will resonate with many Latin Americans; and most Latin Americans will see the rise to the papacy of one of their own as a tremendous source of pride. Even so, the gulf between what the new pope stands for and what most Latin Americans want for their religious life is so wide, that Bergoglio will not likely bridge it, and the waning of Catholicism in Latin America will continue apace.

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