In the News 2013
Wall Street Journal

In Latin America, Catholics See a Lift

The choice of a Latin American to lead the globe’s 1.2 billion Catholics stands to reinvigorate the church in its Latin American stronghold, helping it fight off growing inroads from Protestant evangelicals and raising its profile on controversial social issues like gay marriage and abortion.

The election of Argentine-born Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis this week came as a pleasant surprise to millions in a region that accounts for slightly fewer than 40% of global Catholics, but that some felt was an afterthought for the last pontiff, the former Pope Benedict XVI.

“Without doubt, Latin Americans are very happy today because the pope is from Latin America,” Cardinal Odilo Scherer, the archbishop of São Paulo and someone who had been talked about as a possible next pope, told Vatican Radio.

“It was about time; we’re nearly all Catholics here, aren’t we?” said Juan Hernández, a 24-year-old student in Mexico City.

Given the deep poverty in the region, the choice of a Jesuit priest who took as his papal name Francis—evoking St. Francis of Assisi—was seen as bringing the church closer to the world’s poor, and adding a touch of humility after a string of sex-abuse scandals and embarrassing revelations about the Vatican bureaucracy in the past year.

“May Francesco reboot the church, recover links that are broken, delete the errors that hurt my faith #HabemusPapam,” read a tweet on the Twitter account regularly used by Brazilian best-selling author Paulo Coelho.

The imediate impact of the Francis papacy on the region could hardly be felt more than in Villa 21-24, a slum of cramped dwellings and narrow alleys that clings to railroad tracks in the Agentine priest’s home town of Buenos Aires. One of the city’s poorest and most violent regions, the former archbishop often entered on foot to celebrate mass in small chapels and drink mate tea with locals.

“We really think of him as ours; he is our pope. He came here and walked in the mud with all of us,” said Sadi Benitez, a mother of four who teared up when speaking about Pope Francis.

The new pope’s reputation as a man of humility elicited a few friendly jokes at the expense of Argentines, long seen in the region—fairly or not—as haughty. “This new guy must really be humble. Any other Argentine would have named himself Jesus II,” one joke went.

In the U.S., too, first-generation Hispanic immigrants, in particular, are likely to identify with the pope. “I think our people will be connected to his style,” said Juan Sosa, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Miami Beach, Fla. “He’s also able to identify with the poor and marginalized and undocumented that are here.”

While Hispanics make up about one-third of U.S. Catholics, they account for nearly half of those under the age of 40, according to the Pew Research Center—a telling indicator of how much the church’s future is tied to Latinos.

The Roman Catholic Church was the first European institution to put down roots in the Americas. Priests accompanied Christopher Columbus and other treasure-seeking Europeans that explored and conquered much of what today is called Latin America.

Today, it remains the cornerstone of Latin America’s shared civilization and culture. The presence of a Catholic church on the main square in most villages, towns and cities in the region testifies to its influence over civil society. For centuries, there was little to no separation of church and state in the region.

Today, Catholicism is the still the official religion of Costa Rica, and has a constitutionally preferred status in Argentina and Panama, although all these countries grant freedom of religion.

Despite that deep history, the church has lost its monopoly on souls amid the rise of evangelical churches. In parts of Central America, the percentage of Catholics has slipped below 50%. In Brazil, which has more Catholics than any nation, the figure has fallen to 64.5% in 2010 from 93.1% in 1960, according to the government.

The new pope could prove especially influential among “those Catholics…who are not practicing their Catholic faith on a regular basis, yet have not left the church,” said Hosffman Ospino, a religion professor at Boston College.

“There will be an opportunity…to rekindle the fire.”

Leonor Heredia, a Carmelite missionary and director of pastoral services at the Catholic University in Bogotà, was charmed by the new pope’s style, and believes it will rival the Protestant evangelical missions that have burgeoned on the continent.

“There’s been a lack of [Catholic] evangelizing on the continent,” she said. “This pope has a great charisma, he speaks frankly but with kindness, and he is going to influence consciousness.”

Some people in the region worry his influence could strengthen positions they feel are conservative, such as opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and sex education. The new pope was outspoken against a move by Argentina to legalize gay marriage in 2010.

In much of Latin America, abortion is still illegal and in many cases a criminal offense. In Chile, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, it is barred even when the life of the mother is at risk.

In Latin America, “governments will be looking up to him. He can influence people to look at issues the other way,” said Magdalena Lopez, international program director for Catholics for Choice, a Washington-based advocacy organization.

Gay activists in Argentina said they were concerned that a popular pope from Latin America might harden attitudes in the region against homosexuality.

“If he makes a speech against LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] people, there will be more violence against” that community, said Alejandro Nasif, of the Argentine LGBT Federation.

The new pope may not halt the region’s recent shift toward more liberal social issues, illustrated by the recent legalization of abortions in Mexico City and the strong gay rights movement in countries such as Argentina, said Julia Young, a professor of Latin American history at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

“It’s really unclear what [the new pope] will actually mean for these social issues,” she said. “Many people in Latin America consider themselves very religious but don’t necessarily adhere to all the teachings of the church…it’s more of a popular religion, not a doctrinal religion.”

This piece was originally published by the Wall Street Journal.

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