2013 marks a historic year for the Catholic Church. In an unexpected move, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, becoming the first pontiff to step down in nearly 600 years. Now–for the first time ever–a Jesuit from Latin America will lead more than one billion Catholics worldwide.
In light of these monumental changes, we caught up with Matthew Butler, associate professor of modern Mexican history with research interests in Latin American Catholicism, to discuss the influence of the Pope Francis, and what the future holds for the Catholic Church.
A recent census indicates that only 65 percent of Brazilians identify as Catholic, down from more than 90 percent in 1970. What sparked this decline?
First, it’s important to remember that even when Latin America was exclusively “Catholic,” there were always large numbers of cultural Catholics, as well as vast geographical areas that were virtually un-churched. Historically, the Church also appeared more imposing than it was because it didn’t face much institutional competition, at least before the second half of the 20th century.
Lastly, we need to remember there always was, and still is, enormous diversity within Latin American Catholicism. So, to a certain extent it’s true that religious pluralism in Latin America has long existed, but only in recent decades have so many tributaries broken the banks of the inclusive river that was Latin American Catholicism.
From the mid-20th century the Church faced real religious competition from new institutional rivals. It also faced a rapidly changing social context, one that sometimes it was slow or ill-equipped to understand. Protestantism, which in countries like Brazil, Chile, and now even Mexico accounted for big depletions in the numbers affiliated to the Catholic Church, made enormous inroads in some indigenous communities and urban diasporas, the last of which grew prodigiously from the mid-20th century.
So slippage in Catholicism has been driven by the search for spiritual alternatives in emerging social constituencies that saw orthodox Catholicism as remote or irrelevant, combined with enormous increases in the variety of religious goods on offer. Some new religious actors proved themselves far more agile than the Catholic clergy in embedding themselves in these new sectors. You could even say that secularization in Latin America has really just meant, at least until now, the fragmentation of religious identities, rather than outright loss of faith. It is only the most recent census returns, at least for Mexico, that show significant numbers of people saying they have no religious affiliation at all.
What can you tell us about the state of Protestantism in Latin America?
The old idea that Protestantism in Latin America represented a sort of spiritual “Americanization” (or, more favorably put, a religious experiment in democratic participation) doesn’t really stack up. So-called classical Protestantisms, which by and large put down roots in Latin America in the late 19th century as missionary religions, in many cases flatlined.
It is Pentecostal-style Protestantism, which offers a powerful sense of the miraculous, often in very charismatic and hierarchical institutional settings, that has flowered. These newer Protestantisms offer revolutionary life-changing experiences and strong social networking opportunities to believers. What the new religions do, some observers would say, is to reproduce some Latin American “Catholic” features more effectively in a new urban setting and in a more exciting religious style. Protestantism shouldn’t necessarily be seen as more modern or democratic than Catholicism in Latin America, just more dynamic across the medium term.
Will a Latin American pope lure some of those Catholics back to the fold?
The short answer is “no,” the longer one is “wait and see.” People haven’t left the Catholic Church because popes were Italians or Polish, but because for some the Church was too rigid and ceased to express their spiritual and social yearnings adequately or at all. So, it would be naïve to expect the Latin American Church to revitalize itself on a wave of identification with an Argentine pope.
Some previous non-American popes, not least John Paul II, were loved and virtually adopted by parts of the faithful (again, Mexico springs to mind), yet their pontificates coincided with decidedly mixed fortunes for the Latin American Church overall. Arguably the Church’s most effective strategies in staunching the bleeding away to Protestantism in recent decades have been at the grassroots, for instance, with the promotion of a Pentecostal-style Catholicism called Charismatic Renovation.
That’s not to say that the election of a Latin American pope is anything but an historic development. For centuries, the Catholic Church was Eurocentric and showed disdain for Latin America, which was imagined to be spiritually immature and virtually unorthodox. Historically, Latin American bishops used to be in awe of Rome, yet now a Latin American occupies the Holy See, which is a testament to the fact that the Church’s future lies in the Americas or in Africa, not with aging European flocks.
It’s still the case, though, that the success of Francis’s papacy from a Latin American perspective will depend on what kind of a pope he turns out to be rather than any kind of nationalistic or regional identification. The media coverage in Latin America—which in a matter of hours shifted from a congratulatory tone expressing surprise and excitement at the election of the first Latin American pope to a far more critical appraisal of Francis’s social mission and political trajectory—gave instant evidence of that. In Argentina and Mexico, for instance, there were critical reflections almost at once on Francis’s affection for celebrating Mass among Catholics in the poorest barrios in Buenos Aires, his opposition to gay civil marriage, or his stance during Argentina’s military juntas, with which the Argentine Church maintained bitterly controversial ties.
In politics it was the same. In Mexico, where church-state stories are never far from the front pages, President Peña Nieto issued two messages in response to Francis’s election, the first expressing a desire to establish cordial relations between Mexico and Rome and the second saluting a Latin American success story. President Kirchner of Argentina, a country which has a very long history of state management of the Church, has visited Rome already and urged Francis to use his diplomatic leverage in Argentina’s favor.
That encapsulates what the priorities will be from government’s perspective, and I would expect the same to be conversely true of Latin American Catholics: how, and for whose benefit, is this pope going to run the Church? Will Francis’s papacy stand for the continuation of a top-down, socially conservative style of Church government coupled with a critical remoteness from social and political questions? Or will he be a pope that speaks up for the concerns of the faithful and shows less concern for institutional and political interests? If he shows openness to distinctively Latin American approaches to the problems faced by Latin American Catholics, and reaches out to the totality of the faithful, then Francis’s papacy may prove significant. At times in the past as archbishop of Buenos Aires he seems to have done just that, at other times it’s not nearly so clear that he has.
There has been much discussion about the uniqueness of a papal resignation. Will there be more?
It’s always possible, but I doubt it. The papacy is a kind of elected sacral-monarchical office for which there are clear rules of succession. Benedict’s resignation seems to reflect a specific conjuncture of circumstances, including ill health. The change is ad hoc, not a permanent innovation.
Pope Francis has been described as a champion of the poor. Why is it important for the pope to advocate human rights?
Historically, the weakness of civil and political society in Latin America made this role very important. One of the Latin American Church’s most creditable traditions, among some far less creditable ones, has been its longstanding—if sadly not always prevailing—commitment to the poor.
That thread runs all the way from Bartolomé de las Casas in the 16th century to the “social Catholics” of the 19th century and the base communities and Liberation theologians of more recent times. Previously, though, it was a question of Latin American bishops, priests and perhaps more often laity reinterpreting papal declarations to fit the exact circumstances of the day. Now the pope is a Latin American, which might give his pronouncements particular weight in the region.
It will depend on which rights, and on whose behalf, Francis decides to advocate. If he can steer the Latin American Church beyond its current fixation on moralistic issues and touch on broader social questions, this role could still be important. A lot has been made of the fact that Francis has chosen the name of the saint of the poor, which might suggest that he will privilege their concerns.
Less has been made of the fact that the followers of St. Francis were also the first friars to begin evangelizing the Americas in the 1520s. It would be exciting if Francis turned out to be a rebuilder of the American Church in that tradition and allowed the Church to speak with a more independent voice from the grassroots of Latin American society.
Matthew Butler is the author of “Popular Piety and Political Identity in Mexico’s Cristero Rebellion: Michoacán, 1927-1929” (Oxford, 2004), and editor of “Faith and Impiety in Revolutionary Mexico” (New York, 2007). He has published numerous articles on 20th-century Latin American religious history, with special emphasis on the history of the Catholic Church in revolutionary Mexico.
Banner Image: The inauguration mass for Pope Francis.