Pope Francis I: The First Latin American Pope

Pope Francis | Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis | Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

What will the first Pope from Latin America mean for that region, home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics?  Leading scholars – several of them participants in a multi-year research project at American University* – offered insights recently in The New York Times.  Among many factors that they point to as conditioning the leadership of the newly elected Pope Francis – Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires – are how the Church meets the challenge of Evangelical Protestantism and deals with its own past in the region.

With their remarkable rise in recent decades, Evangelicals have broken centuries of Catholic monopoly and made Latin America far more pluralistic religiously than ever before.  Professors Virginia Garrard-Burnett and Daniel Levine underline the limitations of the strategies for renewal employed by the last two Popes – the return to traditional pieties, the adaptation of Pentecostal spiritual practices by “charismatic” Catholics, and the embrace of what Garrard-Burnett calls “neotraditional” organizations such as the elite, secretive Opus Dei.  Levine singles out various Evangelical strengths: churches that “work well with new media, have local leaders close to the community and provide expanded roles for women and minority groups.”  Perhaps the Evangelicals’ most fundamental advantage is their success in making religious faith relevant and real to the millions of Latin Americans that have swelled the region’s violent cities and experienced wrenching social change.

Latin American Catholicism will also be shaped by how it faces its own past in a region where democracies have replaced the dictatorships of old.  The personal story of Pope Francis illustrates different dimensions of that past: an “option for the poor” that took hold after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) together with a long history of ecclesiastical accommodation with repressive regimes.  The Argentine hierarchy as a whole was seen as supportive of the military dictatorship during the massive violation of human rights in 1976‑83.  Bergoglio’s personal role is unclear.  His supporters hold that he combined pastoral concern for his flock with quiet humanitarian diplomacy toward the junta. His critics argue that he failed to protect several left wing priests and his silence constituted complicity with the regime.  Like many other clerics who rose to dominate today’s Latin American hierarchies, he did not publicly defend human rights.

As Pope Francis, Bergoglio’s personal style and pastoral simplicity already mark an important signal to his Church that it must be committed to the poor.  In Latin America it has a historic opportunity to stand for their dignity and foster their empowerment.  Public identification with their cause is vital, but so is living and working with them to overcome the poverty and violence of their communities.  John XXIII, Paul VI and notable Latin American bishops after Vatican II saw this as a matter of securing their fundamental human rights.  This is an enduring legacy of their leadership during dictatorships that Francis and his Church should build on in the democracies of today.

* 2012-13, with the support of the Religion and International Affairs Initiative of the Henry R. Luce Foundation