The Papal Encyclical: Driving Debate in Latin America

By Evan Berry*

Pope Francis

Photo Credit: Raffaele Esposito / Flickr / Creative Commons

Pope Francis’s encyclical on human ecology, due to be published this week, seems likely to contribute to a range of ongoing debates.  Entitled Laudato Sii, the document has already become a touchstone for debates about the moral dimension of climate politics and triggered heated debate within the global Catholic community about the pontiff’s authority on climate change.  It links care for the poor with environmental stewardship and makes a theological case against the “culture of consumerism.”  A vocal Catholic environmental movement has embraced it, while detractors are raising concerns about the fusion of theology and science, and some Church conservatives fear it will feed into arguments for “population control.”  Non-Catholics, including secular environmental organizations, the progressive media, and leaders from other religious traditions, are also studying it.

Champions of the document claim that it could have broad implications.  They expect it to legitimize civil society organizations committed to the climate and justice; affect the behavior of millions of individual Catholics; influence Catholic political leaders who are skeptical or obstructionist about climate change; and become a factor in ongoing international negotiations.  Perhaps zealously, these claims imply that tectonic changes are underway in the international political landscape, especially in the United States, where Hispanic Catholics are the demographic group most concerned about climate change, and in Latin America, a region both shaped heavily by Catholic tradition and uniquely imperiled by the threat of global warming.

For Latin America, which has been front and center in climate politics in recent years, the implications of the encyclical are potentially deep.  Peru and Brazil have hosted recent international conferences on climate change, and the Amazon, a key global carbon sink, ensures governments’ high interest in the international environmental dialogue.  The region’s vulnerability to glacial melt, storm intensification, drought, and rising sea levels also give the issue salience.  The challenges posed by climate change come at a time that many lower-income countries believe that Latin America can be a source of development models that address income gaps, raise literacy rates, and expand access to health care while protecting the environment.  Francis’s teachings on ecology and consumerism will resonate with and reinforce existing ecological movements – Buen Vivir and other groups link the issues – and his imprimatur could even facilitate rapprochement between leftists and centrists within the Church.  On a political level, the region’s reliance on energy exports, such as in the Pope’s native Argentina, may make it harder for public officials to advocate oil and gas development without seriously addressing the climatic impact.  The situation is similar in Brazil, where Pope Francis’ popularity and ecological orientation are starkly contrasted with the President Rousseff’s abysmal ratings and poor oversight of Petrobras.  But religion, environment, and politics are nowhere more likely to come into confluence than in Peru, where an upcoming election touches on several intensive socio-environmental conflicts, and where public awareness about climate change is well established.  Whether or not the Latin American leader of the region’s historically dominant religion has all the solutions, his encyclical seems likely to play into the moral and political debates the region needs and welcomes.

June 16, 2015

*Evan Berry is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University.

Brazil: Is Marina Silva the PT’s Nemesis?

By Luciano Melo

MarinaSilva

Photo courtesy of the Marina Silva campaign website

No politician in recent years has been able to shake and polarize Brazilian politics as Marina Silva has since becoming the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) presidential candidate after its original nominee, Eduardo Campos, died in a plane crash last month. She has an alluring biography: born into an extremely poor family and illiterate until she was 16, she worked as a rubber tapper and rose to become one of the most prominent ecologists and defenders of the Amazon region alongside Chico Mendes, a true Brazilian hero. After earning a degree in history, Silva entered politics in the mid-1980s. Several years later she received the most votes as a state representative for Acre, served twice as a senator, and later became the Minister of Environment in Lula’s administration (a position from which she resigned due to fundamental divergences with the Workers Party and Dilma Rousseff). In 2007 she won the UN’s Champions of the World award, and three years later she ran for President under the Green Party banner, amassing 20 million votes on a platform emphasizing environmental issues and education.

Recent polls find roughly a third of Brazilian voters favoring Silva in the first round of balloting scheduled for October 5, and running even with or slightly ahead of President Rousseff in an anticipated run-off election three weeks later. The Brazilian media suggest that a large part of Silva’s appeal comes from a personal aura of transparency and rectitude – a refreshing change from others competing for Brazil’s top job. She has also demonstrated an old-fashioned ability to compromise in order to form alliances. A committed environmentalist, Silva teamed up with Eduardo Campos, a titan of agribusiness, and now, heading up the PSB ticket, her running mate is Beto Albuquerque, a moderate farmer who can bring a certain level of balance in the economic-environmental equation. On the separation of church and state, however, Marina may face a difficult balancing act. She is an evangelical Christian, winning a large chunk of religious voters in 2010, and she has defended the teaching of creationism in schools, saying that God created even Darwin. She rolled out an agenda for advancing LGBT rights recently, but criticism by Pastor Silas Malafaia, one of Brazil’s main evangelical leaders, forced her to reverse course and abandon her position 24 hours after having presented it.

Although Brazil is a religious country, laïcité – a French version of secularism – is a serious matter for the upper and middle classes, and Silva’s religiosity may cost her votes. She has exposed her core weak spot, which the other candidates will exploit in the upcoming debates and electoral campaigns. But popular concerns about corruption run much deeper in the eyes of the Brazilian people. The fact that presidents Dilma and Lula and the PT have become synonymous with misconduct in general, and mismanagement regarding Petrobrás in particular – a scandal involving 40 PT members in a multi-million real scheme – weakens their ability to counterattack amidst Silva’s continuous rise. What we will see in the elections in October is therefore a battle between the PT’s Bolsa Família – one of the most successful social programs in the history of Brazil – and a candidate who theoretically embodies honesty and honor. Whatever the outcome, it seems that PT has met its biggest challenge in 12 years.

Brazil: Evangelicals Gaining Influence

By Daniel Azevedo

Photo Credit: Igreja Adventista Central de Porto Alegre / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo Credit: Igreja Adventista Central de Porto Alegre / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Brazil still has the largest Catholic population in the world, but evangelical churches are gaining in size and political clout.  In the 1980s, persons identifying themselves as evangelicals made up 6.6 percent of the population; today they are 22.2 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.  Whereas Catholics have generally not organized politically, evangelicals from various parties have gradually been gathering under their religious banner.  They have been growing in numbers and influence since the 2010 elections that chose President Dilma Rousseff.  That year, fearing she would lose the second round of the election to opposition candidate José Serra, Rousseff signed a letter to deputies and senators of the “evangelical bench” promising that she would not sign any laws that went counter to their values, such as legalizing abortion or gay marriage.  The letter gave her the support of evangelical churches, and ensured Dilma’s victory.  Also in 2010, the evangelical bench in the legislature grew 50 percent compared to the 2006 election, reaching 60 deputies and 3 senators.

The evangelical bench anticipates even greater gains in the general elections this October, although polls substantiating its optimism are lacking.  The Folha de São Paulo reports that the Evangelical Parliamentary Front of the House of Representatives estimates it will grow 30 percent, reaching up to 95 representatives – 18 percent of the total House.  This could have legislative consequences.  As a congressman, for example, Pastor Marco Feliciano tried to win approval for a “gay cure” law, which would make it legal for psychologists to treat and “heal” homosexuals in search of heterosexuality.  (Feliciano may at times be an outlier.  Last year he said that “black people are cursed by God in the Bible and, for that reason, Africa is the worst continent in world.”)  Despite the evangelicals’ strong unifying platform, gaining support beyond their bases may be difficult.

The evangelicals seem to have electoral strategies in Rio de Janeiro in place.  Among the four pre-candidates for state governor, two of them are members of the evangelical bench.  Early polls suggest one or the other may become the executive of Brazil’s second most important state, although both face legal problems.  The first one, Anthony Garotinho, has been accused of money-laundering and illegal distribution of political propaganda; his Caravana da Palavra da Paz allegedly misused public money and broke election laws by distributing Bibles and other materials just to people over the minimum voting age.  The other, Marcelo Crivella, is suspected of misusing of public money with his NGO, Farm New Canaan.  (The Portal de Transparência Brasil, an NGO tracking Brazilian politicians, has found that all of the evangelical bench members face unspecified lawsuits, and 95 percent of them are on the list of House members missing the most sessions.)  They are leading the polls, albeit with only 19 percent and 18 percent of intended votes, because the two non-evangelical candidates have apparently more serious political problems.  One is connected to the current and discredited governor, and the other faces serious legal challenges.  Despite the low probability of a breakthrough at the presidential level in the near future, the evangelicals’ efforts in the legislature and states strongly suggest their conservative voice will be an increasingly powerful force to be reckoned with.

Performing the Pope

By Brenda Werth

Photo credit: presidencia.gov.ar | Creative Commons

Photo credit: presidencia.gov.ar | Creative Commons

The pope is a populist par excellence – Pope Francis has proven to be no exception – and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) is trying to harness some of his unprecedented approval for her own ends.  Since his election in March 2013, supporters of Pope Francis have credited him with changing the tone of the Catholic Church, renewing its relevance, detracting attention away from intractable issues (abortion, gay marriage), decrying capitalism and refocusing efforts on fighting inequality and poverty.  “Who am I to judge?” he famously responded when asked to comment on gay priests.  And yet, in his previous life as Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, his judgments with regard to gay rights, specifically his strong condemnation of gay marriage, are what then caused the substantial rift between him and CFK’s government.  The Argentine government has passed some of the most progressive gay rights legislation in the world, making same-sex marriage legal and awarding full adoption rights to same-sex couples in July 2010.  CFK called Bergoglio’s stark opposition medieval.  What is surprising, then, is the conciliation that has taken place between the President and Bergoglio as pope.  It has taken place over the last year in the form of public rituals and urban iconography, bringing the Pope and CFK together in a symbiotic performance of national identity and Peronist imagery.

Given their past differences, their newly fashioned bond conjures a kinship not based solely on shared political views.  CFK has drawn public attention to certain rituals and events that link the two through the construction of familial intimacy.  Perhaps the most stunning example of her attempts to incorporate the Pope into the big happy Kirchner family is in her party’s use of a photographic collage juxtaposing Juan Perón, Néstor Kirchner, CFK, and Pope with the caption, “Mirá pibe a dónde llegamos” (Look, kid, how far we’ve come).  In May 2013 the collage appeared on a gigantic banner covering the façade of the Central Market in plain view of motorists on the heavily transited Riccheri highway.  In June, she broke protocol when she discarded the recommended template and wrote an informal letter to the Pope in honor of the Day of the Pontiff.  Discussed at length in the press, the missive was personal and colloquial in tone and closed mysteriously with Fernández urging the Pope to “take care” and “drink mate.”  When the President’s first grandchild was born a month later, images of the President accepting the Pope’s gift of baby shoes circulated widely in the press, together with her exclamations of “Look what the Pope got me for Néstor Iván.”  And in August, the Perón-Kirchner-Pope collage appeared blazoned on the side of a van deemed the Argentine version of the “Pope mobile,” unveiled by the Kirchner party in support of Frente por la Victoria candidates.

The collage captures perfectly CFK’s campaign to include the Pope in the big happy Kirchner family, but more importantly, it positions CFK herself as a key member of this influential family as she seeks to consolidate not only her own legacy, but also her political future.  With Juan Perón positioned top left and Néstor Kirchner top right, the collage resembles a family tree, in which CFK and the Pope are both direct descendents of a conflated Peronist/Kirchner genealogy.  Recast as founding fathers in this familial image, Juan Perón and Néstor Kirchner look down at CFK and the Pope from an atemporal, mythological realm, their solemn gaze directed at the newfound alliance between CFK and the Pope, solidified through the handshake between two of the world’s savviest of populists.  Dictatorial and democratic regimes alike have manipulated family discourse in Argentina to achieve political means.  The almost imperceptible image of the National Congress Building that constitutes the background of this collage is a reminder of what this performative family portrait ultimately seeks to achieve.  The Pope’s enthusiasm to play the familial role is unclear; a sign of wariness might be detected in his decision to postpone his first official trip to Argentina until 2016.  This date, ostensibly chosen in order for the Pope to participate in the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps more conveniently allows him to avoid the intense campaign period preceding general elections in 2015. 

El Salvador: Memory, the Persistent Discomfort

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Mural that was removed from the Metropolitan Cathedral under Archbishop Escobar Alas / Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn / Foter / CC BY-NC

Mural that was removed from the Metropolitan Cathedral under Archbishop Escobar Alas / Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn / Foter / CC BY-NC

The sudden closure of the Legal Aid Service – Tutela Legal – of the Archbishop of San Salvador appears to be a massive blow to efforts to hold human rights violators and war criminals from the civil war accountable for their deeds.  Without previous notice or warrant, workers arrived at their offices on September 30 to find new locks on the doors and private guards blocking the entrance.  That same day some of the workers claimed to have discovered evidence indicating that Monsignor José Luis Escobar Alas, the Archbishop, had long before decided to close Tutela.  The office was opened in 1982 by Mons. Arturo Rivera Damas to fulfill a project designed by his predecessor, Mons. Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the Archbishop killed two years earlier during mass by a death squad and who is now under consideration for sainthood by the Vatican.  It holds one of the most detailed archives on the repression, crimes and human rights violations committed during the Salvadoran war, mainly by state-sponsored agents.

Mons. Escobar Alas has surprised observers in the past.  In late 2011, he ordered the removal of a mural by a popular Salvadoran artist from the Metropolitan Cathedral without any explanation to the artist or to the church’s large congregation.  The mural commemorated the earliest attempts at a negotiated settlement to the war.  Facing an outcry, Escobar Alas claimed the mural was Church property and that the Church was entitled to do with it as it pleased.  The same tone was evident after the Tutela closing as protests came not just from a good number of Catholics but from the Ombudsman’s office, the President of the Republic and 258 US and Salvadoran scholars who ran an ad in a major newspaper.  The Archbishop and his spokesmen provided at least three different versions of the event, saying alternately that Tutela was closed because it had already served the purpose for which it was created in the war years; it was closed to give its spaces to an ad hoc commission (with an unclear mandate and authorities); and that the Church had encountered financial wrongdoings in Tutela so grave that it had to close.

The closure happened at a time of important progress in human rights accountability.  At the center of it all was access to Tutela’s archives, some 50,000 files about the infamous 1980s – potentially crucial evidence in ongoing or upcoming judicial processes that Salvadoran elites have long tried to keep under wraps.  For the first time in a decade, last month the Attorney General’s office made public its intention to open a special unit committed to review war massacres such as the one in El Mozote, where some 1,000 peasants were killed by a U.S.-trained elite battalion.  Also, for the first time since the early post-war period, an independent Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice agreed to hold a hearing on the admissibility of a case under the Amnesty Law, the legal provision that has prevented many cases from being brought to justice.  And for the first time, there is a real chance for a Spanish court to address the murder of six Jesuit priests and their two aides after one of the accused in that massacre, a colonel, was convicted and imprisoned in a U.S. jail pending extradition to Madrid.  In all of these legal cases, the files held by Tutela Legal would provide crucial documentation to prosecutors.  The only credible explanation for the closing of the service is that pressure was brought to bear on the Archbishop by interests that wish to block access to this important body of evidence in the event that they are unable to prevent trials from opening. 

The ad hoc commission that the Archbishop said will be formed will include members with credibility – including Father José María Tojeira, former Jesuit envoy for Central America, and Mons. Jesús Delgado, Archbishop Romero´s biographer – and may hold some promise.  But the vagueness about its authority and technical questions, including the legal admissibility of Tutela files as the chain of custody is broken, raise serious doubts.  Whatever happens, the many Salvadorans who believe in the healing power of memory – and accountability – will need to remain constantly vigilant.  The same memory has been a persistent discomfort to some Salvadoran elites, who have long thwarted such efforts.

 

Brazilian Evangelicals: Stepping out into the Streets?

By Andrew Johnson

Kneeling in prayer. Photo by: Philip Anema

Kneeling in prayer. Photo by: Philip Anema

There is growing evidence of a potential shift in how Evangelicals engage in social issues in Brazil.  I witnessed their traditional approach recently inside a prison in one of Rio de Janeiro’s gritty peripheral suburbs.  Twelve men stood with their eyes closed and their arms draped around each other’s shoulders while an Evangelical pastor led the group in prayer.  After the final “amèm,” an inmate leader embraced the pastor and thanked him for his visit, to which the pastor responded, “I know that if I am ever in here in the future, you would come to visit me too.”  The pastor’s presence in the cellblock and his subtle pledge of solidarity with the inmates is typical of how Evangelicals have confronted pressing social problems through direct intervention and meeting the immediate needs of individuals in distress. They have been more likely to try to change the prison system by visiting inmates than by voting for a particular candidate or pushing for prison-specific legislation.  Theirs is a politics of presence.  But recently there have been signs that Brazilian Evangelicals’ intentional proximity to the needy is pushing some towards a different and more public strategy: street protest.

Even without an explicit political agenda, Brazilian Evangelicals have proven their ability to mobilize.  In early July, an estimated 2 million Evangelicals participated in the “March for Jesus” in the streets of São Paulo.  They sang hymns and prayed for the future of their country, but they did not use their collective voice to make demands of the government.  In contrast, just two weeks earlier, 65,000 people captured the global media’s attention by marching through the same avenues in São Paulo to protest increased public transportation fares, government corruption, and the fortune being spent on soccer stadiums for the 2014 World Cup.  The street protests gained momentum over the summer, but many Evangelical pastors and leaders were hesitant to offer public support, preferring to continue a strategy that relies on their direct service to the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned in their communities.

Antonio Carlos Costa and volunteers from Rio de Paz protesting in the streets of Rio de Janeiro asking the government for “FIFA Quality” Hospitals and Schools.  Photo by: Gabriel Telles

Antonio Carlos Costa and volunteers from Rio de Paz protesting in the streets of Rio de Janeiro asking the government for “FIFA Quality” Hospitals and Schools. Photo by: Gabriel Telles

Evangelical support of the street protests in Brazil has been minimal, but not completely absent. Some Evangelicals appear eager to move beyond a “politics of presence” approach and address the social structures and institutions they blame for many of Brazil’s social problems.  In Rio de Janeiro, the human rights NGO Rio de Paz – one of the most visible and vocal groups in the recent protests – is led by an Evangelical pastor, and the bulk of the volunteers are Evangelicals.  One such volunteer, a son of a Pentecostal pastor, joined the masses demanding governmental reform and, to encourage  others from his church to follow his lead,  posted Proverbs 29:4 to his Facebook page: “By justice a king gives a country stability, but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.” He closed his appeal by writing that “in 30 years I want to tell my children that they live in a more dignified country because their parents didn’t sit at home waiting for a change.”  If that message resonates widely among Brazil’s 40 million Evangelicals, the Brazilian government will confront ever greater pressure from the streets to carry out long overdue reforms of corrupt institutions and practices.

Andrew Johnson is a Research Associate at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California and a contributor to a two-year project on Religious Responses to Violence in Latin America carried out by the AU Center for Latin American & Latino Studies with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.


The Catholic Church as a Field Hospital after Battle

By Alexander Wilde

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

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

Pope Francis is presenting a fresh and personal vision of the Catholic church and Christian faith that seems likely to breathe new life into the church in Latin America.  In a long interview released last week, he couched his message in terms appropriate to his global responsibilities, but it reflects how this first Pontiff from Latin America reads the recent history of his native region and its church. “I see the church,” he said, “as a field hospital after battle.” Having lived through several generations of often bitter conflict and traumatic violence, he clearly believes that the church must, in his words, “heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.” This dramatic, arresting metaphor of the church’s role in ministering to the human condition as he sees it today suggests that he aims to chart a fresh course – in the church and in society – after the divisions that marked the papacies of his two immediate predecessors. “The image of the Church I like,” he said in language that echoes the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and Latin America’s Liberation Theology, “is that of the holy, faithful people of God…on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows.”

This vision seems firmly rooted in his own experience as Jesuit Provincial and Archbishop in Argentina, where despite controversies over his actions or inactions during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, he is universally admired for his dedication to pastoral ministry. With this fundamental focus on those wounded by life, Francis will build on a foundation that already exists in Latin America today. Despite the notorious purges of liberationist tendencies in church structures that began in the 1970s, priests, nuns and lay people can be found throughout the continent living out pastoral vocations amidst new (and old) forms of violence at the grassroots. Francis will almost certainly, like his predecessors, affirm most doctrinal orthodoxies, such as the intrinsic value of even unborn human life (“I am a son of the Church”). But already his pastoral emphasis is a clear break: “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must … be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.”

Francis thinking is permeated by concepts and practices that come from the Council, Liberation Theology and the pastoral experience of the Latin American church. He clearly hopes to move beyond old divisions and draw from what that church has learned to meet the regions challenges today. Those include a challenge to convey the churchs deepest truths of salvation in ways that Evangelical Protestants have done so successfully in the region. And it is not coincidental that he urges, We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner. He will, undoubtedly, be opposed by conservatives that dominate the church’s ecclesiastical structures (resisting, for example, new paths of policy advocacy by the faithful on issues of poverty and inequality). His new appointments to gatekeeper roles such as nuncios and bishops will be closely watched. He has also inherited an institution shamed by sexual and financial scandals that will demand much of his time and energy. But in just a few months Pope Francis has changed perceptions among Christians and non-believers alike of how the Catholic church may again become a vital force in our world today. In Latin America a new emphasis on face-to-face pastoral ministries among the poor could well move its moral voice for social justice behind already visible popular pressures against growing economic inequality.

Alexander Wilde directs the Center’s two-year project on Religious Responses to Violence in Latin America with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

Moving Toward Religious Unity in Response to Violence?

Bishop Oscar Romero mural, El Salvador / Photo credit: alison.mckellar / Foter / CC BY

Bishop Oscar Romero mural, El Salvador / Photo credit: alison.mckellar / Foter / CC BY

Many Latin American churches are struggling to address the criminal violence challenging their societies – and are finding new ways of promoting peace in ways reflecting each country’s different conditions.  As part of American University’s multi-year project (click here) on religious responses to violence in Latin America, 40 grassroots activists representing two-dozen faith-based ministries in seven countries gathered in Guatemala City in mid-July to share experiences ministering to victims of the region’s rampant violence.* Their ministries in Mexico, Central America and Colombia ranged from programs for at-risk youth, to rehabilitation centers for former gang members, to shelters for Central American migrants crossing through Mexico.  Just as they developed a range of responses to the threats posed by authoritarian governments in the past, religion-based activists today are adapting strategies to a wave of “new” violence, a battery of social ills that includes gang violence, gender-based violence, and violence against migrants, as well as the persistent violence in states that have formally democratized but failed to deliver basic security.

Conflicting interpretations of the Church’s message of peace affect how churches define victims, how they emphasize or downplay the structural causes of violence, and how they respond to human suffering.  Thus, while many of the participants characterized the current crisis in terms of structural or institutional violence, such convictions were not always reflected in churches’ proposed solutions to the crises facing their communities.  There was no consensus, for example, on how faith-based organizations can effectively engage state institutions and policies, particularly where governments are perceived as corrupt and ineffective:  some participants believe the church’s role is to condemn corruption, while others saw no alternative to holding elected and appointed authorities accountable by pressing them to deliver justice.  One of the participating ministries based in Honduras, for example, provides legal aid for victims and their families, encouraging them to press charges, provide testimony, and follow-up with police and courts until they obtain a conviction.

For many of those in attendance, the ecumenical meeting was a first – in the words of a Mexican participant, “historic” – by offering a unique opportunity for religious practitioners to learn about the realities of neighboring countries, exchange ideas about best practices responding to violence, and discuss possible means of collaboration across borders.  Despite diverse traditions and circumstances, the churches are becoming a more visible and potentially more unified force in the struggle against violence in Latin America. In a region marked by ecclesiastical competition, they are challenging traditional understandings of “accompaniment” and are recognizing their shared responsibility to respond to violence with concrete action.  Indifference, passivity, fear, and silence received the greatest condemnation from the meeting’s participants.  These churches are realizing that their diverse activities are in fact complementary, and that they have a critical role to play – both to mitigate existing suffering and to eradicate root causes of violence.  

*The seminar “The Role of the Church in the Face of Violence in Mesoamerica: Models and Experiences of Peace in Contexts of Conflict and Violence” was co-organized by AU’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary (SEMILLA) based in Guatemala City.

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

Religious Responses to Violence in Latin America

By Alexander Wilde, CLALS Research Fellow

Commemoration of those killed in the 1980's at a church in Cordoba, Argentina | By: Pablo Flores "pablodf" | Flickr | Creative Commons

Commemoration of those killed in the 1980’s at a church in Cordoba, Argentina | By: Pablo Flores “pablodf” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin America today is one of the world’s most violent regions. It has been so for 50 years, although the character and agents of violence have changed considerably over time. The “old violence” of the 20th century was largely political, associated with revolutionary insurgencies and repressive regimes that systematically violated fundamental human rights. The “new violence” is largely criminal – illegal drug traffickers and urban gangs are among the leading perpetrators – but its consequences in many societies have been comparably lethal. Countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela and Colombia have among the highest murder rates in the world.  “Citizen security” is a leading issue in politics throughout the region.

Religion played a significant part in confronting the old violence.  Human rights became a new cause for the Catholic Church, which in some cases helped legitimate peace settlements and democratic transitions. In the generation since then, Latin American Christianity has been transformed.  Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have achieved unprecedented growth. Catholicism has been reined in by Rome to curb the influence of Liberation Theology. More pietistic and spiritually-oriented theologies have flourished within both traditions. The result has been a tendency to turn away from the “political” ministries of the past – defending human rights and promoting social justice. The Christian churches, it is widely believed, have failed to address the widespread violence of today.

Fresh research, however, is revealing ways in which – although less visible at the national level – they remain a vital force in violence-plagued societies. A two-year project at American University has produced studies of religiously based shelters for Central American migrants in Mexico, a 15-year Jesuit program of peace building and development in Colombia, and an Evangelical prison ministry in Rio de Janeiro, among a dozen pieces of new research. They identify particularly the significance of an active church presence among poor and marginalized populations, who suffer disproportionately from violence. This “accompaniment” appears to be motivated by Biblically-based beliefs about Christian love, the redemptive power of God and the direct experience of living with these populations in perilous, threatening conditions. Another emerging theme in project research is the potential significance of supportive national and international allies – who clearly contributed to the defense of human rights in the past and remain important in our changed, globalized world.

Violence in Latin America today reflects the wrenching changes these societies have undergone in the last half-century, and religion has been a dynamic dimension of those changes. In the region’s civil societies and the lives of its citizens, Catholic and Evangelical Christianity remains a potent and creative presence. Where it is willing to work and live in situations of conflict and violence, it could find a new role in bringing about more stable, peaceful and just societies.