Latin America: Papal politics

Pope John Paul II on a visit to Brazil in 1997Pope John Paul II on a visit to Brazil in 1997
Pope John Paul II on a visit to Brazil in 1997

Pope John Paul II on a visit to Brazil in 1997

Latin Americans celebrate the historic canonisation of two popes; as the spiritual influence of the Church declines, it emerges as a political force

Last Sunday, thousands celebrated the canonisation of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II across Latin America. The ceremony at the Vatican was relayed to big screens in Argentina and Costa Rica, and many more Latin American citizens participated in public vigils or attended special church services. Brazil, home to the world’s largest Roman Catholic population, became the first country to name a church after Pope Saint John Paul II.

Roughly 40% of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in Latin America. This figure makes Latin America crucially important for the Catholic Church, but it hides a steep recent decline in the number of Latin Americans that define themselves as Catholic. 65% of Brazilians identified as Catholics in the 2010 Census, down from 90% in 1970; in Mexico, the proportion declined from 88% to 83% between 2000 and 2010. Evangelical Christianity and agnosticism or atheism are filling the gap.

The liberalisation of social policy in Latin America is one indicator of the Church’s declining influence on the continent. The issue of gay marriage is a good example: Argentina and Brazil legalised same-sex marriage in 2010 and 2013 respectively, diverging from traditional Church teachings on marriage and homosexuality. Even in conservative Chile, same-sex civil union is on the political agenda.

On this issue, the Church appears to be following public opinion rather than leading it. In 2010, the Argentine Cardinal Jorge  Mario Borgoglio, the current Pope Francis, wrote that same-sex marriage would be an ‘anthropological step backwards’. In July 2013, in an apparent change of tone, Pope Francis asked: ‘If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?’. This speech was widely interpreted as a first step towards a more modern view of homosexuality.

However, even if the Church is losing influence over social attitudes in Latin America, the Pope retains great influence in the region. The region’s long history of Catholicism means that there is a strong cultural attachment to the Pope even among non-believers. His words on internal and international issues in Latin America therefore still carry great weight and command international respect.

Pope John XXIII publicly called for peace and dialogue at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Gorbachev wrote in a 1992 op-ed that that the collapse of the Iron Curtain ‘would have been impossible without [Pope John Paul II’s] efforts and the enormous role, including the political role, he played in the world arena’. John Paul II visited 129 countries as Pope and became a sort of apolitical public mediator between East and West, advocating peace, dialogue and freedom.

When John Paul II became Pope, he was the first non-Italian to hold the position in more than 400 years. Pope Francis is the first Pope from Latin America and the first from the Southern hemisphere; a symbol of the re-balancing of the Church away from Europe and towards the South.

Many in Latin America hope that Pope Francis will be a force for stability in the region. The Church’s conservative social attitudes are losing traction in several countries; on the other hand, it looks like Pope Francis’ political role on the continent is growing.

On 27 April, after the canonisation of the two Popes, Pope Francis met Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín and reiterated his support for the state’s peace talks with FARC rebels. On 20 April, he used his Easter message to call for peace across the world, ‘in every conflict, small or large, old or new’. He talked about Ukraine and the Middle East, but also took time to call for ‘reconciliation’ in Venezuela’s internal political conflicts.

Pope Francis has been most vocal about the crisis in Venezuela, repeatedly calling for dialogue and reconciliation. Last year, he even offered an audience to President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition leader Henrique Capriles. Of course, the Pope’s words alone will not end the Venezuelan crisis, but any foreign intervention to break the deadlock, encourage dialogue and protect citizen’s rights should be welcomed.

Traditional Catholic teachings on social issues are losing their influence in modern Latin America; against this backdrop, Catholicism’s challenge is to find a way to stay relevant in the region. Under Pope Francis, Catholicism looks like an increasingly political force.