How Pope Francis is restoring the church in Latin American politics

How Pope Francis is restoring the church in Latin American politics

Pope Francis understands that Latin America, the Church’s most stable consumer market, has embraced an evangelical competition. Pope Francis’s solution is to package Catholic dogma in a much simpler and relatable discourse.

Rome hoped that the election of a socially conscious outsider to the papacy, would maintain the Church’s relevance, in particular among a secularized and marginalized youth.  Public opinion shows that the bold strategy worked.  A compassionate and charismatic Pope Francis is leading the charge to paint over the Church’s byzantine foundations with more progressive and inclusive messaging.  

Latin America will be the main testing ground for this Church’s 21st century bottom-up approach.  The hemisphere is by and large a Catholic region, home to forty percent of the world’s Catholics. In the last fifty years, however, several waves of evangelical Protestantism have eroded the Catholic church’s influence throughout the western hemisphere.  

While evangelical groups operating in Latin America  are enjoying catch-up growth, the Catholic Church is struggling to engage its base. Preventing the slippery slope which has led to Latin American populations abandoning, or neglecting their faith, has become a priority for the consistory.

The refocusing of priorities has proved timely.  Pope Francis’s welcoming disposition has been well received among youth and his rhetoric is consistent with inclusive political trends in Latin America.  Recent papal statements, not canon, advocate for greater leniency towards divorcees and gay couples parallel policy tendencies (e.g., LGBT-friendly laws) in Catholic countries such as Peru, Colombia, and Mexico.

The Jesuit Pope

Francis’s style of preaching is influenced by his nurtured experience into the priesthood as a Jesuit. The Catholic order values pastoral work, which seeks to help those on the margins of society. The aspiration for social work parallels with the dogma of liberation theology, which emerged in the 1970s after the publication by Gustavo Gutiérrez of A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation. Liberation theology offered a new approach to overcome the inherently oppressive condition in society, in particular in the Latin American context.

The dogma of liberation theology garnered considerable opposition from a large body in the Catholic Church, particularly in regards the dialogue it constructed with Marxism. Pope Francis, who has always rejected Marxism, seems to have created a new liberation theology rhetoric, preaching the dogma of a “poor church, for the poor;” one designed for a post-Marxist age.

Helping and connecting with the poor has thus been Pope Francis’s principal area of focus. This becomes particularly evidenced in the way Pope Francis conveys the image of his papacy. For example, the Pope’s frugal nature becomes apparent in every setting. As Pope Francis roams the streets in his battered Ford, ostentation is diminished. This has become an important policy, particularly when preaching and working in distressed economies such as those in Latin America.

Recently to a crowd in Bolivia, Francis declared:  “You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives.” The Pope powerfully calls to attention the struggles of the poor, while granting them the potential for activism. Importantly, he grants a voice to people previously marginalized by the Church.

The Church’s new role

The promotion of an active and participatory pope relaying a simplified premise has reestablished the Church as an influential international actor.  In the century prior to Pope Francis, papal tendency was to carry out policy passively.  Popes in Rome and Cardinals around the world remained loyal to the conservative foundations of the Church.  This strategy made the Church seem dormant and neglectful of pressing problems among marginalized societies.

Francis has turned this strategy on its head. He has become heavily involved at a global and  political level, offering blunt praise and criticism towards world leaders and their policies. He has been particularly active in Latin America, transforming the Church from an apolitical and benign actor into a powerful political broker.  Pope Francis’s footsteps are heavy, and they are keeping the political class on its toes.

He vocalized support for the improvement of Cuban and U.S. relations under former President Barack Obama, openly supported the peace process in Colombia, and called for mediation in Venezuela, among many other initiatives.

The Pope is likely to continue his aggressive public discourse to try and influence policy measures and defuse national and international confrontations. Current uncertainty regarding U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba and the collapse of the Venezuelan socio-political structure is sure to keep the charismatic Pope on the edge of his seat.

The road ahead

Pope Francis entered the papacy at a pivotal crossroads in the Church’s modern history. As he continues through progressive action to mend the reputation of his Church, amidst a fleeing clergy, Protestantism continues to surge around the world. Scandals during the papacy of Pope Benedict XI, who served as Pope from 2005 until his resignation in 2013, have granted Francis an enormous workload.

Leaked documents from the Benedict era reveal finances rife in corruption and incompetence. The fact of Benedict XVI’s resignation – the first pope to resign in 600 years– might be considered indication in and of itself of an institution in crisis. Benedict nonetheless has his supporters; people who lament the current progressive direction the Church is taking. Overwhelmingly however, Benedict dissuaded people, in particular millennials, from active participation in the Church. Francis’s approval ratings in contrast, have steadily increased since he became Pope in 2013. The recent trend, at least in the U.S., suggests an upward trajectory for the near future.

Pope Francis has even brought in leading management consultancies, such as KPMG and McKinsey, to provide oversight for the Church’s administrative machinery and coffers. It is a tactic which seeks to dramatically dispel the scandal-ridden and incompetent image which was garnered prior to his administration. Such attempts to clear the Church’s image are likely to have positive effects in the short, medium, and long terms, as fears of corruption are slowly dispelled.

Despite the Pope’s rising approval ratings, instigated by progressive action, the number of Catholic faithful around the world, and particularly in Latin America as shown, is on the decline. In the United States, the number of former Roman Catholics make up a band larger than most religious groups. In the long term, many Latin American nations are likely to mirror this fleeing movement.

If Latin American populations continue to lose their faith in Catholic doctrine, the papacy’s political influence will also significantly diminish in the region. It is unclear if the trend will reverse. One thing, however, is clear–Pope Francis is the right man for the job.


This article was supported by the insight of GRI senior analyst Daniel Lemaitre.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

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