A Pope With a Latin Flair

ROME–Flags of all nations waved under the sun the day of Pope Francis’ inaugural mass in St. Peter’s Square in mid-March, but the blue and white national colors of Argentina conspicuously dominated the landscape. The new pope, former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires before being elected Bishop of Rome, making him the first pope from Latin America in the history of the Catholic Church.

Polls since the inauguration show that Francis has a very high popularity rating—according to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of American Catholics view the new pope favorably, and an IPR Marketing poll found that 92 percent of Italian Catholics are happy with the new pontiff. The numbers are even higher in Argentina, with only two percent of the population having a negative opinion of Francis, according to a poll by Poliarquía, conducted for the daily La Nación.

A photo of Pope Francis inside the Argentine Church of Rome (Photo by Jordi Oliveres / Religio)

A photo of Pope Francis inside the Argentine Church of Rome. Jordi Oliveres / Religio.

The Rev. Alonso Freiberger, 30, a priest from Bergoglio’s home diocese, said that Francis’ affectionate and less formal style is characteristic of Latin American culture, as is his emphasis on helping the poor and the marginalized. Freiberger said he thinks the way in which Bergoglio delivers this message will be a very important part of his legacy. “He’s not saying anything new, he’s just saying it with different words than the ones Benedict or John Paul II used,” he said. “His words sound more comprehensible; they’re in a language that is more understandable.”

Francis’ charisma and pastoral manner generated a palpable excitement in St. Peter’s square the day of his installation mass. Mariana Casas, 40, from Mexico City, was in tears after Pope Francis drove by her in the Popemobile before his first homily. “I’m very impressed by his closeness,” she said. “By the fact that we are not masses, but individuals [to him].”  Cristian Pascuchelo, 30, made the trip from Buenos Aires exclusively for the installation. “I thought this could be a historical moment to see a change in the church,” he said, holding an Argentine flag.

Just how much of a change Pope Francis will bring to the church, and how big a role his Argentine heritage will play in his papacy, remains to be seen, but experts inside and outside the Vatican say that big changes are not in store. “The doctrine will not change,” is how Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, the Secretary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, bluntly put it in a meeting with the Religio team in Rome.

Daniel Levine, author of “Politics, Religion and Society in Latin America” and a professor of political science at University of Michigan shared a similar view.  “The fact that he is Latin American is going to energize the Catholic Church, given that Latin America has 40 percent of the world’s Catholics,” he said in a phone interview, referring to Francis. “But in terms of his own openness to structural change, I think it’s pretty limited.” Levine said he thinks Francis will not be open to structural changes because “he is basically a conservative person with a conservative theology and with a conservative political stance.”

The Catholic Church in Argentina has historically been very conservative, most notably because of its ties to the country’s last military dictatorship. “Even within Argentina there’s not one single church,” said Amy Young, a Latin American history professor at The Catholic University of America in Michigan, in a phone interview. “There’s the dominant conservative hierarchy, but there are also liberal bishops and liberal priests and liberal orders…The thing that’s important is that the more powerful members of the hierarchy were more politically conservative and, if they weren’t supportive of the military dictatorship, they weren’t outspoken critics of it.”

Young shared Levine’s perspective about Francis falling on the conservative side of the spectrum. “I think the conventional wisdom on him is that he’s socially conservative,” she said. “That’s not really a surprise because everybody who was being considered for the papacy is socially conservative. But the way that he is different is in that he is from the Americas and he has, by many accounts, lived a humble life and he has chosen to emphasize his solidarity with the poor…and in those ways he could really excite the base in Latin America.”

Energizing the faithful in Latin America would be an important accomplishment for the church considering that, according to a Pew Research Center study, the percentage of Catholics in Latin America dropped from 90 percent at the beginning of the 20th century to 72 percent in 2010. According to Young, many of the Latin Americans leaving the church are joining Protestant churches or becoming secularized.

Young said Francis’ message of caring for the poor could resonate with the people who are leaving the church. “The people who are leaving the church for evangelical churches tend to be lower middle class, urban poor, so it could be a very effective tactic,” she said. “I also think, though, that there are some structural problems that will have to be addressed if the church wants to put a stop to the loss of its population or to people converting out.” According to Young, one of the biggest problems the church faces, and needs to make structural changes to fix, is a decline in vocations. “The fewer priests and nuns they have, the less they’re able to provide a Catholic education and to minister to the community and to reach people at the grassroots level,” she said.

Advocates of a more open church have suggested that allowing the ordination of women and a married priesthood could boost the dwindling numbers of seminarians. Conservatives expect that Francis will hold the line on those issues but will articulate the church’s position in a more convincing way than his predecessor popes. “I don’t think he is going to change things like that,” said Freiberger, referring to Francis. “It’s not about erasing everything and starting from scratch. Tradition has its reasons and I think he will help us rediscover that.”

According to an article by Young, the church’s traditional positions on social issues, like contraception, abortion and gay marriage, may also clash with increasingly liberal Latin American societies, particularly in urban areas. Mexico, Uruguay, and Argentina have all legalized gay marriage, and abortion is legal in Mexico City since 2007 and in Uruguay since 2012. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio was an adamant opponent of gay marriage and government programs to distribute contraceptives. “I don’t see any movement on any of those things, or on the position of women in the church,” said Levine. “I’m sort of pessimistic about it; it’s very controversial. Maybe he’ll be very different in office than his record states, but I wouldn’t think so.”



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