A New Pope, and Maybe a New Era

BY Ray Suarez  March 14, 2013 at 6:54 PM EST

Pope Francis in 2013, then the Argentine archbishop, during a mass for Ash Wednesday at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Juan Mabromata/ AFP/ Getty Images.

The aging, French cardinal proto-deacon Jean-Louis Tauran stepped in front of the microphone, and in a slightly croaky voice announced in Latin that a new pope had been chosen, and I strained to catch the name, Dominum Georgium Marium…Hold on a minute, Lord George Mario…Which one of the much speculated-upon princes of the church — Boston, Milan, Ghana, Canada — was named George? “Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio,” Cardinal Tauran continued — roughly, Cardinal Bergoglio of the Holy Roman Church? Which one of the front-runner was Bergoglio, who is going to call himself Franciscum?

As it turns out, none of them.

Instead it was the first pope from the Global South. The first Jesuit. The first Francis, eight centuries after the revered monk of Assisi sought to reform a decadent church. All exciting. Also, the first Latin American, the first pope to take the seat of Peter who is from the home of four of every ten Catholics on the planet. The news of the selection of Papa Francisco has been greeted with spontaneous celebration in genuine excitement in his home archdiocese of Buenos Aires and throughout Latin America. The swath of the earth that runs from roughly Tijuana in the northwest to Puerto Rico in the northeast, then down to the tip of South America, is the most Catholic region on earth, so understandably it is a very big deal for Latino Catholics.

To go much further than that gets complicated. The church Pope Francis now leads has had a rough 60 years in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking nations of the hemisphere. In many places the church had become allied with the small group of families that controlled too much of the wealth and power of many Latin American countries. As with American presidents, Central and South American leaders had to pass a key test to remain in good graces: be strongly anti-communist. In its European homeland, the Catholic Church saw its bishops and priests jailed and harassed in Eastern Europe, and communist parties making steady progress at the ballot box.

That staunch anti-communism left the Church highly suspicious of social democrats, of left-wing political movements and eventually of what came to be called Liberation Theology. Priests who worked with the poor of Latin America preached and taught that it was not beyond the duty of the church to criticize social structures that left the majority of Latin American deep in poverty.

The pope of the last chapters of the Cold War, John Paul II, was outspoken in his disdain for Liberation Theology, and oversaw the release of official reprimands of theologians who saw in the teachings of Jesus a duty to push back against social structures that kept their people poor. In the coming weeks and months we will learn more about where the young priest Jorge Bergoglio stood during the years of authoritarian military rule in his home country of Argentina.

While it is true that the church still holds the love and devotion of hundreds of millions of rank and file faithful in Latin America, there is also a strong history of anti-clericalism, deep-seated distrust of the hierarchy and a kind of reflexive anti-religiosity. New elites in Mexico and in the Pope’s native Argentine have revisited laws regarding abortion, birth control, and same-sex marriage. In those same countries, big, new Protestant churches making are strong inroads in places where most people have been Catholic since the 16th and 17th centuries.

At the same time, the new middle class from Nuevo Laredo on Mexico’s northern border down to the Beagle Strait at the bottom of Argentina and Chile has less use for the church than ever before. In many countries mass attendance is down, and the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching no longer holds the same kind of sway in national legislatures.

In the United States the rapid growth of the Latino Catholic population has made up for the steady loss of other American Catholics from the pews. Among Latinos in the United States, however, there are big changes under way, just as in the Caribbean, Central and South America. More Latinos in the U.S. are becoming Protestants as part of their American assimilation and acculturation. More Latinos are arriving in the United States as immigrants already Protestant, as big U.S. denominations support evangelism in Latin America. Megachurch networks like Templo Calvario in the Southwest offer an exuberant style of worship and fewer of the rules and restrictions young Latinos associate, rightly or wrongly, with the modern Catholic Church.

Finally, one of the more interesting sets of reactions I’ve seen among Latinos in social media is to talk about whether Pope Francis is a Latino at all. Born and raised in Argentina, of Italian immigrant parents, the former Cardinal Bergoglio doesn’t come from a family with deep roots in the Hemisphere. He speaks Italian, the mother tongue of his parents, as the jubilant crowd in St. Peter’s Square heard on Wednesday, but with a charming Spanish accent. Like the United States, Argentina is very heavily a nation of immigrants. It seems like a quibble to question whether a man born, raised, educated in a country is really of that place.

What’s certain is that the new Pope has enormous challenges, in the mini-state of Vatican City, and with the church worldwide. Catholic Liberals waiting for a new approach to some of the long-standing debates in the church have very little reason to believe one is coming. The word catholic means universal. That this global religious body has elevated a leader from Latin America is a source of joy and pride to many, but also an unremarkable affirmation of catholicity. With a small minority of the world’s Catholics now in Europe, look for a smaller percentage of its leaders to be European in the coming generations as well.