What Pope Francis Means for Latin America

Liberation theology is a radical, pseudo-Marxist school of Catholic social thought that first emerged in Latin America during the mid–20th century. On March 5, one of its strongest advocates died in Venezuela. Eight days later, one of its strongest critics was named pope. Each event could represent a watershed moment for Latin America.

The late Hugo Chávez frequently clashed with Venezuela’s top Catholic authorities, who broadly opposed his efforts to create a socialist dictatorship in their overwhelmingly Catholic country. In 2005, for example, Archbishop Baltazar Porras of Mérida, who was then serving as head of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, said that Chávez and his allies in the priesthood were trying to “debilitate the Church” by promoting liberation theology. Eighteen months later, during his January 2007 inauguration ceremony in Caracas, Chávez called Jesus Christ “the greatest socialist of history.” In 2010, he responded to criticism from Venezuela’s Catholic bishops by thundering, “You all can dress like cardinals and bishops but you belong to the devil. You are the defenders of the most corrupt interests.”

Venezuela is not the only Latin America nation where left-wing autocrats have butted heads with the Church. During the 1980s, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas espoused liberation theology to help justify their dictatorial, Soviet-backed rule in Nicaragua. More recently, it has contributed to the socialist policies of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who in 2006 appointed a liberation theologian as his deputy interior minister and also denounced his country’s Catholic leadership as “an instrument of the oligarchs.”

Meanwhile, in Ecuador, Chávez acolyte Rafael Correa claims to have drawn inspiration from Leonidas Proaño, a prominent Catholic priest and liberation theologian who died in 1988. Predictably, Correa’s authoritarian governance and efforts to undermine the Church have led to conflicts with Catholic officials. In 2008, he said that certain bishops wanted “to leave [Ecuador] in the darkness in which it has always existed,” and he urged young Ecuadoreans to resist being taught by them.

The death of Chávez has deprived Correa and Morales of their ideological mentor. With any luck, says the Economist, it will also “help break the deadlock that has stalled Latin American integration.” Indeed, now that Venezuela has lost its charismatic demagogue, it will be harder for government officials to camouflage the disastrous effects of Chavismo, such as 22 percent inflation, enormous capital flight, crumbling infrastructure, the world’s second-highest murder rate, an elected autocracy, and a demolition of civil liberties. Therefore, it will be harder for other Latin American populists to implement the Chávez model.

While Venezuela’s petro-dictator was trampling democracy and confiscating private property, center-left governments in Brazil, Peru, and other countries were demonstrating a better formula for fighting poverty — one that combines economic freedom and democratic stability with generous social programs.

That is where Pope Francis comes in. During his many years as a bishop and a cardinal in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio built a reputation as a humble, unassuming man with a deep passion for helping the poor. He spoke out against laissez-faire capitalism, but also against the sort of radical leftism practiced by President Cristina Kirchner and her late husband, Néstor, who preceded her in Argentina’s highest office. In 2006, when Néstor Kirchner was still president, Bergoglio declared, “Power is born of confidence, not with manipulation, intimidation, or with arrogance” — an obvious dig at the government. (The first President Kirchner reportedly called Bergoglio the “spiritual head of the political opposition.”) He has always been a staunch opponent of liberation theology.

Now that the 76-year-old Bergoglio has become pope, he is a global symbol with a powerful megaphone. Thus, he can play a much bigger role in Latin America’s ongoing debate over poverty reduction. Bergoglio has said that he would like to see “a poor Church, for the poor.” Hopefully, his words and actions will persuade Latin Americans that liberation theology and other radical creeds are the wrong answer to social inequality. Hopefully, his stature and visibility will bolster Catholic leaders in countries where democracy and human rights are under siege.

Bergoglio ascended to the papacy at a time when the global demographics of the Church are shifting. There are now 483 million Catholics living in Latin America, compared with only 277 million in Europe, which means that Latin America is home to more than 41 percent of Catholics while Europe is home to fewer than 24 percent. And yet, the Catholic Church has been steadily losing adherents in Latin America, as it competes with evangelical-Protestant faiths and also with rising secularism.

The growth of Pentecostalism has been particularly notable in Brazil. Between 1970 and 2010, the proportion of Brazilians identifying as Catholic dropped from 90 percent to 65 percent. In Latin America as a whole, Catholics’ population share declined from 81 percent in 1996 to 70 percent in 2010, with Protestants growing from 4 percent of the population to 13 percent.

As Baylor University scholar Philip Jenkins points out, secularism is much more widespread in some Latin American countries than in others. For example, Uruguay is by far the most secular country in the region — a remarkable 40 percent of Uruguayans have no religious affiliation at all. (Not surprisingly, Uruguay also has, by Latin American standards, relatively liberal abortion laws — along with same-sex civil unions and gay adoption — and it may soon legalize gay marriage.) By contrast, writes Jenkins, countries such as Chile and Colombia are still rather conservative.

By concentrating his efforts on the poor, Pope Francis is hoping to make the Church seem more relevant to the lives of young Latin Americans. Known to affectionate Argentines as a “slum pope” for his work in some of the bleakest, most dangerous parts of Buenos Aires, he has reminded us what a real champion of the poor looks like. Though a profoundly conservative man, he has the potential to be a transformative figure, both for the Catholic Church in general and for Latin America in particular.