By Stephen Selka, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Stephen Selka is assistant professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at Indiana University. The views expressed are his own.
That one of the biggest hopes for the new pope’s tenure is that things will change goes without saying. No one needs to be reminded of all of the challenges that the Roman Catholic Church is facing, including declining membership and the mishandling of sex abuse scandals. At the same time, the church has maintained a conservative stance on Church doctrine for decades, and that is not likely to change anytime soon under Pope Francis.
For many, especially the approximately 40 percent of Roman Catholics who live in Latin America, what is most obviously appealing about the new pope is that he is from Argentina. South America, of course, is part of the broader global south, a region that Andrew Chesnut, professor of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently referred to as “the future of Christianity” in an interview with the BBC. Indeed, the southern hemisphere is where the majority of Catholics reside – around 70 percent, in fact. Beyond that, however, it is a place shaped by very different religious currents than those in Europe and North America. In the north, since the middle of the twentieth century, for example, Catholicism and Christianity in general have had to contend with a proliferation of new religious movements and a growing skepticism towards religious authority. In the global south, the major challenge that the Catholic Church has faced during that same time period has been the growth of Pentecostal Christianity.
Conversion to Pentecostalism is the biggest single factor in accounts of the Church’s lost influence in Latin America. In the 1960s, more than 90 percent of Latin Americans identified as Catholic, a number now down in the range of 70 percent in many countries. In Brazil, the country with the largest Catholic population in the world, 22 percent of the population identified as “evangélico” on the 2010 census. In this context, the Catholic Church has had to struggle to maintain or re-establish its appeal and relevance. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal – a movement that centers on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, healing, and deliverance from evil forces – has been central to this struggle. Centuries ago, during the Reconquista, the Spanish and Portuguese came to see the Americas as new areas of colonization and conversion. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal and the selection of a Latin American pope are both part of the struggle to win back hearts in minds in the Americas and the rest of the global south: The Reconquista Redux.
Besides his nationality, observers often highlight the new pope’s conservatism. On the political side, he has been accused of remaining silent during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s, and some have even claimed that he was complicit with the military dictatorship against his more left-leaning Jesuit brethren who embraced liberation theology. More recently, his doctrinal conservatism strained the relationship with President Cristina Kirchner when he opposed her efforts to provide free contraception and to establish Argentina as the first country in Latin America to recognize gay marriage. Kirchner likened the Cardinal’s stance as from “medieval times and the Inquisition.” Whatever his relationship with the military regime, Bergoglio has consistently opposed liberation theology throughout his career. Before becoming Pope Benedict, of course, Cardinal Ratingzer officially denounced liberation theology as a “threat to the faith” and an “error.” Now his successor is someone who has opposed liberation theology in the trenches but embraces its emphasis on the “preferential option for the poor.” Partly for that reason, at least one prominent liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, said that he was “encouraged” by the selection of Bergoglio.
This concern with the poor is of course reflected in Bergoglio’s choice to take Francis as his name. This renewed emphasis seems to be in lines with the Church’s recognition of where its future lies – in regions where poverty is a serious problem. Pope Francis, sort of like his namesake, has gained a reputation for living simply; while in Buenos Aires he lived in a humble apartment, took the bus to work and avoided flying business class to Rome. Indeed, as Cardinal of Argentina he was witness to abject poverty and widespread downward mobility that resulted from the global financial crisis of the early 2000s. During this time, although he always opposed the country’s liberationist hard line, he publically criticized neoliberal economic policies and the International Monetary Fund. But how will Bergoglio’s having been on the front lines during a spectacular failure of neoliberal capitalism affect the stances he takes as pope?
Ultimately, many will be wondering what changes we are likely to see under Pope Francis. The most immediate will probably best be described as “house cleaning,” including tackling inefficiency and corruption in the Curia and the Vatican bank. These are urgent but mundane issues, and dealing with them was clearly not Benedict’s strong suit. The more critical and more pressing issue, of course, is the sex abuse accusations that the Church is perceived as not yet having properly addressed. This was also a challenge that Benedict also appears not to have been up to, the speculation about his own sins in the wake of his resignation notwithstanding. Victims of abuse around the world are calling for the new pope to address this head on, so his early moves on this front will be crucial.
Many were surprised at Bergoglio’s selection, some calling him a dark horse. But in many ways he is the right man for his time and place. Although his views on social issues appear reactionary, from a global perspective he is something of a centrist. And while in his first address he said that his brother cardinals had chosen one “from far away,” few others are so in the middle of where the Church’s future seems to lie.