Pope Francis is welcomed in Latin America, but Catholics remain skeptical

July 25, 2013

A sand sculpture that resembles Pope Francis sits on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. The 76-year-old Argentine is the Catholic Church’s first pontiff from the Americas. (Victor R. Caivano / AP)

Pope Francis arrived in Río de Janeiro to an ebullient greeting from a mass of young pilgrims from all over the continent, but it is no secret that many Latin American Catholics view the visit with skepticism and even indifference. They believe that the Church long ago distanced itself from those who still consider themselves part of the dwindling flock—many of whom rarely show up for Mass.

Few voices express concern for the state of the church as clearly as that of The Rev. Felipe Berríos, a Chilean Jesuit who left his country two years ago for an assignment in Rwanda. In a recent interview from Africa, Berríos laid out his frustration with the Church in his homeland. His biggest disappointment: Bishops who remain strangely quiet in the face of popular discontent—often expressed in the streets—over entrenched economic and social inequality. Berríos hopes Francis can start to set things right.

The Church in Latin America was not always so disengaged. Catholicism in the Spanish and Portuguese empires was more than just the law of the land; it was a tool kit for believers to build their own expressions of faith. The result was a cohort of local saints, rural sanctuaries to the Virgin Mary, vibrant street rituals, and brotherhoods made up by people of all colors.

Vatican II was another good moment for Latin American Catholicism. Its clear option for the poor energized the clergy and the laity alike, and gave dignity to millions of men and women left behind for centuries. But as Berríos points out, the soon-to-be canonized Pope John Paul II crushed liberation theology. Instead, he threw his weight behind the profoundly conservative new orders of priests within the Catholic Church, the darlings of the business and social elite. Beginning in the 1980s, foreign priests in well-cut suits and flowing cassocks blessed their highrise business headquarters and sponsored their exclusive schools and universities.

In Chile, these pious traditionalists rebounded from Allende’s socialism in an embrace of mutual protection with Pinochet, whose Chicago Boys installed a virtually unfettered market for education, health and pensions plans. After 40 years, everyone but the business elite is fed up with the model, as the massive street protests of the past two years have made abundantly clear.

Felipe Berríos insists that the Church can no longer stay out of the fray, and must step in as a counterweight to the market. He also urges the Church to end its own forms of social discrimination: Catholic schools pick and choose their students on the basis of wealth, religious conformity and the marital status of their parents. Several universities belonging to conservative Catholic groups are located in exclusive hilltop neighborhoods far from the city bus lines. Berríos maintains that they routinely deny entrance to the poor, the disabled, and those of undistinguished social origins.

Like many, Felipe Berríos is pleased by the small gestures of Pope Francis. As someone who good-naturedly acknowledges on camera the scruffy state of his own shoes, he is happy that Francis has declined to wear red velvet slippers. But he warns that little will change until Francis can install energetic bishops and encourages them to lead the faithful toward a more just society. Pope Francis must cleave the local Church from the grip of conservative business interests in the region and weigh in on the protests taking place in the street over the high cost of a college degree or a night’s stay in the hospital, price tags that are among the most expensive in the OECD.

Francis knows that the millions cheering for him in Río are only a small part of his audience. Most of his Latin American public is at home, more attuned to the news of a royal birth than the visit of a prince of the Church. If the pope hopes to reengage the frustrated and fallen away, it will take more than just gestures of austerity and words of compassion for the poor. It will take a new set of clerical managers willing to actively teach and defend the values of the Church.

celia
Celia Cussen is a professor of Latin American history in Santiago, Chile. She is the author of the forthcoming book, ‘The Life and Afterlife of Martín de Porres, Afroperuvian Saint,’ and is currently researching African slavery in colonial Chile. Follow her on Twitter at @Celia_Cussen.

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Judy Howard Ellis · July 25, 2013