“I know a lot of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the universal church,” Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who holds Benedict’s old post as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said last year.
Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican department for Christian unity, has suggested the same. “It would be good if there were candidates from Africa or South America at the next conclave,” he said, also last year. When asked whether that meant a vote for a non-European over a European, the Swiss cardinal replied at the time, “Yes.”
Certainly, there would be a historical symmetry if Latin America provided the next pope. What began at a small Mass on the island of Hispaniola in 1494, went on to become the church’s greatest evangelizing project. Yet more than 500 years on, Latin America accounts for just 19 of the 118 members of the College of Cardinals who will choose the next pope.
In many ways, Latin America represents a crucible of the challenges that the church faces worldwide, even if it is often imagined from afar as a Catholic “growth market.”
“The church has the same problems here as elsewhere, except with more Catholics and fewer priests,” said James Alison, a noted theologian and author based in Brazil. “The central challenge is how to deal with modern questions in a way that is honest and transparent.”
As elsewhere, secularism is slimming down the ranks. On a recent Sunday in Our Lady of Mercy parish in southern Mexico City, Celia Castro Velazquez, a 76-year-old worshiper, lamented the diminished size of the congregation attending Mass that day and what she called declining moral standards. “Today’s generation goes to football or to wrestling,” she said.
But Castro Velazquez, a lifelong Catholic, also said the institution had not done enough to appeal to younger Mexicans. “The church has got a big problem,” she said. “It doesn’t know how to promote itself.”
Plunging fertility rates, for one thing, suggest that strictures on contraception are rarely observed. In 1960, women in Latin America had almost six children on average; now they have about two.
Catholicism’s spiritual “market share” has always been less strong than it appeared, as it is often mixed with effervescent popular beliefs.
In Mexico, for instance, a cult has grown up around Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. Daniel, who is homeless, visits a Santa Muerte shrine in central Mexico City regularly. Peering through the glass panes that protect a black-robed, life-size skeleton complete with scythe, the 20-year-old says Santa Muerte has watched over him more than any saint from mainstream Catholicism.