For decades the prospect of a pope from outside Europe has both excited and alarmed observers of the Roman Catholic Church. As the number of Catholics has grown steadily in the Global South, the continuing domination of the church by European prelates has seemed ever more unjust. By 2030 nearly 80 percent of the world’s Catholics will live in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, and Africa will be home to more Catholics than Europe itself. Is such a church to be headed forever by those from Western Europe, a region rapidly succumbing to secularism?
The shift was going to come, and when it did, no country was better suited to provide the pathbreaker than Argentina. Finally we see a pope who can claim to speak for Latin America and the non-European world. For Catholics of the Global South, the symbolic move is decisive and probably marks the start of an indefinite sequence of non-European popes.
A daring thought: Might Benedict XVI earn his place in the encyclopedias chiefly as the last European pope?
The more we examine Argentina, the more perfect Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio seems as a choice, even for the more conservative Europeans. If we imagine an Italian cardinal grumbling at being forced to look overseas for a pope, it quickly becomes clear why an Argentine would be the most attractive choice. While North Americans tend to lump Latin American countries together, Argentina is in fact distinctive.
It is by far the most European nation on its continent, and specifically the most Italian. People of Italian heritage represent a large proportion of its population, and in the late 19th century it was the favored destination of those Italian migrants who did not head to the United States. Of course the country has plenty of other ethnic groups, notably Germans and Syrians/Lebanese, but it is the Italian character that has most profoundly marked Argentina’s society and politics. Just as the British see Australia and New Zealand as distant cousins, so many Italians regard Argentina.
Argentina is also notably European in its history and tradition. It is Latin American, yes, but emphatically not part of the third world. At least through the 1950s, Argentina was definitively part of the advanced West, the first world, to the point that economists wrote learned essays on why Argentina had succeeded so thoroughly while other colonial possessions, like Australia, remained in the doldrums of underdevelopment and colonial exploitation. Right up to the 1940s, Buenos Aires was one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated cities, commonly fifth in line after London, New York, Paris, and Berlin.
Moreover, unlike other Latin American countries such as Mexico or Brazil, Argentina has only a small surviving Native or Indian population, so questions of religious inculturation scarcely arise.
Additionally, the Argentine church faces problems that are immediately recognizable from Rome or Madrid. While the country has small Pentecostal and evangelical minorities, they are nowhere near as strong as in neighboring Brazil or Chile. Instead, the greatest challenge comes from secularism; perhaps 15 percent declare themselves nonreligious, and the great majority of self-declared Catholics practice the faith minimally, if at all. Many notional Catholics spurn the church’s attempts to intervene in the public realm.
As early as 2002, the city of Buenos Aires legalized same-sex marriage, defying the fulminations of the church hierarchy. In 2010 the whole country adopted a similar policy on same-sex unions, making it the pioneering Latin American nation on this issue. (The national debate was a high-profile defeat for Bergoglio, who had invested a good deal of political capital in the struggle.)
In crude terms, the choice of Cardinal Bergoglio meant symbolically picking a pope from the Global South, while in fact opting for the most European alternative and the closest thing to an Italian.
What people want, though, is often very different from what they will get.
In some ways, Bergoglio really does speak the language of the Latin American church, as suggested by his highly distinctive choice of papal name. In the history of that continent, the church has largely been shaped by religious orders, including the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and Bergoglio’s own, the Jesuits. By taking the name Francis, the new pope asserts that history, and spans the boundaries and rivalries that once separated the different orders.
Incidentally, the name Francis also recalls the last Latin American who was a serious candidate for the papal office, the Brazilian Claudio Hummes, former archbishop of São Paulo. Although theologically conservative, Hummes had radical political leanings and supported the movement of the landless. In part, that radicalism stemmed from his Franciscan roots. Bergoglio’s choice of papal name may nod to that heritage.
Bergoglio is also clearly an heir to the strong tradition of social-justice activism in the Latin American church. Again, this owes much to his Argentine background. If Argentina was once regarded as a hemispheric success story in economic development, its history since the 1950s has been much grimmer, with systematic decline and repeated bouts of hyperinflation, reaching catastrophic dimensions during the crisis of 1999 to 2002. In consequence, people who regarded themselves as citizens of a prosperous near-European economy faced ruin, the annihilation of their savings, and the loss of their jobs and homes.
Naturally, having lived through such a disaster, Bergoglio has placed the church’s social mission front and center in ways that a European would regard as alarmingly radical. Even more than the last two incumbents, Francis I will speak forcefully and critically about neoliberalism and global economic exploitation.
So yes, the arrival of Francis I matters most for its symbolic significance, in declaring the church’s southward shift. But at the same time it may well represent the arrival of distinctively Latin American concerns and demands in the church’s highest office.
Philip Jenkins teaches at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.