BY PAUL ELISH:
First, as an introduction, this is a blog about Latin America. By that, I hope to convey that it’s about Latin America in a significantly sweeping sense. I’d like to cover Boom literature as much as bureaucratic authoritarianism, Cabral’s voyage to Brazil in 1500 as much as Brazilian World Cup protests in 2013, Che as much as Pinochet, and indigenous peoples as much as immigrant populations beyond Latin America’s bounds. In a sense, this blog is intended to be fiercely catholic in the universal sense of the word.
As it so happens, this inaugural blog post happens to be pretty Catholic too, so bear with me. Pope Francis is making major publicity waves from the Holy See, and the fact that he’s Latin American is of no small consequence. I happened to be in El Salvador when the news of an Argentine pope was announced, and Catholic churches across the country rang their bells with particular fervor as newspapers trumpeted the news of a Spanish-American Vatican. Even Brazilians, while still insistent that “God is Brazilian,” welcomed Francis especially warmly as a fellow South American upon his arrival in Rio for World Youth Day. More than half a millennium after Iberians brought the Catholic faith to the Americas in what will be an eternally polemical conquest, Latin America has conquered St. Peter’s Basilica.
But getting beyond the rhetoric, I am led to question what the Pope’s being Latin American really entails. Meandering through online opinion pieces, it becomes clear there exists a range of views on the subject. Some emphasize that his Italian heritage and proclivity for tangoing and mate-drinking betray a quintessential Argentine. I found Latinos in the United States arguing that Pope Francis is Latino, given that he shares their particular experience of migration as the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina. But it might be that Pope Francis, through his recent statements on women, gays, abortion, contraception, immigration, and a host of other subjects that have kindled interest in even the most liberal of minds, is tapping into that specific thread of Latin American Catholicism, namely, that tendency to bring up issues that challenge the Church’s status quo. The question arises as to whether Francis might be a revolutionary pope.
For the sake of making this interesting, let’s say Pope Francis really intends to broadly reform the Vatican establishment (which isn’t necessarily the case). If so, some might deem him to be following in the footsteps of figures like Bartolomé de las Casas, who rocked Spain’s 16th-century religious and regal establishment by challenging the treatment of indigenous peoples by Spanish conquistadores after personally witnessing the colonization process in Latin America. Better yet, it is possible that Pope Francis is going to bring liberation theology, that doctrine of Latin American origin that has been criticized for politicizing Catholicism through its “preferential option for the poor,” into St. Peter’s Square itself. Even if he didn’t support liberation theology in 1970s Argentina (and there’s some questioning as to whether he might have been darkly unsympathetic to the Argentine Left in the Church and beyond during the years of Argentine dictatorship), Pope Francis could turn out to be like El Salvador’s Óscar Romero, gradually becoming more amenable to this form of “real world application” of Jesus’ teachings until he actually espouses it himself. Given that he’s already had an audience with the founding mind behind liberation theology, an acceptance of its tenets isn’t off the table, in spite of Vatican opposition to it as recently as under his predecessor, Benedict XVI. There are precedents for figures in Latin American history shaking the foundations of the Catholic Church.
Still, for every article that says this Age of Francis is a revolutionary phase in Church history, plenty of people will tell you that Pope Francis has no intention of changing doctrine. Women are not going to be ordained, gay couples’ marriage vows are not going to be officiated by Catholic priests, and abortion certainly isn’t going to be embraced by the Church anytime soon. Pope Francis even clashed with Cristina Kirchner in Buenos Aires during his episcopate over issues like gay marriage shortly before becoming pope. In short, it’s probably true that Francis has no objective of changing the basic premises of Church teaching; he’s just been shifting priorities by deemphasizing aforementioned hot-button issues while elevating ideas of a poor Church oriented toward the disenfranchised that the medieval Francis would have championed.
But intentions aren’t everything. Whether or not people are “misreading” the Pope’s statements, as some claim, the fact of the matter is that many are reading this as a hint toward top-down change to reflect the bottom-up, grassroots forces that have been sweeping through the world’s Catholic flock (and draining adherents from it) in recent decades. That spark, that perception of contestations of the current standard’s being legitimized by the Pope himself, promises to create the ingredient that is far more important to revolution than discontent: opportunity. Francis’ new publicity has, in the minds of many, created that opportunity to effect change. I’m of the opinion that Pope Francis’ Vatican is worth watching with regard to shifts in global Catholicism, if not in the sense that the Vatican will be a nexus of change, then in the sense of the changes being unleashed in the Church at the ground level, partially inspired by Francis’ publicity.
Ultimately, I think it could be agreed that Francis is calling on the Vatican to put an end to its seeming aloof, just as events in Latin America have challenged the Church to step outside the bounds of theology into the daily reality of the most marginalized members of society. In Latin America, the Church’s response to that call has varied widely. Nevertheless, that challenge is what, I would argue, makes this a truly Latin American papacy.
Paul Elish ’15 is in Saybrook College. As a Notebook blogger, Paul covers Latin American politics and culture, both regionally and in New Haven. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.