A New World Pope

Pope Francis at his inauguration mass
The inauguration mass for Pope Francis. [Photo by Catholic Church (England and Wales), used via Flickr Creative Commons license.] 

This is proving to be an historic year for the Catholic Church. In an unexpected move, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation in February, becoming the first pontiff to step down in nearly 600 years. His successor is a Jesuit from Latin America a first for both who will lead more than one billion Catholics worldwide.

In light of these monumental changes, we caught up with Matthew Butler, associate professor of modern Mexican history with research interests in Latin American Catholicism, to discuss the influence of Pope Francis and what the future holds for the Catholic Church.

A recent census indicates that only 65 percent of Brazilians identify as Catholic, down from more than 90 percent in 1970. What sparked this decline? 

associate professor Matthew Butler
Matthew Butler [Photo by Allen Quigley] 

From the mid-20th century the Church faced real religious competition from new institutional rivals. It also faced a rapidly changing social context, one that sometimes it was slow or ill-equipped to understand. Protestantism which in countries like Brazil, Chile and now even Mexico accounted for big depletions in the numbers affiliated to the Catholic Church made enormous inroads in some indigenous communities and urban diasporas, the last of which grew prodigiously from the mid-20th century.

Slippage in Catholicism has been driven by the search for spiritual alternatives in emerging social constituencies that saw orthodox Catholicism as remote or irrelevant, combined with enormous increases in the variety of religious goods on offer. Some new religious actors proved themselves far more agile than the Catholic clergy in embedding themselves in these new sectors. You could even say that secularization in Latin America has really just meant, at least until now, the fragmentation of religious identities, rather than outright loss of faith. It is only the most recent census returns, at least for Mexico, that show significant numbers of people saying they have no religious affiliation at all.

Will a Latin American pope lure some of those Catholics back to the fold?

The short answer is "no." The longer one is "wait and see." People haven't left the Catholic Church because popes were Italians or Polish, but because for some the Church was too rigid and ceased to express their spiritual and social yearnings adequately or at all. So, it would be naïve to expect the Latin American Church to revitalize itself on a wave of identification with an Argentine pope.

The success of Francis's papacy from a Latin American perspective will depend on what kind of a pope he turns out to be rather than any kind of nationalistic or regional identification. The media coverage in Latin America which shifted within a matter of hours from a congratulatory tone expressing surprise and excitement at the election of the first Latin American pope to a far more critical appraisal of Francis's social mission and political trajectory gave instant evidence of that. In Argentina and Mexico, for instance, there were critical reflections almost at once on Francis's affection for celebrating Mass among Catholics in the poorest barrios in Buenos Aires, his opposition to gay civil marriage or his stance during Argentina's military juntas, with which the Argentine Church maintained bitterly controversial ties.

There has been much discussion about the uniqueness of a papal resignation. Will there be more?

It's always possible, but I doubt it. The papacy is a kind of elected sacral-monarchical office for which there are clear rules of succession. Benedict's resignation seems to reflect a specific conjuncture of circumstances, including ill health. The change is ad hoc, not a permanent innovation.

Pope Francis has been described as a champion of the poor. Why is it important for the pope to advocate human rights?

It will depend on which rights, and on whose behalf, Francis decides to advocate. If he can steer the Latin American Church beyond its current fixation on moralistic issues and touch on broader social questions, this role could still be important. A lot has been made of the fact that Francis has chosen the name of the saint of the poor, which might suggest that he will privilege their concerns.

Less has been made of the fact that the followers of St. Francis were also the first friars to begin evangelizing the Americas in the 1520s. It would be exciting if Francis turned out to be a rebuilder of the American Church in that tradition and allowed the Church to speak with a more independent voice from the grassroots of Latin American society.

Matthew Butler is the author of "Popular Piety and Political Identity in Mexico's Cristero rebellion: Michoacán, 1927-1929" (Oxford, 2004), and editor of "Faith and Impiety in revolutionary Mexico" (New York, 2007). He has published numerous articles on 20th-century Latin American religious history, with special emphasis on the history of the Catholic Church in revolutionary Mexico.

For a longer version of this interview, visit Life and Letters.