The historic election of the first non-European Jesuit superior-general points to two great trends in the Church. First, the new focus on Latin America, home to 40 per cent of the world’s Catholics, initiated by the election of the Argentine Pope Francis, has sharpened with the appointment of the Venezuelan Fr Arturo Sosa Abascal. Second, within Latin America, the fact that the new top “Black Robe” is Venezuelan is not without significance. The Church has been embattled in the South American nation during the past 17 years of Chávismo, currently led by the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro.
Months before Francis’s election, I had forecast the election of a Latin American pope, although I was convinced the world’s cardinals would select a Brazilian confrère, not an Argentine one. It was not insider information leaked from the Vatican that led me to predict this; rather, as a historian of Latin American Christianity with a sociological bent, I was acutely aware of the grave situation of the Church in the region.
The most Catholic continent on earth, which claimed 98 per cent of all Latin Americans as recently as 1970, has suffered massive losses over the past five decades to the point that the region is now only 69 per cent Catholic. Most Catholics are not institutionally observant, rarely or never attending Mass or actively participating in Church life. In Sosa’s Venezuela only 10 per cent of the country’s Catholic population of 73 per cent are observant.
The haemorrhaging of members from the Church is such that several Latin American nations are no longer majority Catholic, such as Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Uruguay. If the trend does not reverse it is likely that even Brazil, home to the world’s largest Catholic population, will no longer have a Catholic majority by 2030. Currently 61 per cent of Brazilians identify as Catholic and, as in Venezuela, most do not actively participate in Church life.
Of course the primary beneficiary of Catholic decline in the region has been Pentecostalism, which has been surging since the 1970s to the point that almost a quarter of Brazilians belong to this charismatic branch of Protestantism, born in the US during the first decade of the 20th century. Brazil is now also home to the largest Pentecostal population on earth, ahead of its birthplace.
In large measure the first Latin American pontiff was elected following the state of panic over precipitous Catholic decline in the region that is of paramount importance to the global Church. Who better to stanch the bleeding than a Latin American cardinal himself?
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