While Latin America today is an area of relative religious homogeneity with roughly 90% of the population identifying as Christian, there is still much diversity within Christianity, and non-Christian groups are steadily growing larger. This week, Cornerstone contributors comment on the following question: what kinds of challenges do Latin American countries face when it comes to religious freedom?
By: Matthew Carnes
In his recently completed visit to Latin America, Pope Francis set a new tone for religious dialogue in the region. Offering 22 speeches over the course of his weeklong journey to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay, he addressed both the Catholic faithful and a broader set of social actors—representing indigenous faiths, social movements, labor unions, women’s organizations, farmers, and landless peasants. Throughout, he practiced a new approach to the Church’s engagement in this heavily-Christian region, one that emphasizes humility, listening and accompaniment, and a gentle (re-)invitation to a shared faith.
The Catholic Church has had a dominant role in Latin American societies since the arrival of European settlers some five centuries ago. Pope Francis acknowledged this when he asserted in his speech to social movements in Bolivia that, “the Church, her sons and daughters, are part of the identity of the peoples of Latin America.” Historically, this made it a dominant social actor, one that offered structure, meaning, and support to people in all segments of society. Its beliefs and rituals, parish communities, local priests, and regional bishops touched nearly every aspect of Latin American life.
Yet Pope Francis took a new stance toward this central role of the Catholic Church in Latin America, suggesting that it can no longer be taken for granted, and must be accompanied by humility. In fact, he admitted that the Church had lost some of its credibility in the region due to its complicity in “grave sins,” most notably in the “crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.” Likewise, during the Cold War, some in Church leadership gave tacit support to dictatorial regimes in the Americas.
In addition, he seemed acutely aware that the Church has seen many adherents turn to other forms of Christianity in recent decades, especially Pentecostal churches that emphasize a more direct and spirit-filled form of prayer. He reached out to these fellow Christians not with reproach or questioning, but rather with a sense of fraternal respect and even encouragement. In a particular way, he seemed open to their style of prayer, and drew links between it and the Church’s devotional practices. It was a striking contrast from earlier centuries, in which Church leaders spoke as unquestioned (and unquestionable) sources of authority. Francis offered a model of humility as the path to engagement, especially in an increasingly plural world.
But a new humility has not implied a retreat from speaking boldly. Rather, it has become all the more forthright, especially when speaking on matters of economic and ecological justice as experienced by the Church in its poorest and most marginalized members. In each setting, Pope Francis spoke as one who has been listening carefully to the lived experience of the poor. He was unafraid to adopt the language they use—calling for meaningful “change” to a system that has too often left them without equal access to “land, lodging, and labor.” This language has rankled the sensibilities of some who see it as a papal threat to global capitalism, but it is best understood as the pope using his own voice to speak the truth experienced by the Church’s members among the poor.
Powerfully, Pope Francis made these often-ignored Christians the protagonists of the Church’s mission of justice and reconciliation between peoples and with creation. “You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands.” They are the actors who will chart out the Church’s influence in our world. The Church, and its leadership embodied in the hierarchy, are at the service of this evangelical project.
Indeed, listening to the lived needs of the poor provides the impetus for bold new dialogue in the church. Concern about economic inequality, environmental degradation, and the struggles of Christians to live their marriages and family life faithfully in the light of broken relationships, divorce, and social change, emerge from the real challenges faced by the Church in its members. Engaging them moves the Church out of safe theological verities and into the complexity of markets, ecology, and social norms; Pope Francis seems ready to embrace this task, and especially to entrust it to the faith-filled experience of those who sit in the pews and live their lives in the world.
Finally, Pope Francis’ vision of religious dialogue seems to involve a gentle invitation, or re-invitation, to faith. His focus on economic and environmental issues springs, first and foremost, from his deep engagement with the gospels, where Jesus lives and breathes God’s desire to reconcile all creation, in all its beauty and fragility. But he recognizes that not all people of good will share his faith—or any faith—so he reaches out to them in an effort to invite them into a larger religious version. In an earlier era, the Church quite openly practiced proselytism; in the Francis era, it reaches out with a personal invitation into depth and prayer, built on a shared foundation of respect and purpose.
A particularly telling moment came in off-the-cuff remarks Pope Francis made at the end of his address to the social movements and indigenous groups in Bolivia. As has become his practice, he asked for prayers from his interlocutors. But then he noted that he respected the fact that many there were not Catholic, or even Christian, so he asked them to “send me good waves” (me manden buena onda). It was a gesture that spoke volumes—a humble recognition of the diversity of those present, an honest deference to their commitment to justice and the good will they had shown him, and an invitation to be united at a spiritual level.
Humility, listening, bold proclamation, and an invitation to faith. These stand as the new model of religious dialogue in Latin America. They echo the framework Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio helped establish at the meeting of Latin American bishops at Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, and they now find embodiment in his leadership as Pope Francis.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an associate professor of government at Georgetown University.
This piece was originally authored on August 4, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.