While much remains to be seen regarding the leadership style and priorities of Pope Francis, the themes of the challenge of secularization and evangelization figure prominently in many analyses and forecasts of the new papacy.
The shifting distribution of world Catholicism formed the context of most of the coverage of Pope Francis’s election. The facts are familiar: two-thirds of Catholics used to live in Europe a century ago: there are only 25 percent today, and this figure should be down to 20 percent by 2050, although the special role of Europe should continue, if only for historical reasons and due to the location of the Holy See there. But more than 40 percent of the entire Catholic population resides in Latin America.
Growth over the past century has been the fastest in Africa. For the future, observers look toward Asia, with a big question mark about the potential for growth in China. A pope from Europe is necessarily and acutely aware of the challenge of secularization. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor (March 14), G. Jeffrey MacDonald notes that most observers expect the new pope to vigorously champion the “new evangelization,” which involves bringing lapsed and inactive Catholics (and new converts) back into church life. Pope Francis’s election comes at a time when Catholics in the U.S. and abroad are searching for ways to reverse the sharp dropout rate in the church, particularly among young people.
In an article on the First Things website (March 25), neoconservative Catholic theologian George Weigel reports that the new pope “played a significant role in shaping the Latin American bishops’ 2007 ‘Aparecida Document,’ which embraced the New Evangelization and put it at the center of the church’s life.” Weigel adds that in conversations with the future pope last year, the latter stressed that the idea of a “kept church—kept in the sense of legal establishment, cultural habit or both—had no future in the twenty-first-century West, given the acids of secularism.”
Secularization is not absent in Latin America (see article on Secularization and culture wars gain currency in Latin America), but the level of religious practice is significantly higher and a pope coming from that continent is likely to look at things in a different way, as has already become obvious (no doubt also for reasons linked to the personal style and sensitivities of Pope Francis).
While liberation theology is no longer what it used to be, it has left an impact on Latin American Catholicism. Even sectors of Catholicism hostile to Liberation Theology (this would include Fr. Bergoglio at the time he was head of the Jesuits in Argentina) tend to have an acute awareness of social problems such as poverty. While some evangelicals were initially wary about a South American pope, due to the strong competition with Catholics in that part of the world, the approach of Pope Francis, his simplicity and his emphasis on basic Biblical teachings seem to have dissipated initial questions.
While sometimes faced with secularist politicians, the Catholic Church had long enjoyed a quasi monopoly in South America. The rapid growth of evangelical groups (both imported and, subsequently, increasingly indigenous ones) has changed the situation: in four Latin American countries, more than 30 percent of the population is now Protestant: the figure is 25 percent in Brazil, 9 percent in Argentina.
However, although this created a kind of panic among leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, there have also been dynamic Catholic responses, including the charismatic renewal, which spread during the 1970s, with a varied impact from one country to another.
Today, more than 16 percent of Latin American Catholics identity themselves as charismatics, according to Rodney Stark and Buster G. Smith in an article in Latin American Politics and Society (summer 2012). This has encouraged a strong involvement of lay people in the church. Moreover, Latin American charismatics often develop a concern for social issues as well, and not only for evangelization and faith renewal, writes Henri Gooren in the journal Pneuma (34/2).
(First Things , http://www.firstthings.com; Latin American Politics and Society, http://www.as.miami.edu/clas/publications/laps; Pneuma, http://www.brill.com/pneuma.)