Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Church: Silence and Expectations

A constant in different polls carried all over Latin America is the great level of trust (confianza) that the Catholic Church enjoys. Latinobarómetro, Consulta Mitofsky, and many other pollsters regularly register trust levels for the Catholic Church well into the 70 and even 80 percent.

This perception (which is nothing but that) is the source of great tension and debates inside and outside the Church. Do such measures represent an unrestrained ability of the Church to set the public agenda in the countries of the region, in ways similar to those of Italy? Hardly.

Is the Catholic Church falling in patterns similar to those of Europe? Hardly. Is competition with other Christian (Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals) or non-Christian (Jehovah’s Witnesses) or para-Christian (Mormons) denominations shaping the Latin American landscape in similar ways to those observed since the mid 18th century in what is nowadays the United States? I do not think so.

The evolution of Catholic Church, and religion at large, in the region follows historically situated patterns. There are some similarities with processes going on in different countries of Europe, and some with processes occurring in the United States, but for the most part, Latin America poses a key challenge to the future of Catholicism.

I think that even the Vatican itself is having a hard time figuring out how to address the religious conundrum posed by Latin America. A way to measure the problems that the Vatican is having trying to develop pastoral policies for the region is to observe the silence of the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI. So far, there has been no specific statement on Latin America as a region. The pope expressed his concern with the evolution of the conflict in Bolivia, but that has been it, with the dubius addition of a brief prayer in Spanish before an image of the Virgion of Guadalupe a few days after his election.

However, the clock is ticking and some definitions will come in the coming days. Such possibility is stressed by the fact that it is expected that the pope will attend, as his predecessors did, the General Conference of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM, for its initials in Spanish). It is not clear yet if what will be the Fifth of such conferences will happen either in Argentina or in Chile.

What is clear is that, after a statement of Msgr. Carlos Aguiar Retes, first vice-president of the CELAM, on the possibility of such trip a wave of expectation swept both Argentina and Chile.

Benedict XVI’s silence about Latin America is more compelling when one considers that the region is the global stronghold of Roman Catholicism, and that Brazil, Mexico, and the United States (with a large Hispanic population) are the three countries with the largest Catholic populations worldwide.

The pope, so far, has been trying to smooth the relations with the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. The move makes sense from an European perspective when one considers the challenges that Catholics, Orthodox, and Lutheran churches face there, and the fact that it is far easier to find a solution to the dispute with the Orthodox churches than to find it with the Lutheran or Anglican churches, mostly because of the issue of the female priesthood.

It is clear that if the Catholic and Orthodox churches expect to have a future in Europe they need to learn to coexist. Moreover, they need to learn to share resources and to face together the challenges of the double process of de-Christianization of Europe: on the one hand, the pressure created by the Islam, and on the other hand, the changes brought by the secularization process in Europe (although such process is far from being universal).

However, it would be a huge mistake if the Vatican forgets Latin America. In Latin America, the Church faces equally important challenges that require not only resources, but above all the imagination and compromise of the church’s grassroots organizations, hierarchies, and the laypersons. Moreover, unlike Europe, where it is forced to seek collaboration and support from the Orthodox churches, in Latin America the Church goes by itself.

1 comment:

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