The interests of the privileged are always protected by certain institutions. The colonial empire and the Vatican were no different. Many argue that Christianity was used as a self-righteous mask by the European colonizers to disguise their selfish purpose of looting the territories they acquired. The missionaries were the religious army of the Europeans, portrayed as saints coming to liberate the indigenous from their “savagery”. In Mexico alone, more than 800 missionaries were sent to baptize as many as 1 million people. It was in the 1400s, when the New World was taken over by Spaniards and Portuegese, supported by the Church, with the primary instruction to serve God by spreading Christianity. The state and the Vatican worked hand-in-hand to explore the virgin territory of Latin America, but their missions turned out to be starkly different. With the watchful eye of the Vatican far away, the state often used Christianity as a weapon to gain control so as to acquire resources. The Church gave its support to the state freely in return for assistance in maintaining catholic hegemony. The Jesuits, a catholic order which traveled extensively for education and evangelization of the masses, served a weapon for the colonizers as it forcefully recruited the indigenous as labor and also converted them to Christianity. As the Jesuits grew more powerful due to their hoarded resources, the crown grew suspicious. The expulsion of the Jesuits was ordered and they were concluded in 1759.
Even though Spain tried to take over the entire institution of the Catholic Church in the early 19th century, the Church came down hard to show that it is a force to reckon with. Revolutions were proclaimed in parishes. Political activism increased; Church even provided military leaderships. It became clear that the institution was here to stay. And it has stayed till now.
For a continent which was born from the mating of politics and religion, a complete dissociation of the two from each other is impossible. The politics of Latin America is curtained with religion. The planning of campaigns, counting of polls, political strategies and estimations are often based on religion. But the rise of pluralistic society in the continent and a wide and rapid transition to democracy has led to the Church losing the political power and cultural influence it once had. While it is true that the democratic presidents often use symbols, rites, signs, etc. associated with religion which shows that religion is still very much present, and is used as a persuasive strategy by politicians, and that the influence of Pope Francis is globally obvious; the transformation to multi-religious Latin American society is on the wheels and those wheels are definitely moving fast. Pentecostalism is on the rise, Catholicism is declining, atheism is increasing, other religious groups are gaining populace.
There is no one reason for this unseemly shift towards secularization in a continent which was predominantly catholic. As noted, 92% of the population reported to be catholic in 1970. As democracy becomes stronger, the state policies of many countries, especially Uruguay are becoming more secular in nature. Astonishingly, six countries (excl. Uruguay) do not have Catholic majority anymore; these are, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba, Honduras and Nicaragua. Religious freedom, gender equality, sexualities, citizenship, diversity, communication and leadership are becoming contentious issues between the Church and the State. The very fact that the Church is giving new found attention to Latin America and elected a South American Pope to its confrere is evidence enough that the Church feels threatened by its declining social influence in the continent. However, secularization in Latin America is not the disappearance of religion, as the potent moral influence of Catholicism on state laws is apparent from the unceasing ban on abortion, but rather a reordering of it to suit the current pluralist society. There has been a reallocation of catholic privileges as new groups have emerged.
It is difficult to estimate the effect of Pope Francis on these changes. Yes, a pope that is so popular among people is a strong ally for the politicians but who can say whether the decline in Catholicism will stop or decrease due to this? Yes, the Pope’s choice to emphasis on his humility, commitment to interfaith dialogue, etc. is a good ‘strategy’. His simple aesthetics are surely refreshing and appealing to the youth. But, will it work on the increasing “unaffiliated” groups? The rising sex scandals, child abuse cases, etc. in various seminaries have hurt the sentiments of many; the mounting financial scandals have shocked the people. All of this together has worked in weakening the loyalty of people towards Catholicism.
Would Pope Francis be able to handle this crisis? Would he be able to restore the faith on a religion which was once so dominant and influential? Only time can tell.