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?
The election of Sosa deepens the commitment to the region. It is Latin America where Jesuits are most influential and many of the leading theologians of Liberation Theology have been Central and South American members of the Society of Jesus. A political scientist by training, Sosa has spent time at the premier Jesuit university in the Americas – Georgetown University – which has given him a larger hemispheric perspective with ties to the US, home to the world’s fourth largest Catholic population.
International diplomacy has been a cornerstone of Francis’s dynamic papacy, and nowhere is conflict resolution nearer and dearer to his heart than in his native Latin America. The Jesuit Pope was one of the architects of the historic renewal of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US, and the Holy See strongly supported the efforts of the Church in Colombia on behalf of the peace accord between the government and the Farc guerrillas.
In light of the shocking rejection of the peace accord by Colombian voters in a recent referendum, the situation in neighbouring Venezuela is receiving new attention. Since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, his Latin American brand of authoritarian socialism has viewed the Church hierarchy as an enemy of the revolution. While not on the same scale as in Cuba, Venezuela under Chávez – and now under his Chavista heir, Maduro – has had one of the most difficult climates for the Church.
Both the Jesuit superior-general and the newly appointed Venezuelan Cardinal Baltazar Porras Cardozo have been strong critics of the nearly two decades of Chávismo in their troubled nation. Fr Sosa has called the Maduro regime tyrannical. At a 2014 Church conference in Colombia, he said: “We’re facing a system of domination, and not a political system that has the legitimacy to function peacefully.”
At the same conference he spoke of the need for reconciliation in his polarised nation. “In Venezuela there isn’t an armed conflict as in Colombia, but we need a process of reconciliation, perhaps not the same [as Colombia] but a process of reconciliation so that legitimacy is established and maintained.”
The dynamic duo of South American Jesuits – Pope Francis and Fr Sosa – are at the vanguard of a historic shift of the centre of Catholic gravity away from Rome to Latin America and the global south.