A recent study from Argentina has shown a dramatic decline in the Church in Pope Francis’s homeland. The Conicet survey showed that 62.9 per cent of the population identified as Catholic, next to 76.5 per cent in a comparable 2008 study.
Even more striking shifts are seen in public attitudes towards the Church, with three quarters of respondents saying that the state should not give financial support to religion, and almost half saying that religion should not be taught in schools. These attitudes will influence the outcome of any attempt by the new left-wing government to liberalise the abortion law.
Pope Francis himself was ranked fourth in a list of people or institutions trusted by the public, after universities, the Church as a whole and the armed forces.
In terms of where the missing Catholics have gone, Argentina seems midway between European secularisation and the Pentecostal surge in other Latin American countries. More than 15 per cent of Argentines now identify as Protestant, with almost 20 per cent saying they have no religion. Although the survey does not measure religious observance, it is known that Mass attendance is low, while Protestants are significantly more likely to practise their faith.
Secular commentators commonly attribute the decline to the Church’s conservative position in the culture wars of the last two decades, where it has usually been on the losing side. Although Pope Francis, then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was not part of the Church’s conservative faction, he clashed regularly with former president and incoming vice-president Cristina Kirchner over such issues as compulsory sex education, contraception and same-sex unions.
In a broader sense, what is happening mirrors a trend across Latin America. For centuries, Catholic dominance was so overwhelming that the Church had no serious competition for cultural influence. Most of the controversies have therefore been between Catholics – such as in Argentina’s Dirty War of the 1970s, where some bishops backed the military dictatorship while some priests, particularly Jesuits, threw in their lot with the communist guerrillas.
Those disputes still matter today. Even Cristina Kirchner, when president, identified as Catholic, while rejecting much of the Church’s moral teaching.
What has changed in recent decades is that the Church no longer has a cultural monopoly but is simply the largest participant in the marketplace. Although Pope Francis’s keynote issue was poverty, there is little evidence of a Catholic surge among the poor of Buenos Aires. The Church’s competitors, either left-wing Peronist politicians or Pentecostal preachers, are having increased success at its expense.
There is a possibility of the Church reorienting itself, understanding that it can no longer assume dominance and that Latin America is now mission territory.
The alternative scenario is the Irish example, where long-term complacency was followed by decline and then collapse. Given how central Latin America is to global Catholicism, that would indeed be devastating.