The Pope visited the underdogs
Buenos Aires Herald, July 7, 2015
Pope Francis’ visit to South America left a few contradictory and surprising legacies. Though he reaffirmed his commitment to social issues and confirmed the pragmatic approach he has favoured during his tenure, Pope Francis also had some critical words against unregulated capitalism, spoke in favour of social inclusion and even ventured into the political realm when he called for dialogue between Bolivia and Chile over the former country’s demand for sovereign access to the ocean. The fact that the Pope skipped the more populated countries in South America undermined the impact of the trip in the world arena, but the focus on the least privileged signals Pope Francis’ intention to regain the trust among the most loyal religious base the Catholic Church has historically had in Latin America. It was, in a nutshell, a pastoral more than a political visit.
The seven-day trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay was the second visit by the pontiff to Latin America since assuming office in 2013. Shortly after his appointment, Francis travelled to Brazil to attend a youth congress. For many, visiting those three countries constituted an odd choice. After all, the Pope has not yet visited his native Argentina or Mexico, a country that was historically favoured by John Paul II. The three countries have the highest percentage of indigenous population in South America and the Catholic Church played a very important role in the colonial period, converting indigenous people and serving both as a mechanism to secure Spanish rule and establishing itself as an advocate of indigenous rights. The fact that Francis apologized on behalf of the church for the abuses committed by the Catholic church (and under the church’s watch) reflects the concerns that Francis has historically embraced about the historical role of the church among the indigenous and less privileged inhabitants of the region and the challenges ahead for Catholicism in the fast-changing southern continent. The rise of Pentecostalism and other Protestant denominations and the increasing secularism associated to better living standards has brought church attendance and overall identification with Catholicism to an all-time low. In visiting the three countries, Francis sought to make a statement about his pastoral priorities for the region.
Francis also made a point to speak against secularism and the growing penetration of capitalism in the region. For the Pope, economic development should not be inevitably associated to diminishing faith or to decreasing social values. In seeking to strike a balance between his intention to regain popular confidence in a church heavily affected by sex abuse scandals and the reality of more secular societies where people have access to more consumption goods and more technology that drives them away from church attendance, the Pope had words that found friendly ears among the left and right in the region. His denunciation of capitalism as a doctrine that undermines happiness and social cohesiveness was seen by many as evidence of the Pope’s leftist inclinations. Yet, his statements against legislative changes that facilitate access to abortion or that promote sexual liberation were considered conservative provocations in societies increasingly more inclined to promote individual freedom and tolerate diversity.
The Pope also ventured into the political realm with some masked criticisms of the way Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa deals with the opposition media. Most importantly, the Pope called on Chile and Bolivia to start a dialogue to find a mutually beneficial solution to Bolivia’s demand for sovereign access. Though Chile was quick to respond that it is willing to restore diplomatic relations with Bolivia without conditions, the fact that Chile does not accept that there are unresolved issues has led Bolivia to sue Chile before the international court in The Hague to force a negotiation that includes putting sovereign access to the ocean on the table. The Pope’s statement seems to have given political support to Bolivia’s claim that Chile must accept to enter such negotiations.
In a region where the Catholic Church has been historically divided among a more conservative elitist wing and a socially-oriented leftist wing, Francis has sought to draw a middle ground doctrine that combines morally conservative views with socially liberal stances on issues regarding poverty, inequality and inclusion. The fact that the presidents of Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay went out of their way to be seen as close to the pope and in agreement with some of the views advocated by Francis reflects the great popularity in Latin America of the Argentine pope.
Yet, politically, the seven-day trip did not have the impact some had predicted. The Pope stood short of criticizing Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s concentration of power, did not advocate for more democratic contestation in Bolivia or for stronger democratic institutions in Paraguay. As a pastoral visit, the trip was a success. However, as far as the political agenda is concerned — other than the statement inviting Chile and Bolivia to have a dialogue over access to the ocean for Bolivia — the degree to which the visit was a success is more difficult to establish.