Much of the western hemisphere woke up this morning to the surprising news that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning at the end of the month, becoming the first pope to resign in nearly 700 years. This is obviously a major story for much of the hemisphere; while evangelicalism has made major inroads in the Americas in the last 30 years (even while younger generations leave the church without going to a new one), a majority still identify as Catholic. Indeed, with the news of the pope’s exit, there has been an immediate (and inevitable) rush to theorize who could hypothetically replace Benedict XVI, and, given that Brazil is still the largest Catholic country in the world, the list of course includes two Brazilians (as well as an Argentine, a US citizen, and a Canadian; absent are any Mexicans, which is a mild surprise given that Mexico is the second-largest Catholic-identifying country in the world).In spite of the overwhelming association of Catholicism with Latin America, however, the news in some ways seems a bit subdued. Sure, it managed to knock Carnaval off the front page of Brazil’s largest news source. Yet in spite of the significance of Benedict XVI’s announcement, however, the broad reception to the news in Latin America, both in online media reports and on Twitter, seems to have been relatively subdued.
This in some ways is unsurprising. Although Benedict did make a trip to Brazil in 2007 (and was scheduled for another one this year) and to Mexico and Cuba last year, his relationship to Latin America goes much further back, and is far from positive. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Catholic clergy and officials throughout Latin America were increasingly calling into question the Church’s treatment of the poor and its historical ties to elites in the region. Building on the message of Vatican II, in which Popes John XXIII and Paul VI urged Catholics to accept responsibility for the poor and oppressed, priests and nuns began to mobilize and preach social justice and equality. Thus, Catholic activists, both clergy and laypersons, began working with communities in areas like agrarian reform, educational improvements, community organizing, and other forms of mobilization designed to help the poor populations of Latin America and challenging theological rhetoric and attitudes that privileged the wealthy while disregarding the plight of the poor.
Certainly, not all clergy or church officials embraced this vision – Argentina’s church was particularly notorious for its complicity with the Argentine dictatorship of 1976-1983 that targeted “subversives”. Even in liberation theology itself, there was a gap between the higher ranks of the clergy, including figures like Mexican Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, and the “grassroots” of the Church. Nonetheless, in spite of top-down efforts to control and limit the message and actions of liberation theology, its advocates, including Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal and Brazil’s Leonardo Boff spread its messages throughout much of South America and then Central America, gaining vocal adherents everywhere even if it did not represent an absolute majority.
By the late-1970s, however, things began to fundamentally change. In 1978, Catholic Cardinals elected Poland’s Karol Józef Wojtyła Pope, and he became Pope John Paul II. In 1979, he attended the third Latin American Bishops Conference in Puebla, Mexico; whereas previous Bishops Conferences had debated the issues framed in liberation theology, 1979 marked a shift, as John Paul II emphasized that, while caring for the poor was important and unfettered capitalism was a source of social inequalities, theological orthodoxy must take precedent. This meant disavowing liberation theology and reinforcing traditional institutional authority within the Church at the expense of grassroots activists. He refused to endorse Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero‘s request for a papal condemnation of El Salvador’s government for its use of death squads and violations of human rights. On an official state visit to Nicaragua in 1983, he did not allow priest Ernesto Cardenal, a key figure in liberation theology and the MInister of Education under the first Sandinista government, to kiss his ring, and disregarded the Mothers of Martyrs and Heroes who asked for his prayers for those who died in the Contra War. Clearly, John Paul II was determined to assert his authority and quiet liberation theologists who pushed for broader social reforms.
To enforce papal and hierarchical control, John Paul II appointed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. While head of the Congregation, Ratzinger went after many who continued to advocate for broader equality and justice in the world under the vision of liberation theology. He openly condemned the focus on the poor that liberation theology preached, viewing it as exclusionary (though he seemed less concerned about the Church’s ties to the political, economic, and social exclusion of the poor in Latin American history). Perhaps most notably, he ordered Brazilian priest Leonardo Boff, a long-time supporter of liberation theology, to be silenced for his book Church, Charism, and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church. When Boff continued to preach the messages of Liberation Theology, Ratzinger again ordered him silenced in 1992, and Boff ended up leaving the clergy, stifled by doctrinal and hierarchical authority that was not open to the messages of liberation theology. And while Boff’s case was high-profile, it was far from the only one; Ratzinger, acting in John Paul II’s name and with his blessing, continued to target activist priests and nuns, censoring and demoting them. By the end of the 1980s, many activists had either muted their efforts or left the Church, and many saw Ratzinger as leading a religious institution that had failed to adapt to the social context of the late-20th century. When he was elected pope in 2005, while some of the devout in Latin America were supportive, the overall response was far more muted.
And thus, today, the response to the announcement of Benedict XVI’s retirement likewise seems muted. Naturally, many faithful (and perhaps some not-so-faithful) hope that the first “American” pope will be elected the next pope (and perhaps they finally will not be disappointed). But whether or not the next pope hails from Brazil, Argentina, or even anywhere else in the western hemisphere, it seems unlikely that many will really miss Ratzinger’s papacy.