Latin American Exodus - Part 2

Why have so many Latin American Catholics left the Catholic Church? Recall what Pew had to say:


pew reasons for leaving church

According to Pew, people left the Church to get a “personal connection with God,” or simply for a change of “style.” Pew even allowed the possibility that converts sought a church with “a greater emphasis on morality.” But above all, Pew designed the survey so that none of the available options was actually critical of the Catholic Church. If someone thought the Church was corrupt, they had no way to express their opinion. If they thought the Church was an extension of those in power, and contradicted Jesus’ outreach to the poor, they had no way of indicating it. This was a deliberate bias of Pew’s study.

Background - Liberation Theology

After the conquistadors and their successors, white colonialists owned and governed Latin America. Natives essentially lived as serfs. This remained true even after the wars of independence. The wars expanded the class of the elite to allow light-skinned people of mixed race, but the vast majority of non-whites remained serfs with no assets and no prospects.

Around the 1960’s, people began to think about changing this. Some churchmen wrote about a set of doctrines they called Liberation Theology. Others talked about a more just distribution of assets without discussing theology. Even such non-theological proposals were often labeled as Liberation Theology. These calls for reform grew louder through the 1970’s. Many Catholic clergy preached on behalf of the poor. Perhaps the most popular was Archbishop Romero of El Salvador.

To Pope John Paul II, all this sounded like Soviet-based Communism, even though it was a local movement. Pope John Paul came from Poland, and experienced both the Nazi and Soviet takeovers of his country. He actually said he preferred the Nazis. He saw Communists lurking in the shadows, ready to perpetrate worse crimes than Nazis. He thought liberation preachers were Communist tools, and wanted them rooted out. He put his Rottweiler, Cardinal Ratzinger, in charge of suppressing them. Ratzinger called Liberation Theology a “singular heresy” and a “fundamental threat” to the Church. He acted accordingly. He and Pope Paul promoted right-wing Church groups like the Legions of Christ and Opus Dei. They thought the Jesuits had turned pink, and replaced their leader.

In his unusual eulogy for Pope John Paul, the Mexican journalist Gustavo Arellano noted:

“While Romero lived, John Paul II reprimanded him thrice in private, once even asking him to align himself with the Salvadoran dictatorship; Romero refused, calling such a request ‘unjust.’ Shortly after Romero died [he was assassinated in 1980 by that Salvadoran dictatorship], a Washington Post columnist gasped that ‘the pope's outrage was so muted that it was taken as a political statement of its own.’ And while John Paul II rewarded other, lesser Catholics with sainthood, Romero isn't so much as beatified, even though his shrine in San Salvador includes crutches, photographs, testimonies—the witness of thousands.”

In fact, John Paul blocked Romero’s path to sainthood. When Pope Francis recently unblocked Romero’s path, he admitted this.

Pope John Paul II was more supportive of the right-wing dictators in Latin America than he was of the impoverished Catholic masses. Arellano said “he comforted the comfortable and afflicted the afflicted.” Many felt this way. This is why many Latin Americans fled the Church. But neither the religious press nor the popular press wants to admit it. Pew wouldn’t even allow survey participants to say it.

Pope Francis was chosen to stop the exodus of Latin American Catholics. This is why he unblocked Romero’s path to sainthood, and at least in part why he often preaches about the poor – something he rarely did under John Paul. It remains to be seen whether such changes in attitude, combined with doctrinal inducements like the gospel of prosperity, will staunch the flow.


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