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Pope matters… or Popes matter

4 March 2013

For anyone interested in Latin American business and investment,  the Inca Kola News has always been required reading.  Otto the Inca, perhaps slightly (very slightly) errs in referring to the upcoming Papal election as “of passing interest, a bit of a sideshow that doesn’t really affect [investors']lives.”  Perhaps not their lives, but — if the next Pope is “one of ours”  it certainly could impact their investment portfolio.

Otto was calling attention to a very good post on  Central America Politics asking “Could the next Pope come from Latin America?”  Mostly concerned with the symbolism — and “market share” — of a Latin (or other “global south”) Pope, the post reflects what might be considered “first world” view of the challenges facing the Church:

The Catholic Church confronts one of the most challenging periods in its 2,000-year history. The sexual abuse of children by priests and the illegal and immoral covering up of that abuse by Church leaders have caused many faithful to leave the Church, to cut back on their offerings, and to stop sending their children to its schools. While the abuse scandals in the United States and Ireland have gotten the most attention, scandals have rocked Mexico, Chile, and other Latin American countries as well. A twenty-first century congregation has also had a difficult time supporting the Church’s stances on homosexuality, contraception, celibacy, and women and married clergy. As a result, in most countries, the percentage of Catholics as well as the number of men entering the priesthood is decreasing significantly.

While not ignoring the impact of any of these issues on Catholics (and others) in the “global south”, and fully aware that the overwhelming “papabili” mentioned as coming from “our” part of the world are considered “conservatives”, a few points about the reality of Catholic Latin America:

  • First, we global southerns have been tolerated clerical non-celibacy for centuries without much of a fuss.
  • Secondly, although it’s nothing to be proud of, at least in Latin America sexual cohersion (even when it amounts to rape, or abuse of power) has not been something people see as all that unusual, or even noteworthy.

When priests are accused of being overtly homosexual, its usually in terms of “men in dresses”, not where they park their penis… that is, a question of appearance, and not of behavior or orientation.

From news reports (slanted to the issues of the global north) it seems a major factor in Benedict’s abdication was his inability to deal effectively with the sex scandals.  I’m not sure how much they matter, or if a Latin-American Pope would be all that personally shocked, to be honest.

  • While I’d add that at least in Mexico, where the birth control pill was invented, and the right to family planning is constitutionally guaranteed, the Church is adept at side-stepping the issue.  Catholics in Latin America, like the bureaucrats in colonial New Spain are perfectly capable of saying “I hear, but do not obey” when pronouncements come down from the leadership.
  • Finally,  creative ways of dealing with priest shortages have a very long history here.  Sometimes politically created (as during the anti-clerical era in Mexico), but more often just a reflection of the difficultly in finding suitable candidates for the priesthood, people have accepted a situation where they might only see a priest once or twice a year, as did their parents, grand-parents, great-great-great grandparents, back to whenever some wandering Conquistador with a monk at his side decided their whole community was now Catholic.  And, without more than occasional clerical guidance, people consider themselves good Catholics to this day.

What seem to be issues that overwhelmed Benedict the German might not be seen as particularly pressing to a Latin American Pope, who would — if forced to deal with them (and no matter who the next Pope is, or where he comes from, will have to deal with these issues) — likely opt for less “one size fits all” solutions, if he didn’t  consider them less pressing than those issues of more immediate importance to we global southerners.  As it is, the Catholic experience in Latin America offers a Pope some viable workarounds.

One difference between a Euro-centric Pope and a Latino- or Afro-centric one might also found among the “strayed” Christians.  What I mean is that while John-Paul II, being an Eastern European spent much of his papacy on trying to bring Orthodox and the Eastern Churches (like the Chaldean Church) back into the field of the “one, true, universal church” and the Benedict the German was making concessions to the more conservative Anglicans, a Latin Pope would have several innovative “Catholic” churches from which to draw.

Latin America is chock full of more or less Catholic, but Popeless, denominations like the Brazilian Apostolic Catholic Church (which started with a Bishop’s suggestion in the 1930s of some changes that the Papacy later accepted like saying Mass in the local language, and turning the altar around to face the congregation) and the Iglesia Católica Apostólica Mexicana which owes its existence to now forgotten Church-State controversies of the 1850s.  These churches have found ways of maintaining their Catholic identity (and the Apostolic Churches are, at least theoretically, able to return to the larger Roman Church at any time) while instituting policies that work for them.  The Brazilian Apostolics, for example, accept divorce and both churches permit a married clergy.

In a region with Evangelical Protestantism is seen as the largest theological competitor, I would expect a Latin American Pope would be more likely to turn to these small successful “offshoots” and learn from them more than from the competition.

But what the biggest difference would be… and the one investors should note (as well as Secretaries of State, CIA chiefs and their equivalents in the major powers) is that even the “conservative” cardinals,  like other Latin and African elites have a very different perspective on the global situation than European elites.  Even the most conservative of our leaders can’t afford to ignore climate change, economic inequality (and the subsequent unrest it causes) and resource depletion.  Frankly, who the bishop is boinking isn’t of much concern to Cardinals who come from places where people begging in the streets, or when housewives are banging pots to demand price controls on tortillas, or local tribesmen are blocking highways to protest timber thefts or oil drilling.

This isn’t to say that any of the mentioned Latin/African candidates are at all sympathetic to “Liberation Theology”, nor that the hierarchy in Latin America or in Africa are friendly to the left, but they tend to be realists.

My friend, and expert on Polish intellectual thought, Eva Dadlez says that Poles are natural “Liberation Theology” Catholics, and John Paul II did write  (Centesimus annus, 1991):

When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenceless and the poor have a claim to special consideration. The richer class has many ways of shielding itself, and stands less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back on, and must chiefly depend on the assistance of the State. It is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong to the latter class, should be specially cared for and protected by the Government.

Pace Dr. Dadlez, JPII began a process continued under Benedict of rooting out Liberation Theologians from the Latin American Church and installing conservatives (especially Opus Dei trained priests) in the Hierarchy.  Eva’s point though, is worth a thought.  When John Paul was elevated to the Papacy, Poland was chaffing under a Soviet-backed regime.  I tend to think it was the Marxist influence and rhetoric in Liberation Theology, rather than the sensibility to the rights of the poor and working class that John Paul found unacceptable.

John-Paul’s Poland was a relatively poor country (by some socio-economic indicators, it’s poorer than Mexico, Chile and Costa Rica).  That matters.  Our Cardinals … having been largely John Paul’s and his theologically similar Benedict’s creations, are — like the author of  Centesimus annus — products of a culture that also has been subject to rapacious foreigners.

Poland was, still is, a country of extreme social conservatism, but also one with a sense of national solidarity that somehow incorporates class consciousness.  That is, the Poles are not so much given to “workers of the world, unite”, but to “workers of Poland unite… and go to Church”.

Don’t forget, in 1938 a very conservative Mexican Catholic hierarchy threw its considerable weight behind Lazaro Cardenas when he nationalized the oil industry in Mexico.  The Church’s social teachings, in documents such as Centesimus annus have always recognized the right to own private property, but they also recognize the state’s right to control access to goods or to control natural resources for the common good of its people.  A Latin-American Pope will most likely still tell gay couples they’re going to Hell.  That doesn’t really affect anyone’s portfolio or more than some ripples in the back offices of various foreign ministries.  But, if a Cardinal in say, Ecuador or Mexico stands aside or supports a government that tells Standard Oil to go to Hell, all Hell is likely to break loose in the global north … or maybe, with the Pope’s backing, Cardinals in Ecuador, and Mexico and Ghana and Nigeria and… start telling the multinationals “thou shalt not steal”, investors in the global north (and their governments) will face a tough penance — changing their attitude from “let us prey” to “let us pray”.

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