Why the First Latin American Pope Inspires Less Hope Than We Hoped

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Pope John Paul II receives then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aries, at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2001.

To their discredit, some princes of the church live like princes. But Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Argentina’s most powerful Roman Catholic prelate, isn’t one of them: he’s a priest who leads a humble lifestyle that reflects his advocacy for the downtrodden. In Latin America, whose social inequality is among the worst of any region in the world, that truly counts for something. It’s refreshing, at a time when so many in the Catholic hierarchy stand accused of covering up clerical sexual abuse in order to protect their ecclesiastical fraternity, to see a prince of the church defending the underdogs of the world.

(MORE: Habemus Papam—Francis, the Western Hemisphere’s first pontiff.)

And yet, in 2010, we found out that Bergoglio’s attitude toward other underdogs can be remarkably cruel. When Argentina legalized gay marriage that summer, the objection of the Catholic hierarchy, which considers homosexuality a sin, wasn’t surprising. But it wasn’t enough for Bergoglio to criticize the law; he felt compelled to demonize homosexuals in the process—calling gay unions “a scheme to destroy God’s plan” and “a dire anthropological throwback.” In that sense he was just echoing the homophobia of his boss, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who in 2008 had asserted that saving humanity from homosexuals was as urgent as saving the rain forests from lumberjacks. But there was something especially hateful, something that moved beyond doctrinal defense into bald bigotry, about the way Bergoglio lashed out.

(PHOTOS: Catholics in Latin America Rejoice)

Which is why Bergoglio’s election on Wednesday, March 13, as the new Pope—Francis—isn’t quite the progressive gesture the conclave of cardinals wants the world to think it is. More than half a millennium after the Iberian conquest of the New World, it’s certainly time we finally had a pontiff from Latin America, where 42% of the world’s Catholics live. But if the majority conservative cardinals believe that crowning the first non-European pope in more than a millennium  in and of itself signals real reform—and if they hope that Bergoglio’s ascent will help stanch the massive exodus of Latin Americans from Catholicism to Protestant denominations—they may be blowing more smoke than the Sistine Chapel’s chimney did.

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As a Catholic, let me first follow my religion’s tenets before those of my profession and indulge in some fides, spes et caritas (faith, hope and charity). I want to give Francis, even if he is 76 and set in his dogma, the benefit of the doubt. (This despite questions about whether, when he was leader of Argentina’s Jesuit priests in the 1970s, he ever denounced the sadistic right-wing military junta of that era, which tortured and killed some 30,000 suspected leftists.) I want to believe that his history as an advocate for the poor will bring him to see that today’s church is spending an inordinate amount of time, energy and ultimately moral credibility persecuting homosexuals, feminists and other “heretics” while it’s de-prioritizing, at least in the public’s eye, its core Christian (and human) mission of compassion and redemption.

(MORE: What Pope Francis may mean for Latin America.)

What I and millions of other Catholics hope most is that Francis, once he’s set up on the Tiber instead of the Rio de la Plata, will transcend the Latin American church that formed him. During the Cold War, papal predecessors like John Paul II were spooked by clerical movements in Latin America such as liberation theology, which prodded the church toward a “preferential option for the poor” but often naively embraced Marxism. But the truth is that the Latin American church is one of the world’s most reactionary. Its anti-gay crusade (Argentina’s gay marriage law is a decided exception in the region) in fact feels mild compared to its rigidity on women’s issues. Thanks to the Catholic hierarchy’s hardline political power, no region has as many countries (five) that ban abortion in all cases, even rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at risk. At the same time, few regions have such draconian restrictions on access to birth control.

Little wonder, then, that few regions also see as many unsafe clandestine abortions: more than 4 million a year, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute—a quarter of which result in hospitalizations or death from complications. According to Human Rights Watch, 40% of all pregnancies in Argentina end in illegal abortions. Some Latin American countries, especially in Central America, suffer maternal mortality rates 20 times higher than Western Europe’s.

(MORE: A rogue’s gallery of notorious Cardinals.)

That medieval situation has helped drive millions of Latin Americans from the church in recent decades. Even in the 1990s, at the height of John Paul II’s global and particularly Latin American popularity—he visited the region more than any other pope—more than 8,000 baptized Catholics were bolting the faith every day. In 1996, the region was still more than 80% Catholic, but today it’s less than 70%, while the Protestant share has risen to 13% from 4%, according to the Chile-based firm Latinobarómetro. Brazil still holds the world’s largest Catholic population, but the church’s share of the whole there has plunged from almost 100% in the last century to just 63%.

Much of that has to do with the fact that Protestant churches in Latin America, especially Evangelical communities, tend to be more attentive than Catholic parishes are to improving their flocks’ earthly situations as well as their heavenly prospects—the efforts of clerics like Francis notwithstanding. That should be a reminder to the new pope that if the Holy See he now occupies wants to re-evangelize its own worldwide flock, it needs to renew its Christian role and leave behind its cruel rhetoric.

(PHOTOS: Pope and Circumstance: the Road to the Papacy)