Pope Francis finished his eight-day tour of the Latin American countries of Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay on Sunday.
Although Latin America contains the largest Catholic population in the world — nearly half of the world’s believers live there — Pope Francis has only visited once before when he attended Brazil’s World Youth Day in July of 2013.
Daniel Ramirez, assistant professor of History and American Culture at the University and an expert on Latin American religious history and culture, said the number of Catholics in Latin America has been decreasing in recent years.
“In general, the Americas represent the global bulwark for Roman Catholicism, and this bulwark is showing signs of serious slippage,” Ramirez said. “What the national figures do not show is the most serious trend: the indigenous Americas are slipping away at a higher rate, mostly to Evangélico and other non-Catholic groups.”
Pope Francis came to Latin America to address a wide range of issues — many of which are seemingly not related to religion.
“As peripheral countries, (Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay) represent this pope’s advocacy for the economically disenfranchised and vulnerable,” Ramirez said.
During his tour, the Pope emphasized the corruption of capitalism and encouraged grassroots organizations to combat economic inequalities. He also apologized for the horrific acts committed on the indigenous peoples in the name of Catholicism during colonialism.
Pope Francis is widely regarded as one of the most popular popes in recent history and has distinguished himself from his predecessors with his simplistic approach.
“With his prophetic encyclicals, pastoral style, administrative reforms and downscale lifestyle, he has earned a hearing from sectors who previously would have disdained an outreach from his predecessor(s),” Ramirez said.
Brian Porter-Szücs, professor of history at the University and expert in Roman Catholicism, distinguished Pope Francis from his predecessor, Pope Benedict.
“Benedict was concerned about clarity– having a message that was unambiguous and rigorous even if that meant the church was smaller. He was a theologian,” Porter-Szücs said. “Francis is the pastoral pope. This approach is going to be helpful in Latin America where the church has been losing members to protestant churches. Francis’ approach is very appealing and is going to be enormously helpful in Latin America.”
Not everyone, however, was receptive of the Pope’s anti-capitalist messages. Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, said Pope Francis was preaching socialism.
In addition to social issues, Pope Francis addressed several environmental concerns as well: the impact of mining on ecosystems and the impact farming has on land and water resources.
According to Daniel Levine, professor emeritus of political science at the University as well as a professor of political science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Perú, the Pope saw these issues as affecting the economic inequality the indigenous populations are experiencing.
“For Francis, the environment is a religious issue,” Levine said. “The earth is God’s gift and we need to respect that gift and think about how our use affects all. What he is doing is precisely what someone in his position can and should do: shine light on the issue, legitimize it as a matter for public discussion, take a position and show its implications. As for the criticism that he should leave science to the scientists, Francis does have a scientific background, more than many politicians who cite the science only to scorn it.” Before beginning his seminary studies, Pope Francis worked as a chemical technician.
Ramirez does not see the trip as an overall success, however, in terms of maintaining the number of Catholic believers in Latin America.
Ramirez said an increasing number of people raised in the church eventually leave it as adults. Citing a November 2014 Pew Research Institute report on Religion in Latin America, Ramirez said that of the 94 percent of Paraguayans raised Roman Catholic, only a population of 89 percent remain as adults. In Ecuador, of the 91 percent raised in the church, only 79 percent remain as adults, and in Bolivia of the 88 percent raised Roman Catholic, only 77 identify as Catholic as adults.
“As a researcher and observer of ecumenical dialogues, I see that this trip is falling very short,” Ramirez said. “Perhaps that was not on the agenda at all. In any case, it would have been an uphill slog in a hemisphere where Catholic prelates and elites still have trouble relinquishing the levers of political and social influence.”
In what was seen as a controversial move for many in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis also invited gay rights activist leader Simon Cazal to his speech on Sunday in Asunción, Paraguay.
Ramirez explained the significance of this invitation. “I wouldn’t expect him to reference the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision,” Ramirez said. “In fact, things are so bad for LGBT folk in Paraguay that the simplest gesture of compassion and pastoral solidarity may suffice for that meeting in that country.”
Porter-Szücs saw the Pope’s decision to address such issues as LGBTQ rights as a step in the right direction for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“His influence among non-Catholics is even more powerful,” Porter-Szücs said. “Now he’s every non-Catholic’s favorite pope because he’s talking about issues that transcend denominations.”
Pope Francis will continue his oversea travels this fall with a trip planned to tour the U.S.