Pope-acabana: How the Catholic Church and the Latin American middle class could forge a symbiotic electoral majority


Although Pope Francis made global headlines last month by appearing to accept that some priests might have same-sex attractions, it’s easy to forget that the comments, which came at a press conference on his flight back to the Vatican, capped the new pope’s first trip abroad to Brazil, which neighbors former cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s native Argentina.vatican flagbrazil

Francis’s comments touched on a wide range of issues, including the role of women in the Catholic Church, but his remarks risk overshadowing that the pontiff’s visit to Brazil, where Francis delivered a mass to three million Brazilians on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, had already been viewed as a massive success, and showcased that Francis is determined to lead a global Church.

What does all of this have to do with Latin American politics?

First, after the perceived hardline doctrinal conservatism of Benedict XVI and John Paul II, the new pope is certainly more media-savvy about communicating that the Catholic Church will be more open than it’s been perceived in previous years.  Francis may not necessarily be any more doctrinally liberal about social issues like homosexuality, abortion or birth control, but his tone, warm and unjudging, is much different.  The fine print may not even matter if Francis downplays more contentious doctrine in favor of issues of more relevance to economic policymaking.  Even though one of Benedict XVI’s three encyclicals covered the topic of the virtue of social justice and the dangers of global development (Caritas in Veritate — ‘Charity in Truth’), published in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, it is instead Francis who has been credited as the pope willing to take the Church’s teachings into the most dangerous corners of the world and to the poorest in society.  Francis has spoken out against poverty repeatedly since his election as pope earlier this year and while in Brazil, he toured Varginha, one of Rio’s most notoriously poor and violent favelas.

Secondly, the Catholic Church, which has long been a global church (one out of two Catholics worldwide now lives in the Americas, and three-fourths of the world’s Catholics live outside Europe), now has a truly global leader.  Just as Francis need not change doctrine in order to signal a new approach to homosexuality or the role of women in the Church, Francis doesn’t need to endorse the Marxist mantle of 1980s Latin American liberation theology anytime in order to see its influence of Francis’s politics.  His pontificate has already begun to revise the Vatican’s own history with respect to liberation theology by clearing the path for the beatification of Óscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated in 1980 after speaking out against Salvadoran human rights abuses, and who has since become a hero to liberation theology proponents.

Taken together, it’s not hard to imagine that Francis could help usher in a new dynamic of politics altogether in Latin America.  Although we are just five months into Francis’s pontificate, a revitalized Catholic Church could be crucial to defining a new era of progressive politics as the Latin American middle class rises to dominance — a symbiotic relationship that could restore the Church’s regional dynamism and forge a new political majority.

One of the reasons that Protestant, especially Pentecostal groups, have done so well in Latin America is by preaching a kind of prosperity gospel to Latin America’s poor.  But if Francis can make a human or spiritual connection with Latin America’s masses, he can stem that tide and reassert the centralist of the Church in Latin American life — not in its previous 19th century role as a force for conservatism, but by championing the morality of economic stability and sustainability.  Meanwhile, Latin Americans are increasingly moving out of poverty and into a truly global middle class — from 2003 to 2009 alone, Latin America’s middle class grew by nearly 50% — from 103 million people to 152 million.  Though voters today still care about the Bolsa Familia more than bike paths, that won’t necessarily be the case after another decade of sustained economic progress.  Such a massive developmental transformation is certain to change political trends regionally, and Francis’s rebranding of the Catholic Church could be a crucial element in the new politics of Latin America.

Throughout the region, memories of right-wing, fascist dictatorship are receding, and excepting a handful of notable outliers (e.g. Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela), memories of the populist, socialist left are also receding in most Latin American countries.  What’s been left over the past two decades is a neoliberal consensus on both the mainstream Latin American left and right that prioritizes pro-growth and business-friendly policies, but which also seeks to enact redistributive socioeconomic policies.  The similarities between an ostensible leftist, like Peruvian president Ollanta Humala, and an ostensible conservative, like Chilean president Sebastián Piñera, are greater than their differences.  In México, president Enrique Peña Nieto’s Pacto por México seems likely to bring together both the Mexican right and left like never before: the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI), the party of Lázaro Cárdenas and Mexican nationalization, seems likely to enact into law this autumn an agenda that could easily have been the policy wishlist of either Vicente Fox or Felipe Calderon, recent Mexican presidents from the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party, PAN).

It may be too soon to forecast exactly what political movement might emerge to challenge what has become the region’s standard neoliberal ideology, but we may have seen a hint of it with both the surprising success (at least initially) of former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus in the May-June 2010 Colombian presidential campaign and the strength, in the October 2010 Brazilian presidential race, of third-place candidate Marina Silva, who won nearly one out of every five votes.  It’s not coincidental that both Mockus and Silva came from their respective countries’ green party movements that place an emphasis on economic and environmental sustainability, gathering excitement that has eluded the more traditional statist left in recent years.  Though neither candidate had the strength to build a majoritarian national coalition, their social justice-infused political values seem likely to become more popular as more Latin Americans move from poverty to middle-class stability.  Moreover, Brazil’s recent popular protests indicate that middle-class voters in particular are no longer content with just receiving a larger piece of the economic growth pie, and like global citizens elsewhere, Latin Americans are demanding accountability from their leaders on every vector from garden-variety corruption to the kind of overspending that’s characterized Brazil’s dual bids to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.

As the Latin American middle class continues to grow ever larger by the end of the 2010s and into the 2020s, it’s not difficult to imagine a critical mass emerging that espouses a new alternative to the neoliberal politics that dominate both Latin America’s mainstream left and right.  That coalition would begin with the a base of those urban supporters who are already keen to support candidates like Mockus and Silva, but it could fuse with a new generation of both urban and rural middle-class followers of a more socially progressive Catholic Church, resulting in the kind of symbiotic electoral coalition that could come to dominate politics from Guadalajara to Ushuaia over the next decade.

Photo credit to the magnificent Vatican-watching blog, Whispers in the Loggia.

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