When Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was resigning from his position as Pope last week, the world’s first reaction was to ask, “why?” But whether it is a health issue, an age-related problem or a secret controversy, this is an irrevocable decision and a greater question must be posed: Who will be the next Pope?
While intense speculation has been aimed at the powerful names that stand in the candidate line to fill the position, one thing is certain: The next Pope should be Latin American.
The last decades have not been easy for the Vatican. On one hand, the internal issues of the Church, such as the sex scandals, the “Vatileaks”, and the credit card ban, have undermined the reputation and popularity of the greatest and oldest transnational institution of all time. On the other, the Vatican faces external challenges that result from the trends of modernity and globalization, changes that not only escape the religion’s control but have also contributed to its image as an outdated, antiquated and old-fashioned institution with which the new generations find it difficult to relate.
In this context the Church has to recognize that it is going through an era of crisis and it needs to start thinking strategically. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI might be the greatest opportunity for Catholicism to make a turning point from the rocky waters it has been navigating. And while “relaxing” its position on several issues such as birth control and homosexuality is not an option, identifying its greatest audience and launching a project to “reconnect” with them and regain its important position in the lives of millions sounds achievable.
Today 40% of the world’s Catholic population resides in Latin America. The rooted tradition that entangles with the continent’s history and cultural pillars finds in its devotion to the Vatican and the figure of the Pope its greatest expressions. The continent that is “home to the world’s largest Roman Catholic population“ represents an important audience for the Catholic Church and a vital source of the Vatican’s tithe. In comparison with other continents, such as Europe, that have seen a radical decrease in followers of the religion in the past years Latin America is potentially more receptive and connected to the institution.
But even though the continent hosts more than 400 million Catholics, the Vatican should not make the mistake of taking them for granted. Every year, more and more Latin Americans desert Catholicism. The new generations are finding that that they are not nearly as “devoted” as their parents are and certainly not as committed to the religious institutions as their grandparents used to be. The changes in the paradigms and conception of life, family, morality and gender roles taking place (late but irrevocably) in Latin America are one of the main causes. Greater than the impact that the sex scandals of the Church have had in our times are the cultural changes in the Latin American society. Homosexuality, pro-choice ideals, sexual liberation, feminism and family planning are trends more accepted and less condemned in the continent today than they were few decades ago.
Strategically speaking, Latin America should be the ultimate target audience for the Catholic Church today. Although it is unlikely to happen with only 19 Latin American Candidates in the 118-member college at the Vatican, offering a position to a charismatic Latin American leader could be that piece of the puzzle that could reestablish the Vatican’s name, reputation and importance in the life of millions of people that are historically known for their devotion to the religion.
In this way, the continent could be the most valuable asset for the institution’s survival and growth in the following decades. The question is… Will the European-dominated Vatican be brave enough to identify the opportunity Latin America represents for the Church?