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The Geopolitics of the Catholic Church in Latin America

The role of religion in Latin American politics has changed dramatically since the 1960s. The role of organized religious institutions, such as the Catholic Church, in particular, has been shaped by intense competition for popular resources such as political power (Pattnayak, 2008). This competition has generally manifested itself in two distinct, but potent, forms (Pattnayak, 2008). For example, in a climate of political liberalization and democracy that has been in place since the mid-1980s, Latin America has seen tremendous competition between religious and civil society groups. Second, religious organizations compete fiercely with one another – much like firms in a fragmented industry. Both forms of competition are unprecedented in Latin American history and deserve close examination (Pattnayak, 2008).

It is widely assumed that before 1960, the Catholic Church generally sided with societies wealthy and powerful (Bruneau, 1980). It primarily sought to establish common ground with the industrial, military, landed, and state elites (Bruneau, 1980). Naturally, the nature and intensity of such alliances varied depending on the country and period. When it came to explaining the social policies of the Latin American state, the Catholic Church was invariably passive and non-confrontational (Bruneau, 1980). There were remarkable attempts to limit the Catholic Church's power in society by launching uprisings – the Mexican Revolution in 1910 – but the Catholic Church remarkably survived as a key institution of power by establishing, or maintaining, an impressive array of governmental offices and networks. However, things became increasingly complicated after 1960 (Bruneau, 1980). Powerful forces, ranging from the Cuban Revolution to Latin America's new urban and rural organization, facilitated changes in the Catholic Church's stance on significant social practices, particularly those affecting the poor (Bruneau, 1980). In the face of growing military authoritarianism in many Latin American countries, a radicalized segment committed to making the Catholic Church the voice of the voiceless (Bruneau, 1980).

Figure 1: St. Peter's Basilica, Roma, Italy.

Along with episcopal conferences and the Vatican's process of change in the second half of the twentieth century, the Latin American Catholic Church developed its perspective on the region and the world (Puntigliano, 2019). This implied the emergence of a geopolitical perspective that included internal Church organization, as well as strategic visions to influence society and policy-making. A key component of this was the "continentalist" approach (Puntigliano, 2019). The so-called Juan Diego de Guadalupe group was an important source of thought and idea promotion during this process. Jorge Bergoglio, who became provincial superior of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1973 and Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, was a key member of the group (Puntigliano, 2019). Bergoglio's election to the Papacy could be viewed as a synthesis of the Church's religious and political evolution, at least from a Latin American perspective. It has not been a straight path, especially in the case of the Jesuits (Puntigliano, 2019)s. The Society of Jesus was suppressed by the Portuguese Empire in 1759 and the Spanish in 1767 after serving as the backbone of the Pan-Iberian universalization project and the colonization of the "New" and "Old" worlds. The society was later restored by Pope Pius VII (1800-23) in 1814 and returned to America during the American Revolution (Puntigliano, 2019).

About imperial states, Bergoglio upheld society's respect for cultural diversity, refusing to serve as the religious justification for European expansion (Puntigliano, 2019). Bergoglio believed that because the society was founded on the Universalist philosophy, it was opposed to the homogenizing internationalism that forcibly or rationally denies people the freedom to be who they are. Bergoglio embraced the major ideas of the Church's social teaching that influenced the Church's transformation over the twentieth century in addition to opposing Eurocentric ideals (Puntigliano, 2019). For more than a century, the Catholic Church has managed to produce the ideological continuum that one normally sees in politics through design and responses to various forms of social change (Pawliková, 1997). In theory, Catholic social thought supports democracy and political pluralism (Pawliková, 1997). Over the last thirty years, the Catholic Church has insisted that extreme forms of capitalism and socialism are incompatible with Christian principles (Pawliková, 1997). Governments that adhere to these ideologies are thus undesirable. (Pawliková, 1997).

Figure 2: A recent photo of Pope Francisco (Jorge Mario Bergoglio)

How has the Catholic Church dealt with religious and political diversity?

Today, intensifying religious competition and an advancing tide of secularism have eroded the Catholic Church's political influence and religious and cultural hegemony, with possibly profound implications for public policy and politics in pluralist democracies (Hagopian, 2006). Catholic churches have maintained progressive positions, encouraged greater popular participation, provided more pastoral care to the poor and excluded, and actively promoted the Church's social doctrine (Hagopian, 2006). The institutionalist, ideational, and religious economy paradigms, did not anticipate the current obstacles of religious and political pluralism in the post-Vatican II worlds (Hagopian, 2006). Today's pluralist challenges to Latin American Catholics are unprecedented. Despite a significant increase in the number of seminarians and priestly ordinations over the last quarter-century, the Church is losing its gravitational pull over the faithful (Hagopian, 2006). Self-identified Protestants presently account for roughly one-fifth of the region's population, one in ten Latin Americans have no religious affiliation, and only a small and decreasing minority of nominally Roman Catholics practice on a routine basis (Hagopian, 2006).

A slim majority of Roman Catholics in the ten Latin American countries represented in the most recent round of the World Values Survey say religion is very important in their lives, and just under half say religious faith is an important quality to encourage children to learn at home (Tížik, 2015). Much of the civil society in which the Church has invested heavily in fostering Catholic Action, ecclesial base communities (CEBs), and other forms of lay participation is now mobilized in organizations outside the purview of ecclesiastical authority (Tížik, 2015). Catholic trade unions have vanished, Christian Democratic parties are in decline, and social movements are defined more by issue than by their religious identity. Two-thirds of Mexicans, Chileans, and Argentines believe the Church should not have any influence over the government or how people vote in elections (Tížik, 2015). Catholic lay opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to the idea that abortion can ever be justified, but a significant minority believes that violating Church prohibitions on homosexuality and euthanasia can sometimes be justified, and only about a third of Latin Americans oppose divorce in all circumstances (Tížik, 2015).

Figure 3: Pope Paul VI hands Orthodox Metropolitan Meliton of Heliopolis a decree during the December 1965 session of the Roman Catholic Ecumenical Council in Vatican City.

Finally, the Catholic Church's politics in Latin America have had a significant impact on the region's history and current events. The Church played a significant role in promoting social justice and human rights throughout the twentieth century, particularly during times of political upheaval and repression. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Catholic Church in Latin America was at the forefront of the liberation theology movement, which sought to address the poor and marginalized social, economic, and political oppression. The Catholic Church's politics in Latin America have been marked by both significant influence and a recent decline in power. However, as society has become more secular and alternative religious movements have gained traction, the Church's influence has waned in recent years. Despite this decline, the Catholic Church remains an important institution in Latin America, and its political influence has a significant impact on the region. Nonetheless, the Church must adapt to the region's changing religious and political landscape if it is to remain relevant and influential in the coming years.

Bibliographic References

Bruneau, T. C. (1980). The Catholic Church and development in Latin America: The role of the Basic Christian Communities.



Pawliková, L. (1997). The Traditional and Present Role of the Church in Latin America.

Puntigliano, A. R. (2019). The geopolitics of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Tížik, M. (2015). Struggles for the Character of the Roman Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia,


Visual Sources

Cover Photo: World, T. (2022). Is Catholicism in Latin America set to become a minority faith? Figure 1: A. (2020, March 18). Vatican City: the center of the Catholic Church. Travel Guide. Figure 2: H. (2018, July 21). Pope Francisco (Jorge Mario Bergoglio). History and Biography. Figure 3: TEICHER JORDAN. G. (2012, October 10).


Author Photo

Edikan Victoria Inemeh-Etete

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