The Traditionalist site Rorate Cæli recently diagnosed “the collapse of Catholicism in Latin America” and attributed the downfall to the Second Vatican Council and to the brand of Catholicism espoused by Latin American clerics such as Pope Francis. Not only is the analysis wrong about the perceived failure of Latin American Catholicism, but it risks leading readers to miss the valuable lessons that the greater Catholic world can learn from the Latin American Church—lessons that Pope Francis has begun to implement at the Vatican.
Ironically, the Rorate analysis is wrong, in part, because it engages in a type of thinking specifically condemned by Latin American ecclesiology and criticized by Pope Francis—a kind of self-absorbed way of looking at the world that the Pope calls being “self-referential.” In a speech before he became Pope, then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio said that, “The evils that, over time, happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in self-referentiality and a kind of theological narcissism.” It requires “self-referentiality” to conclude that the downward trends in Latin American Catholicism were caused by the Second Vatican Council—ignoring similar trends worldwide at the same time among many other religions. The web site, keen on the use of Latin, also falls into the fallacy that is still known by its Latin handle: Post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”)—the folly of thinking that because something happens later in relation to something else, that the first thing causes the second. Rorate reasons: (a) Vatican II occurred in the 1960s; (b) the 13 point drop in Latin American Catholicism for 1995-2013 postdates Vatican II; therefore (c) Vatican II caused the 13 point drop. In fact, the trends observed during the period in question have been in motion for much longer than said period and predate the Council.
The Rorate analysis contains other errors, including selective application of its hypothesis, for example, citing figures showing decline to thrash favorite whipping boys, like Honduran Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, but not attributing responsibility for (or otherwise addressing) similar downward trends when they implicate conservatives. The analysis is sometimes downright misleading, for example stating that losses in El Salvador are attributable to Liberation Theology, when a conservative, Opus Dei archbishop was in place there during the period in question. Conversely, the Rorate piece does not “credit” successes that, under their logic would be attributable to progressives: the best performance stats go to Mexico, which actually grew while other national churches contracted, and which has a fairly activist episcopate, led by Cardinal Norberto Rivera. (I am in no way implying that activists deserve credit; simply doubting that credit or blame can be pin-pointed in the way that Rorate suggests.)
There is doubtless some truth to the central assertion in Rorate’s piece, that the reforms of the Council and some of the social stances of the Latin American Church have cost it adherents. But there is an expression in Latin America about fooling yourself by covering up the sun with your thumb that applies here: if we fixate on this sliver of truth, we will miss the greater lesson to be gleaned from the experience of the Church in Latin America. That lesson is that we must not remain passive before the reality around us; instead, we must take stock, come up with a plan, and snap into action. As the Latin American bishops stated in 2007, “The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission.” (Final document of the bishops at Aparecida, whose chief drafter was Card. Bergoglio.) “It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers, and threats ... What is required is confirming, renewing, and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel ... [and] recognizing that ‘being Christian is ... the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’ [quoting Pope Benedict XVI].” (Ibid.)
In a piece written in 2012—before Pope Francis was elected—Catholic commentator George Weigel noted that the Latin American bishops’ Aparecida document avoids defensiveness and sets forth an action plan. “The Catholic Church must figure out what is missing in its presentation of the Gospel and its living of the Gospel: filling those gaps is the way to invite back home those Catholics who move away from their historic spiritual home,” Weigel wrote, recapping the Aparecida plan. For Weigel writing in 2012, the freshness of that approach suggested “that Latin America is far more than just the demographic center of the Catholic Church.”
Perhaps the most mesmerizing oversight in the Rorate piece is the failure to acknowledge—and accommodate in their analysis—the fact that Latin America is among the most thriving sectors of the Church, and that this was true before the advent of the Argentine Pontiff. True, not all of this success is a result of strategic brilliance—in fact, the Church in the region started out with colossal advantages, being the state religion in several countries, and having near 100% adherence in many others. But the preference for a game plan evidenced in the Aparecida document harkens back to 1899, when Leo XIII convened the first Plenary Council of Latin American bishops. Later, the Ven. Pius XII, in his 1955 Apostolic Letter Ad Ecclesiam Christi, outlined the Latin American Church’s action plan. Pope Pius noted: (1) the insufficient numbers of clergy; (2) the incursions of various competing ideologies, including Protestants, Freemasons, and Secularists; and acknowledged (3) the potential of Latin America to serve as an evangelizing model for the rest of the Church based on its response to these challenges. Rorate points to the rise of Liberation Theology as one reason people may have abandoned the Church in Latin America, but even this controversial movement demonstrates the Latin American Church’s proactive streak. One of the tactics Pius proposed for the battle plan—decades before the advent of Liberation Theology—was for the Church to develop her own formula, “with sound doctrine and incessant and proactive action, in the social arena” to ward off the advance of true Communism.
To look at this history is to recognize that the pressures that have acted on the Latin American Church were present before the time of the Council, and that there is a good empirical case to be made that the measures put in place by the Latin American Church have stemmed the bleeding experienced by worldwide religion, and explain, in part, the continuing vibrancy of the Latin American Church today. The lesson for the greater Church could be that it helps to have a sense of mission, to continually engage with the greater world, and to avoid self-absorption.