Latin America’s Lost Decade
DECADE IN REVIEW: Despite the election of the first pope from Latin America in 2013, the past decade has mostly been a march backward, both for secular society and for the Church.
Editor’s Note: This column is part of the Register’s ‘Decade in Review’ series. Other pieces include: Fundamental Transformation of a Nation, Culture: The Decade in Review, Marriage Redefinition Marked a Cultural Turning Point: Decade in Review and Africa’s Young Christian Communities Are Now in Islamic-Extremist Crosshairs.
In March 2013, I remarked often that Latin America had had its best month ever. The communist tyrant of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, had died March 5, and the first Latin American pope had been elected eight days later. It turned out that the rest of the decade was much worse for both state and Church. The 2010s were a decennium horribilis for Latin America, where more than half of the global Catholic population lives.
No country represents Latin America’s decade-long march backward more than Venezuela. The departure of Chavez, who died in the bosom of the Castro brothers in Cuba, brought not relief but more repression. Venezuela, under Nicolás Maduro, Chavez’s successor, has been reduced from petro-prosperity to literal starvation, with the population reduced to searching through garbage for food. Millions of refugees have fled Venezuela. The Maduro government has been declared illegitimate both home and abroad, has suspended the lawful operation of parliament, co-opted the judiciary and corrupted the armed forces. Maduro has resorted to violence against the people thronging the streets against him, violence that has also been directed at the Church.
A similar situation has been developing in Nicaragua, where another leftist regime, led by Daniel Ortega, back from his earlier tenure in the 1980s, has resorted to repression and violence to preserve its hold on power. Like Venezuela, the country’s bishops have been in the forefront of the democratic opposition to tyranny and have earned the wrath of the regime for doing so.
Violence in Honduras and Mexico, often related to drug cartels and criminal gangs, has reached such proportions that ordinary life has become untenable. In Honduras, the situation has become so dire that tens of thousands have fled north, adding to the refugees from Central America trekking through Mexico to the American border. Mexican violence has made that country the most dangerous place in the world to be a Catholic priest; priests there who raise their voice against the cartels have been lethally silenced.
Bolivia’s Evo Morales, another Latin American leftist riding high in 2013, changed the constitution — in spite of losing a plebiscite authorizing the amendment — to enable him to run again for president. A compliant, Morales-packed supreme court permitted the extra-constitutional measure. After an October 2019 election he won that was widely denounced as fraudulent, Morales fled into exile in Mexico.
And in Argentina, where a new government was elected in 2019, the economic outlook is bleak. It is expected that Argentina will default — yet again — on its debt. High inflation has already eroded savings, and austerity measures to stave off default have been painful. While the default will not bring the severe economic pain of the last default 20 years ago, Argentina has a bleak few years ahead of it.
Not without reason did Pope Francis describe his home continent as being “in flames” in a recent press interview. The only faint good news from the 2010s is that Latin America, while not free of violence, does not have actual shooting wars, between nations or civil wars.
For the Church, the rise of the first Latin American pontificate has been mixed. Pope Francis has brought new prominence to Latin American issues, brought World Youth Day 2019 to Panama, and saw to the canonization of the martyr Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador.
In the mode of St. Óscar Romero, the last decade has seen courageous bishops challenge the depredations of their political regimes, most prominent among them Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino of Caracas, Venezuela, and Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes Solórzano of Managua, Nicaragua.
Other leaders have proven less inspiring. The decade’s single most astonishing episcopal misadventure in theology came from Pope Francis’ new cardinal in Panama, José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán. At the family synod of 2015, Cardinal Lacunza, noting that Moses permitted divorce but Jesus did not, proposed to the synod that “Peter should be merciful like Moses.” And unlike Jesus. When that was reported, the synod secretariat took swift action — and banned bishops from reporting what other bishops said in the synod hall. Embarrassing cardinals might not be avoidable, but they could be hidden from sight.
The decade concluded with the Pan-Amazon synod, which was both an admission of generations of failure in evangelization and a firm intention to do nothing much about it. The boldest proposal for a New Evangelization of the Amazon was to ordain a few married deacons as priests, an initiative that will cause more mischief in Europe than it will produce actual results in the Amazon, which has few deacons, and those often with inadequate formation.
The highlight of the Francis pontificate for the Latin American Church took place six years before Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope. In 2007, he served as principal drafter of the Aparecida document, the fruit of the plenary assembly of all Latin America’s bishops. Calling for a “great continental mission,” Aparecida was a stirring summons to missionary discipleship for every Catholic. When Cardinal Bergoglio was elected in 2013, he extended the mandate of Aparecida to the entire Church in his first exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
Yet by decade’s end the missionary fervor of Aparecida had cooled, despite the frequent exhortations of the Holy Father. Aparecida was dealt a mortal blow by the working document for the Amazon synod and buried by the synod itself.
The synod abandoned the great continental mission and accommodated itself to the inevitability of evangelical failure.
It was the great surprise for the Latin American Church under the first Latin American pope: The energy of Aparecida was not transferred to Rome but dissipated at home instead.
The other great surprise was papal visits. It would be expected that a Latin American pope would have triumphant visits to his home continent. There certainly have been those, but with three exceptions.
The first is Argentina, which is still waiting for a visit from her native son. Why Pope Francis has visited nearly every other Latin American country, but not Argentina, is a mystery. Despite the issue being raised repeatedly, the Holy Father has chosen not to explain why he won’t go home.
The second was Bolivia in 2015, a visit most remembered for the communist hammer-and-sickle crucifix given to Pope Francis by Evo Morales. More significant, the Holy Father granted Morales most-favored status, presiding together with him over the World Meeting of Popular Movements. Why a figure as ambiguous as Morales would be chosen for a level of papal favor rarely shown to political figures was curious, all the more so in light of Morales’ subsequent dictatorial maneuvers.
The third exception is the most important, the papal visit to Chile in January 2018. Never has a papal visit gone so badly, with such catastrophic consequences for the host country. Bungling the sexual-abuse issue so severely that Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the head of the papal commission on sexual abuse, publicly rebuked him, Pope Francis’ visit poured gasoline on a Church already burning.
The disastrous visit to Chile made a bad situation much worse, and, upon the Pope’s return, the Vatican had to take extreme measures in order to save the Holy Father’s reputation. The price was paid by the Chilean episcopate, which was summoned to Rome for a fierce denunciation by Pope Francis in person. All submitted their resignations, and about a third were accepted. Even now, two years later, the Chilean episcopate has not been reconstructed, and it will take a generation at least before it regains its credibility.
The experience in Chile may make the Argentinians privately reluctant for a papal visit. The case of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, a protégé and favorite of Pope Francis charged with criminal sexual misconduct in Argentina, is far worse for the Holy Father than the cases in Chile. A visit home might put the Church in Argentina in flames, too.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of