Pope Francis has created a big buzz worldwide. He compares the Roman Catholic Church to a field hospital after battle. He says it’s not necessary to talk about hot-button issues like abortion and contraception all the time. When asked about gays in the church, he replied, “Who am I to judge?”

His past in his homeland of Argentina has been controversial. Some have questioned whether he stood up to the dictatorship during Argentina’s “dirty war” in 1976-83 when tens of thousands of political dissidents – including priests – were detained, tortured and often killed.

Daniel H. Levine, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, admits his initial assessment of the pope was too narrow.

Daniel H. Levine, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, admits his initial assessment of the pope was too narrow.

The pope is leading a church that faces huge challenges. Membership is declining even in strongholds such as Latin America, where new churches in the Pentecostal movement are surging in popularity.

Who is Pope Francis and what is the future of religion in Latin American? These important issues and many more were addressed in a lecture by Daniel H. Levine, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Michigan. Levine’s latest book is Politics, Religion and Society in Latin America.

Levine gave his talk on Jan. 28 at U-M’s International Institute. It was sponsored by U-M’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Department of Political Science and St. Mary Student Parish.

Below are edited excerpts from Levine’s lecture and an interview after the event.

What’s the current state of religion in Latin America?

Levine: It’s flourishing, vital, creative, plural and multiple. There’s just more religion everywhere than there was before. And above all it’s highly competitive.

When I first went to Latin America in 1967, the region was still overwhelmingly Catholic, not just Catholic but the kind of religious practice that was stodgy, not very innovative and assumed to be supportive of established powers and institutions.

I spend a lot of time looking at the numbers on religion in Latin America. Although it’s true that 40 percent of the world’s Catholics are in Latin America, and the Western Hemisphere as a whole is overwhelmingly Christian, in these four decades, the number of people who described themselves as Catholic in the region has dropped substantially from what was typically nine-tenths or more to what is now commonly two-thirds, 65 to 70 percent in a lot of countries. Much of this change has come from the sharp growth of Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches.

Who is Pope Francis?

Pope Francis makes the cover of the Rolling Stone on Feb. 13, 2014.

Pope Francis makes the cover of the Rolling Stone on Feb. 13, 2014.

Levine: Many observers, myself included, saw Pope Francis as simply a continuation of the conservative policies and outlooks of his two predecessors. He comes out of a very conservative Catholic hierarchy, which was closely allied with the military and on occasion directly complicit with it. There has also been controversy about some of his own actions during the military regime. But I think all of us who were very pessimistic have had to recognize that we were too narrow in our view. We assumed he was a creature of his history and we were wrong. It’s OK to be wrong as long as you can recognize it.

He’s the first pope of non-European birth in 1,300 years. It’s always worth reminding audiences that Christianity is not a European religion in its origins. The main thing that I think is interesting is how he has confounded expectations – how he has changed the tone of discourse. He has altered the tone of public discussion while setting in motion some potentially very significant reforms in the Vatican and its bureaucracy and top leadership.

What is the pope’s position on Argentina’s era of military dictatorship?

Levine: He has called for a balanced memory. The debate about memory is a big thing in Argentina: What is the historical memory of the dictatorship? The call for a balanced memory says there were crimes on all sides. It was a war. But in fact it was a government’s war against its own people.

 

Pope Francis has been accused of not doing enough to protect two Jesuits who were detained while working in poor neighborhoods during the “dirty war.” Was he responsible for the detention of the priests, who were tortured?

Levine: The accusation about Francis was that by directing the priests to leave the area, to stop their work and leave, that he essentially withdrew protection from them, making them easy targets for the regime. There wasn’t much protection available at the time for anyone. But he didn’t do much and he himself acknowledged this. He gave a deposition in a legal case in November 2007, and he stated that he had not done everything possible to take care of them and that he just thought of them as “zurdos” or “Lefties.”

What has been the impact of the pope’s public statements?

Levine: I’ve read most of the interviews Pope Francis has given. They’re all on the web and translated. They are very carefully calculated. These are not spontaneous interviews. He knows what he is doing, I assume. It’s easy to understand the buzz. There is a striking change of tone from the public statements of his predecessors, particularly Benedict. In these interviews, the pope is open and warm. He stresses a welcoming and accepting position. His “Who am I to judge?” reply when asked about gay people reverberated around the world. He has opened doors that appeared to be firmly shut by his predecessors and has taken steps to begin much-needed reforms in the Vatican.

On political issues, he has shied away from direct comment. In Spain he was asked to speak at an occasion about martyrs in the Spanish Civil War, and he sidestepped requests and asked for forgiveness for the church’s complicity with Franco. He has sidestepped issues of memory in Argentina. So he is treading carefully on a variety of fronts.

What’s the future of the Catholic Church in Latin America?

Levine: It’s easy to assume whatever has happened in the last 50 years is going to continue. to happen. But on the other hand, what we’ve seen in Latin America are long-term changes that have come to fruition in this last period. Will the changes set in motion by Pope Francis have some impact in stopping the bleeding in numbers and restoring the Catholic Church’s position? It still has a strong position but can it be restored a little bit? There are already a lot of changes underway in the church, but it still remains highly reliant on male clergy – that’s a diminishing resource – and most of their main constraints are hard to shift and be flexible. The church can’t rely on its network of old organizations anymore. The pattern of belonging people indicate on surveys and studies is much more selective and volatile. There’s much less automatic belief and following orders. This is part of a general notion of secularization. Secularization is more than a decline of religion. It’s also has to do with a belief in autonomy, choice and plurality.

What can the pope do?

Levine: It’s not easy to change the Catholic Church. It has been around for 2,000 years. It’s a very complicated institution with many groups and interests with a lot of autonomy. There is a lot of resistance within the Catholic Church to initiatives. Some of my more cynical Latin American friends say, “There are a lot of nice words here (from Francis). What’s going to happen?” I think words are important. They set a personal style and a moral example. They put new issues on the agenda. So I think that part of what the pope has done is very important. He resets the parameters of discourse.

The second question is: Will he stop the bleeding – that is, counter the loss of followers? Actual members of the church continue to grow, but the problem is that the growth lags behind population growth, so the church is losing “market share.”  I don’t know if the pope can reverse the trend. He may rally the troops, which may be part of his goal, but it’s likely to be just some of them, not all of them. There will continue to be dissent and foot dragging within the church. It is a very complicated institution, much more heterogeneous than it may appear from outside. There is something like a civil society within the church itself, with multiple voices and multiple positions, as articulated by religious orders, presses, schools, universities and research institutions of all kinds.

Liberalization may not stop the bleeding. There’s a long literature in the sociology of religion about why strict churches are strong. They are strong because they reinforce the bonds within. When you loosen those bonds, the borders get a little more porous, so it may not stop the bleeding.

It’s not clear to me that he will necessarily stop the bleeding. But I believe that if the church is to do more than tread water, it has to move to an open, less defensive stance. The Catholic Church can no longer act as if it has a monopoly position. There is a lot of competition out there and Latin American societies are increasingly dynamic, open, plural, educated and mobile. A position that incorporates expectations of plurality is for this reason not only a good way to go, it is the only way to go.

These excerpts are also available in Spanish and Portuguese