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‘Difficult to Love’



In Latin America, disappointed Roman Catholics fear that Benedict XVI will not be able to stop the drift away from their church.
Papal news: A vendor displays Brazil’s morning papers in Brasilia on Wednesday
Jamil Bittar / Reuters
Papal news: A vendor displays Brazil’s morning papers in Brasilia on Wednesday
By Joseph Contreras
Updated: 4:07 p.m. ET April 21, 2005

April 21 - The 2005 conclave of cardinals will likely be remembered in Latin America as an occasion of dashed hopes. Until Germany’s Pope Benedict XVI was elected on Tuesday, millions of Roman Catholics here were daring to dream of a pope coming from their corner of the world.


Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva publicly threw his support behind Sao Paulo archbishop Claudio Hummes. In Honduras, six million Roman Catholics speculated about the possibility that a native son, Tegucigalpa’s polyglot archbishop Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, could emerge as a compromise choice among his colleagues and endow their archetypal banana republic with a veneer of respectability. Such was the giddy optimism felt in some quarters that cardinals with rather meager credentials for the papacy—like Cuba’s Jaime Lucas Ortega or Mexico City archbishop Norberto Rivera Carrera—found their names turning up on the lists of supposed contenders to succeed John Paul II. 

But none of those scenarios materialized—which came as no surprise to those savvy Latin American Vatican watchers who had questioned the plausibility of a homegrown pontiff in the first place. Although the region is host to an estimated 43 per cent of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, the 22 cardinals from Latin America represented only 18 percent of the prelates who were eligible to cast ballots this week. (By comparison, Italy alone nearly equaled the Latin American delegation with its 21 cardinals.) The Latin American princes of the church had no tradition of voting as a bloc in previous conclaves. “They are scattered among different factions and they are coming into this conclave from a position of weakness,” predicted Elio Masferrer, a Catholic affairs expert at Mexico’s National School of Anthropology and History before the cardinals made their choice.

In the end, many rank-and-file Catholics in the region accepted the election of the conservative German cardinal Joséph Ratzinger with a mixture of satisfaction and resignation. “I don’t think I’ll see a Latin American pope in my lifetime,” shrugged Aurora Gómez Huesca, a 50-year-old resident of Mexico City who runs a warehouse storage business with her Italian immigrant husband. “There aren’t that many cardinals from Latin America, and [Ratzinger] was very close to the pope. I hope that he will toe the same line [of John Paul II] because you can’t change so many things about the church from one day to the next.”

News of Ratzinger’s selection failed to trigger any massive outpouring of jubilation on the streets of major Latin American cities. (On the day of his election, journalists at one point outnumbered the faithful on the steps of Mexico City’s 16th-century metropolitan cathedral.) Catholic hierarchies throughout the region dutifully issued pronouncements praising the cardinals’ choice. “We express our most sincere appreciation and respect for our new pastor,” said Bishop José Guadalupe Martín Rábago, president of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, in a written statement. “[Pope Benedict XVI] shall give new impetus to the teachings and doctrine of the church and will guide the boat of Christ to a safe port.”

But reaction elsewhere in Mexico, home to the largest number of Roman Catholics worldwide after Brazil, was rather muted. The Mexico City tabloid Metro christened Ratzinger “The Iron Pope,” and the influential newspaper El Universal noted the ambivalence that many liberal Catholics harbor towards a cardinal who vigorously enforced John Paul II’s hardline stance on issues like celibacy in the priesthood and a total ban on contraceptives. “[In] Mexico and the third world in general, one perceives a disenchantment with this appointment,” said an unsigned editorial. “For some, the premonition of a hardening in Catholic dogma is already in the offing.” Leonardo Boff, the controversial Brazilian apostle of liberation theology who later left the priesthood in the face of John Paul II’s crackdown on the movement, openly questioned Ratzinger’s ability to heal the deep-seated divisions within the church that pitted Vatican-backed conservatives against advocates of reform. “It will be difficult to love this pope,” declared Boff in an interview with the Mexican newspaper Reforma. “It is time to close the many wounds that were opened, and I don’t think [Ratzinger] has the capacity to change.”

That last assessment seems to be shared by friends and foes alike of the new pope. Given his advanced age and history of health problems, the reign of Benedict XVI is expected to be short-lived, and continuity will surely be the order of the day. That will be good news for right-wing orders like Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ that acquired significant clout and prominence under John Paul II. But it doesn’t bode well for the Latin American church overall: plagued by acute shortages of priests in some countries and the relentless rise of evangelical movements among the region’s poor, the hierarchy will be hard pressed to regain the confidence of younger Catholics who practice birth control, file for divorce and otherwise flout the edicts of an iron pope at the helm. “We’ve been detecting a slow, quiet but systematic drift towards other religious options, and that will continue,” says Masferrer. That will do little to bolster the prospects of a Latin American successor to Benedict XVI, no matter how many like-minded prelates from the region he may elevate to the college of cardinals during his papacy.   



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved