Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy in Latin America, the world’s most Catholic region, is marked by a victory of conservative theology and the demise of home-grown leftist religious thought, experts here say.
During his eight-year papacy Benedict continued the church’s march to the right that began under his predecessor, the charismatic Pope John Paul II (1978-2005).
The rightward shift was to be expected: for 24 years until becoming pope, Benedict was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the conservative head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the office that succeeded the Holy Inquisition. Critics called him “God’s Rottweiler.”
“Ratzinger was the theoretician behind that turn to the right, providing the intellectual support that (John Paul II) lacked,” said Luis Pasara, a Catholicism expert at Spain’s Universidad de Salamanca.
As pope, Benedict traveled to Latin America — home to 46 percent of the world’s Catholics — only twice, going to Brazil in 2007 and to Mexico and Cuba in 2012.
Benedict was a “transitional pope” who “did not want to generate conflict in the church in the Americas,” said Jeffrey Klaiber, a religion professor at Lima’s Universidad Catolica.
Benedict followed the conservative guidelines set by John Paul II but “was less aggressive because … liberation theology had already faded as an intellectual movement,” Klaiber said.
Liberation theology, which blends church doctrine with a focus on activism and social justice, originated in Latin America in the 1960s and took its name from a 1971 book by Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez.
Proponents say they were inspired by the 1962 Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII, which modernized church practices and emphasized helping the poor.
Leonardo Boff and Helder Camara from Brazil, the slain Oscar Romero of El Salvador and Nicaragua’s Ernesto Cardenal are some of the best known liberation theology figures.
More radical priests included Camilo Torres Restrepo, who abandoned the clergy to fight with Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas.
Critics like Ratzinger claimed that liberation theology was heavily influenced by Marxism, and the church leadership came down hard on its proponents.
Boff, for example, was officially sanctioned in 1985, and avoided a second sanction in 1992 by leaving the priesthood.
During his 2007 visit to Brazil, Benedict “identified himself with the basic aspirations of liberation theology, to critique an unjust economic system and to place the church on the side of the poor,” said John Allen, Vatican specialist for the US-based National Catholic Reporter.
“But he also insisted on the primacy of faith as opposed to merely sociological analysis,” Allen said.
Benedict’s successor will have to deal with the explosive growth of Pentecostal and evangelical churches in Latin America.
“The Pentecostal churches attract lots of followers because of the way they conduct their services, and not by their doctrine,” Klaiber said.
“In Latin America, people don’t leave the church because it’s too conservative, but rather because the sermons the priests deliver are boring. It’s a mixture of an uninspired clergy lacking charisma and sermons with outdated themes,” he said.
In retrospect, Benedict “was not really a dogmatic man, but rather a man who was disconnected from the real world,” Klaiber said.
Benedict did not understand the gravity of the the pedophilia scandal that shook the church worldwide, even though he had the courage to personally apologize to many of the victims, Klaiber said.
In Latin America, Benedict’s legacy can be measured in terms of the people he named bishops, which Klaiber described as being all “conservative or ultraconservative.”