In a blog post at the Chronicle of Higher Education, scholar of religion and globalization Philip Jenkins makes the point that, in many respects, Argentina is the perfect point of origin for the first non-European Pope: a Latin American country of note that’s also a leading neo-Europe, arguably the most Italian country by descent and culture outside of Italy, a church of the Global South dealing with the problems of secularization much like the Church in the Global North.
For decades the prospect of a pope from outside Europe has both excited and alarmed observers of the Roman Catholic Church. As the number of Catholics has grown steadily in the Global South, the continuing domination of the church by European prelates has seemed ever more unjust. By 2030 nearly 80 percent of the world’s Catholics will live in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, and Africa will be home to more Catholics than Europe itself. Is such a church to be headed forever by those from Western Europe, a region rapidly succumbing to secularism?
The shift was going to come, and when it did, no country was better suited to provide the pathbreaker than Argentina. Finally we see a pope who can claim to speak for Latin America and the non-European world. For Catholics of the Global South, the symbolic move is decisive and probably marks the start of an indefinite sequence of non-European popes.
[. . .]
The more we examine Argentina, the more perfect Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio seems as a choice, even for the more conservative Europeans. If we imagine an Italian cardinal grumbling at being forced to look overseas for a pope, it quickly becomes clear why an Argentine would be the most attractive choice. While North Americans tend to lump Latin American countries together, Argentina is in fact distinctive.
It is by far the most European nation on its continent, and specifically the most Italian. People of Italian heritage represent a large proportion of its population, and in the late 19th century it was the favored destination of those Italian migrants who did not head to the United States. Of course the country has plenty of other ethnic groups, notably Germans and Syrians/Lebanese, but it is the Italian character that has most profoundly marked Argentina’s society and politics. Just as the British see Australia and New Zealand as distant cousins, so many Italians regard Argentina.
Argentina is also notably European in its history and tradition. It is Latin American, yes, but emphatically not part of the third world. At least through the 1950s, Argentina was definitively part of the advanced West, the first world, to the point that economists wrote learned essays on why Argentina had succeeded so thoroughly while other colonial possessions, like Australia, remained in the doldrums of underdevelopment and colonial exploitation. Right up to the 1940s, Buenos Aires was one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated cities, commonly fifth in line after London, New York, Paris, and Berlin.
Moreover, unlike other Latin American countries such as Mexico or Brazil, Argentina has only a small surviving Native or Indian population, so questions of religious inculturation scarcely arise.
Additionally, the Argentine church faces problems that are immediately recognizable from Rome or Madrid. While the country has small Pentecostal and evangelical minorities, they are nowhere near as strong as in neighboring Brazil or Chile. Instead, the greatest challenge comes from secularism; perhaps 15 percent declare themselves nonreligious, and the great majority of self-declared Catholics practice the faith minimally, if at all. Many notional Catholics spurn the church’s attempts to intervene in the public realm.