The election of the first non-European pope is long overdue. After all, Pope Francis’s native region, Latin America, is currently home to nearly half (44 percent) of the world’s Catholics. But the Catholic Church is increasingly losing out to Protestant competition.Look at the statistics. Evangelicalism is the fastest-growing world religion by conversion – a trend that underlies the strong expansion of Protestantism in traditionally Roman Catholic Latin America. Protestants in Latin America accounted for only 2.2 percent of the population in 1900, but 16.4 percent in 2010, with growth coming mainly at the expense of Catholics, whose population share fell from 90.4 percent to 82.3 percent.
The Catholic Church understands this competition, but it confronts a chronic shortage of priests. As a result, the creation of saints is becoming an important way of retaining the faithful.
Indeed, the choice of a Latin American pope echoes a prior shift in the geographical distribution of new saints. Since the early part of the 20th century – and, most clearly, since John Paul II’s papacy – the traditional dominance of Italy and other European countries in the locations of blessed persons has waned. This is reflected in the two stages of saint-making: beatification – the first stage of the process and currently the status of John Paul II – and canonization.
The rationale for this shift is to use national saints to inspire Catholics – and thereby counter competition from Protestants, especially Evangelicals. This phenomenon is most clear in Latin America, but it applies to North America, Asia and Africa as well. The naming of a Latin American pope has the same underlying motivation – to compete with Protestantism in this region.
The idea of using saints to compete with evangelicals in Latin America goes back a long way – the friars accompanying conquering Spanish troops introduced patron saints in every nucleated community. Coupled with persistent shortages of priests, the worship of saints became more embedded in the region’s culture than in that of Europe.
In 1992, John Paul II referred to evangelical groups in Latin America as “rapacious wolves” who were “luring Latin American Catholics away from the Church of Rome.” He decried the “huge sums of money ... spent on evangelical proselytizing campaigns aimed specifically at Catholics.” His concerns with Protestant competition were – and remain – understandable, particularly in Brazil, Chile and Guatemala, with their sharp increases in Evangelical adherence.
John Paul II changed the process of saint-making dramatically. He personally beatified 319 people (non-martyrs), compared to a total of only 259 by the 37 previous popes since 1585. He also made 80 saints, compared to a prior total of 165. Pope Benedict XVI’s large number of saints (44) reflects John Paul’s large stock of beatified people.
As part of this process, Benedict dramatically shortened the number of years for blessed persons to graduate from beatification to sainthood. For example, John Paul II became a blessed person only six years after his death.
With respect to competition with Protestants, the key feature of the last two popes is the shift in the geographical distribution of blessed persons away from Europe. Under John Paul and Benedict, the share of (non-martyr) beatifications from Latin America was 10.5 percent, along with 4.6 percent for North America, 3.9 percent for Asia, and 1.9 percent for Africa. Similarly, Latin America accounted for 9.8 percent of (non-martyr) canonizations, along with 6.6 percent for North America, 4.1 percent for Asia, and 0.8 percent for Africa. These shares compare with the mere handfuls of blessed persons from these regions named by previous popes.
Francis will visit Brazil in July to attend World Youth Day. There have been suggestions that he will visit other Latin American countries this year, including Argentina.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world. Combined, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina account for 26 percent of the world’s Catholics. Yet Latin America’s Catholic population appears to be leveling off, due to falling birth rates and conversions.
The combination of the highest share of Catholics in the world with a decline in the share of religious adherents means that Francis is facing a strategic dilemma. Either he can focus on regaining Latin America for the Catholic Church, or he can place longer-term bets on sub-Saharan Africa, where the population growth rate has been outpacing that in the rest of the world and Catholicism is now growing the fastest. Where will the next saints come from?
Robert J. Barro is a professor of economics at Harvard University and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Rachel M. McCleary is a senior research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).