Worshipers gather Friday in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for a special Mass in honor… (Andre Penner / Associated…)
MEXICO CITY — They represent the region with more Roman Catholics than any other. And their to-do list for the next pope is a long one.
Next month, 19 cardinals from Latin America will be among the 117 from around the world expected to be eligible to participate in the secret meetings to choose a replacement for Pope Benedict XVI.
And though the chances for a Latin American pope being elected are a long shot, regional leaders are hoping to have more influence than before both in the selection process and in addressing many of the major problems facing the church in general and Latin America specifically.
Among them: the growing secularism and corruption of faith that Benedict so frequently complained of and the church's sex abuse scandals, involving clerics in Mexico, Chile and Brazil.
Issues of particular concern for Latin America include the evangelical religious faith that has been rapidly siphoning off church members and the lack of fervor for the current pope.
"Latin Americans have for a very long time felt they should get more say in choices and policy decisions; they feel that because of their size, they should have more influence at the Vatican," said Margaret E. Crahan, an expert on the church at Columbia University's Institute of Latin American Studies. "But the Europeans still dominate."
Many Latin American Catholics never warmed completely to Benedict, in part because of his terse style and in some cases because of his conservative ideology. He remained a distant, rigid figure to many, despite two high-profile visits to the region, and they speak now of hope for a new pope who would be more personable and accessible.
The next pope "will have to take the church from this image of paralysis … and find a clear, agile way to preach the Gospel," said Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, the world's largest.
Contrary to popular opinion, and perhaps wishful thinking, cardinals who gather in the Sistine Chapel for the pope-choosing conclave are not believed to generally vote in geographic blocs. Latin American cardinals, like their counterparts the world over, tend to seek guidance from members of their same order, peers worldwide who are friends, and, especially, cardinals based in Rome who are most familiar with the workings of the Vatican and in the best position to promote or thwart contenders.
In the last conclave, in 2005, the Latin American delegation failed to rally behind a single candidate. Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Peru probably looked to the only other Opus Dei cardinal, Julian Herranz of Spain. There were reports of a last-minute surge by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, a Jesuit who also had strong conservative credentials and who would have drawn support from two groups that at times are at odds, but not in the numbers needed.
The church hierarchy in Latin America has also become much more conservative in recent decades. Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, left a distinct mark on the church in this region, cracking down on dissent and replacing liberal prelates with conservatives. Much of that policy was aimed at stemming the pro-left liberation theology movement that began to spread in Latin America in the 1960s and '70s and at bringing the clergy and laity back into line with orthodox teaching.
The result today for many Catholic worshipers in Latin America — though certainly not all — is a church hierarchy out of step with their pressing daily problems. Some still hanker for the more progressive activism that was nurtured by liberation theologists. Moreover, despite their overall moral and theological conservatism, the "princes" of the church do not speak in one voice, depending on the internal dynamics of each country; for some, issues of social justice do remain a priority, while others must deal with violence or other overarching challenges.
The reputation of the church in Latin America was badly hurt by sex abuse scandals, mostly notoriously the case of the late Father Marcial Maciel, the once-revered Mexican founder of an ultra-conservative religious congregation known as the Legion of Christ. Maciel was a favorite of the Vatican and especially of John Paul before it was revealed that he had sexually abused seminarians for decades, fathered at least three children by two or more women and was a drug addict. Benedict finally removed him from duties in 2006 shortly before his death and ordered the organization overhauled.
The Maciel case cast a pall over Benedict's pilgrimage to central Mexico last year, when abuse victims and their supporters staged competing events and demanded a meeting with the pontiff. Although Benedict has conferred with sexual abuse victims in some of his voyages, he did not do so in Mexico. It is not clear whether the conservative local church hierarchy, some of whose senior members had also protected Maciel for years, made the petition known to the Holy See.