Pope Francis is the church's first Latin American leader. (Osservatore Romano / AFP…)
We Americans have long told ourselves that we are a God-favored people, a churchgoing, moral people. But last week when the old cardinals of Roman Catholicism looked for the future of their church, they looked south. And what we Americans heard, as if for the first time, is that the spiritual center of Christianity is in the Southern Hemisphere, not with us in the north.
How could that be?
Despite the drug addiction of Americans — an addiction second to none that has destabilized Latin America from Bolivia to Colombia to Mexico — we assume the moral high ground in the Americas. We long have regarded Latin Americans as a morally lazy race, corrupt in their civic life, tolerant of Marxism one day, fascism the next. Now we learn that the beating heart of Christianity is in the south. World Catholicism is centered there. And Protestantism, too, surges throughout Latin America.
We Americans built a wall to separate ourselves from Latin Americans and their disrespect regarding our laws. A number of us tell pollsters or listeners of talk radio that we would deport the millions of Latin Americans who are illegally here, and their children bleating about their "dreams." Many Americans declare they do not want illegality rewarded in any way.
In the long political debate over illegal immigration, religion and morality have rarely been mentioned by those in power, except by disgraced Cardinal Roger Mahony in Los Angeles. In immigrant rights parades, it's true, one did see nuns and people carrying crosses, as in a religious procession. But right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan, famously a Catholic, described illegal immigrants from Latin America as a greater threat to our union than Al Qaeda. There was something evil coming from the south.
What went unsaid on talk radio and on the floor of Congress was that were it not for Latin American immigrants, here legally and illegally, many churches in the U.S. would be as empty as Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. And not just Catholic churches.
Increasingly, as young, white Americans abandon organized religion, Latin Americans in the United States have been flocking to evangelical Protestantism. Already, in Central America and Brazil, the rate of conversion to evangelical Protestantism is such that by century's end, Latin America may be in its majority, evangelical Protestant. Already, Protestant churches are sending missionaries from Latin America north to attend to our barren souls.
The American left doesn't talk about such things because it is largely uninterested in religion, having ceded it to the American right. (Pope Francis is troubling for many in the cultural left because of his sexual conservatism; the new pope's passion for the poor will not be consoling to them.)
The American right, by contrast, ought to be interested. But the Republican Party has sought political advantage by playing to the nativists in its ranks, taking the hard line on illegal immigration. In his campaign for the presidency, did Mitt Romney, once a Mormon bishop, even know that the world population of his church is already Spanish-speaking? He never mentioned it.
Suddenly a new moral map of the world is unfurled in front of our eyes. Africa? We Americans have been inclined to regard Africa as a hellish place of AIDS, tribalism, cartoon dictators — backwardness of every sort. Now the news from Rome is that Catholicism is growing most rapidly in Africa even as Christianity shrinks in Northern and Southern Europe and once-beloved churches there become tourist attractions.
Europe is the political right's obsession — but only economically. Republican fiscal conservatives warn that overspending in Washington could doom our country to become like the bankrupt economies of Europe. In Europe, however, the problem is not only depleted economies but also a depleted biological energy. As Christianity has receded in Europe, many of its countries are showing negative birthrates. Germany, Spain, France — all show negative birthrates. And isn't that curious? As religious belief declines, so does the biological dynamism of a nation.
For the last half-century, Muslim immigrants have moved into the biological vacuum of Europe. Muslim families choose to have children while the white European vacillates between a Volvo and a Saab. There are predictions by some European Muslims of a numerical "re-conquest" of Europe not on the battlefield but in the maternity wards, a Muslim Europe by virtue of numbers: Muslim Paris, Muslim Amsterdam, Muslim Madrid.
In the United States, there are signs of a decreasing birthrate among the native-born. America could be headed toward the European pattern of shrinkage were it not for the fact that immigrants from Asia and Latin America are moving into the biological vacuum of America.
Christians from Latin America are moving into the spiritual vacuum of post-Christian America. Priests from Latin America and Protestant ministers from Latin America are tending to growing congregations.
None of this seemed to register until the Argentine cardinal made his appearance as Pope Francis on the loggia at the Vatican.
Now we hear a pope, a European immigrant's son, who is speaking to the world in Spanish. We hear there is much praying and singing — much joy — in the churches of Latin America and that, indeed, the future of Christianity is there, not here. And we are left peering at the future over the wall we ourselves constructed.
Richard Rodriguez, the author of "Brown" and "Hunger of Memory," is an editor at New America Media in San Francisco. "Darling," his spiritual biography, will be published in the fall by Viking.