They are the largest group in the Roman Catholic Church, and the next pope might even come from their midst. Yet few have heard how Latino Catholics regard the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI.
For many Latino Catholics, Benedict’s legacy is mixed. They will forever tie him to his fierce opposition to liberation theology, a controversial movement that sought to improve the impoverished lives of Latinos living under oppressive governments.
Benedict, who resigned Monday citing his advancing age, was one of the church’s most visible opponents of liberation theology, a movement that began in Latin America in the 1960s. It mingled Marxist critiques of poverty with an insistence that the church display a “preferential option” for the poor.
Benedict’s view created more distance between priests and the poor people they served, says Jennifer Hughes, a Catholic Church scholar at the University of California, Riverside.
"In Latin America, both as Cardinal Ratzinger and as the pope, Benedict devoted himself to the systematic dismantling of the infrastructure of liberation theology," Hughes says. "During this process, many priests and bishops withdrew from their ministry in the poorest communities.”
Benedict’s opposition to liberation theology was ironic because he shared many of its concerns, others say. He was critical of capitalism and thought that Christian leaders should be concerned with the economic and political liberation of their followers.
Benedict spoke out against unrestrained capitalism, income inequality and global warming. As recently as December, he said in a speech that Christians should work for a more “equitable sharing of the Earth’s resources.”
“Benedict was a vociferous advocate for the poor and strongly opposed income inequality,” says James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life." “On that mark, he was as progressive as they come.”
Yet Benedict was suspicious of liberation theologians because some aligned themselves with political movements that sought to overthrow repressive governments in Latin America, other historians say.
The prospect of the church aligning itself with political movements alarmed Benedict because of his own upbringing, says Ramon Luzarraga, a religion professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio. He saw such an alliance between church and state destroy his native Germany. Catholic and Protestant leaders help put Hitler in power, Luzarraga says.
“Liberation theologians are comfortable working with government and political parties on the left while Benedict is more comfortable remaining neutral,” Luzarraga says.
Benedict’s impact on Latin America is important because the region will shape much of the church’s future. Latino Catholics are the largest group in the Catholic Church. Latin America's Catholics make up 39% of the world’s Catholic population, according to the Pew Research Center.
Latin America is also home to the two most populous Catholic countries: Brazil and Mexico (the U.S. has the fourth-largest Catholic population), the Pew Center found.
Even without Benedict’s opposition to liberation theology, more Latino Catholics are drifting away from the Vatican, another scholar says.
Under Pope Benedict, a growing number of Latino Catholics were no longer regarding the Vatican’s teaching as an important element in their faith, says Michele Dillon, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Latino Catholics traditionally believe the church should give more emphasis to social justice rather than issues such as abortion and contraception, Dillon says. A majority of Latino Catholics favor same-sex marriage and women’s ordination, she says.
“As Hispanic Catholics in the U.S achieve upward mobility, they may become a little more conservative on social justice and concern for the poor,” Dillon says, “but currently many of the issues that are especially important to Catholics in Latin America are also very important to Hispanic Catholics in the U.S.”
At the same time, Latino Catholics are also drifting away from liberation theology, says Carl Raschke, a religion professor at the University of Denver.
The theology is now perceived more as a Western intellectual movement that does not understand the revival of spirituality among indigenous people in Latin America, Raschke says.
“Liberation theology is for the most part out of favor in Latin America because it has been largely deemed by indigenous people as increasingly irrelevant,” Raschke says.
Pentecostal-flavored religion, not liberation theology, is now sweeping Latin America, says Daniel Ramirez, a religion professor at the University of Michigan.
“Although they [liberation theologians] talked about the option for the poor, the poor ultimately opted for Pentecostalism,” Ramirez says.
The Vatican can bridge some of the distance with Latino Catholics with one dramatic action, some scholars say.
If the next pope is Latino, the impact will be epic, says Luzarraga.
“It would be the same effect as [Pope] John Paul II had on Polish people,” Luzarraga says. “”It would be an announcement to the world that Latino Catholics have finally come into their own.”