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Popes, Saints, and Religious Competition

From Project Syndicate

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%) of the world’s Catholics. But the Catholic Church is increasingly losing out to Protestant competition there and elsewhere.

Just 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% of the population in 1900, but 16.4% in 2010, with growth coming mainly at the expense of Catholics, whose population share fell from 90.4% to 82.3%.

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 twentieth century – and, most clearly, since John Paul II’s papacy (1978-2005) – 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 the competition from Protestants, especially Evangelicals. This phenomenon is most clear in Latin America, but it applies to North America, Asia, and Africa as well. And we think that the naming of a Latin American pope has the same underlying motivation – to compete with the growing threat of 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 in Latin America became more embedded in the region’s culture than in that of Europe.

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