Rome and the Margins

Will a non-European pope be able to reach out beyond the Vatican and connect with an increasingly assertive periphery?

The Vatican has elected the first ever Latin American pope.

“In the first millenium the church of Rome was part of the so-called pentarchy with Jerusalem, Constatinople, Antioch and Alexandria. It was a part of a balanced sharing of authority if not power. In the second millenium the self-consciousness of the bishop of Rome has been to be the centre of a real global entity. 

– Alberto Melloni, a church historian 

Uniquely in human history, the pope is the sole religious leader for 1.2bn people globally, the world’s biggest single denomination.

Dozens of nationalities, with countless cultures all looking towards one institution – to the religious leadership of one man.

A hundred years ago, two-thirds of the world’s Catholics lived in Europe, but in the past century demographics have shifted significantly. Now, European congregations are dwindling and two-thirds of the world’s Catholics live in the global south.

While the following has shifted southwards, the seat of power has not.

From the moment Pope Francis was elected, Catholics and commentators have sounded a new note of optimism. But something as superficial as his Argentinean nationality alone, is no guarantee that the Catholic Church itself is about to change. 

For most Latin American Catholics, how the Church helps the poor is the central issue. But it is one of the most contentious for the Vatican. 

Latin America is the birthplace of Liberation theology, a radical movement which insists that Jesus called for bringing about real social justice for the poor; not just giving charity.

But both Pope John Paul II. and Benedict XVI. denounced the movement as heresy, and its followers as closet-Marxists. 

Pope John Paul II spoke for the oppressed in an age when Western democracies championed individualism over social justice. But in Latin America he shamed some leftist priests for political activism.

For those living in poverty, struggling with oppressive governments, the Vatican’s stance against certain brands of left-wing activism has been alienating.

For the continent’s 480 million Catholics, the Church can feel out of step not only with their daily struggles, but also with their religious culture. 

“In Latin America, the experience of God is of a saviour of the poor …. Latin Americans have depended on Europe for 500 years. We are very grateful for the christianity we have received. This is still our nature, a Latin American Christian soul, to this day. But this Western European version of Christianity is precisely what’s creating today’s tension in Latin America and in the rest of the world. There’s the demand for a culturally inclusive Christianity,” says Jorge Costadoat Carrasco, from Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. Jorge Costadoat Carrasco

So can a pope from the developing world finally bridge the cultural gap between Rome and the margins? And can the new pope restore trust in the governance of the Church?


Rome and the Margins can be seen from Sunday, March 24, at the following times GMT: Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930; Tuesday: 0330; Wednesday: 1630.