Catholicism in Latin America: 5 key facts

Pope Benedict XVI began his second trip to Latin America on March 23, with stops in Mexico and Cuba. Here is a brief history of the Catholic church in the Americas:

1.Colonial roots

A banner with an image of Pope Benedict XVI hangs at the site of a campground set aside for pilgrims ahead of the pope's arrival in Leon, Mexico, Friday. (Alexandre Meneghini/AP)

The Catholic Church’s presence in Latin America traces back to Spanish colonization. Following Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the region in 1492, Spain claimed much of the Americas.

Though many European settlers and explorers who followed in Columbus’s footsteps proselytized their Catholic beliefs, it wasn’t until 1537 that Pope Paul III issued a charter affirming that the indigenous populations in Latin America were equal to Europeans, and thus allowed to become Christians.

In the 1800s, numerous countries, including Chile, Ecuador, and Colombia, signed contracts with the Catholic Church, or modeled their constitution on Catholic values, declaring themselves Catholic states.

First papal visit to Latin America

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he boards a plane on his way to a six-day visit to Mexico and Cuba, at Rome's Fiumicino international airport, Friday. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

Despite the Catholic Church’s lengthy presence in Latin America, the first papal visit to the region didn’t take place until 1968, when Pope Paul VI visited Bogota, Colombia. A TIME Magazine article dated Aug. 30, 1968, noted that upon arrival, the pope “fell to his knees at the foot of the airplane ramp and kissed the concrete,” imitating Christopher Columbus’s first act when he arrived in the New World.

When Paul VI visited, the region was caught up in conflicts and dictatorships, ranging from a civil war in Guatemala to a military rule in Brazil. However, the main purpose of the pope’s visit was to prevent further splintering of the Latin American Catholic church, according to TIME.

Benedict XVI in Latin America

Pope Benedict XVI, flanked by Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (l.) and Italian Premier Mario Monti arrives at Rome Fiumicino international airport to board a plane on his way to a six-day visit to Mexico and Cuba, Friday. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

Benedict XVI has visited the region once before, traveling to Brazil, home to the world’s largest Catholic population, in May 2007.  

The pope’s visit was marred, however, by two controversial comments. First, on May 9, Benedict agreed with Mexican bishops’ desire to excommunicate pro-choice Catholic politicians, reports TIME. But perhaps more damaging was a statement he made during a May 13 speech to Latin American bishops in Brazil, when he implied that indigenous people had longed for the Catholic enlightenment brought by the colonists, reports Reuters.

“The proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture,” he said, without noting forced conversions and violence brought about by colonizing Catholics, reports TIME.

As a result, numerous indigenous groups protested across the Americas and demanded an apology from the pope, which he eventually gave.

Papal visits to Mexico

Catholic devotees take pictures of a statue of the late Pope John Paul II at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City on March 19. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

Pope John Paul II made the first papal visit to Mexico in 1979. He returned four times – in 1990, 1993, 1999, and 2002 – making it one of the most visited countries during John Paul II’s papacy.

Mexico has the second-largest Catholic population in the world, behind Brazil, with 96 million Catholics residing in the country. Although the country lovingly welcomed John Paul II, it has traditionally had one of the strongest separations of church and state in the region, dating back to the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, when anticlerical policies were created.

Papal visits to Cuba

A woman walks at the entrance of Havana's Cathedral beside a poster of Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday. (Desmond Boylan/Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI’s trip marks only the second papal visit to Cuba. After the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro dubbed the island an atheist state, exiling priests and sending many to reeducation camps. But the situation began to shift after the Soviet Union fell, and Cuba lost a vital financial lifeline.
As a result – and in an effort to reach out for new sources of foreign investment– Mr. Castro made a landmark gesture toward the Vatican, allowing Pope John Paul II to visit the island in 1998. (To learn more about the Catholic church in Cuba, see this Monitor story.)
Just over half of Cubans identify as Catholic, which places it among the lowest Catholic populations in the region, according the the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life