A revolutionary. A reformer. The most progressive Catholic leader in history. All have been used to describe Pope Francis, the Argentine pontiff who has shown a willingness to embrace change in the Catholic Church and reenergize his flock in places like Latin America, where the share of adults identifying as Catholic has fallen precipitously over the last 50 years.
But are Latin America’s Catholics ready for a progressive leader? And will Francis be willing to extend his more liberal discourse on economics and the environment into contentious social issues like gay rights and abortion? The outcome of his trips to Bolivia and Ecuador, earlier this week, and a visit to Paraguay, now underway, may help answer those questions.
The region’s renewed enthusiasm for the pope is certainly beyond debate. At least 550,000 people attended a mass on Monday in Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil. On Tuesday, a reported one million people packed a park in Quito, the capital, to hear the pope speak. In Bolivia, news outlets have compared Francis to a rock star.
So far, the pope’s messages during the trip have focused on poverty, inequality and environmental protection—popular themes for audiences whose presidents identify as socialists and have codified respect for the environment in national constitutions. On Wednesday, Francis met with President Evo Morales—historically a critic of the Church—and lauded Bolivia’s efforts at economic inclusion and wealth redistribution.
But on Saturday, he is scheduled to participate in a civil society roundtable that will include Simón Cazal, a gay activist and executive director of SomosGay, a Paraguayan LGBT rights group. Cazal hopes Francis will take the opportunity to advocate for the civil rights of gay people in Paraguay. This is a less comfortable topic in the region, especially in Paraguay: the country is one of Latin America’s least gay-friendly countries, tying for second to last for LGBT rights in Americas Quarterly’s 2014 Social Inclusion Index. Eighty percent of the country’s citizens oppose gay marriage.
Meanwhile, Paraguay’s national police reportedly banned signs referencing same-sex marriage and abortion while Francis is in the country, a signal that authorities don’t exactly want social issues in the spotlight. An abortion case in Paraguay made international headlines this year when doctors denied the procedure to a 10-year-old rape survivor because it wasn’t deemed necessary to save her life—the only case in which abortion is legal in Paraguay. Reproductive rights advocates will be listening to hear whether Francis addresses the topic during his visit.
In focusing on economic justice and environmental conservation, Francis is on solid ground with Latin American audiences. How much he is willing to engage Catholics in the region on more contentious social issues may determine whether or not the honeymoon continues.