by José Manuel Morán

Things did not turn out as expected in Chile. Pope Francis, whose image as a charismatic leader sharply contrasts with of his antecessor Benedict XVI, and who often deploys discourses that seem to take some distance from the ones promoted by John Paul II in his obsession with sexuality matters, was not as successful in connecting with Chilean people as in his previous visits to Latin America. The Pope was harshly criticized, even by local Catholic communities, in particular due to his lack of empathy towards sexual abuse victims committed by Chilean priests. To many observers, the Pope’s visit to the country was the worst Francis has undertaken since he took office.

What happened in Chile? Why did the Pope not attract religious people in the same way as in other Latin American countries? Chile, while sharing a common history with the rest of the region, has certain peculiarities that differ from other regional contexts, which might have determined the failure of the papal visit in January this year. Without aiming to be exhaustive, at least two factors can be mentioned with regards this failure. Firstly, the impact that clergy sex abuse scandals has had on people’s religious identification with the Church, which in the case of Chile seems to be different from the rest of Latin America. Secondly, Francis’ marked disconnection with the “popular world” and Chilean social movement is a feature that seems to be unprecedented in the region.

Pope Francis addressing a crowd in focus in the background with raised arms taking pictures of him in the foreground
Photo credit: Dirección de Prensa, Presidencia de la República de Chile


Sexual abuse, distrust and religious disaffiliation

When Francis landed in Santiago on January 15 this year, he arrived to a country that is very different from the one visited by John Paul II in 1987. The current democratic context contrasts sharply with the dictatorship that ruled the country at that time.  Chile’s strong Catholic identity during the 1980s differs from a scenario of disenchantment with religion that has become increasingly evident in the last few years. In fact, Chile features amongst the very small group of Latin American countries that, together with Uruguay, has seen the number of Catholics decline, not at the expense of the rise of evangelicals, but especially due to the growth in the percentage of people who identify as non-believers[1].  Between 1995 and 2017, the percentage of Chileans who recognized themselves as Catholics fell dramatically from 74 to 45 percent, while those who declared not belonging to any religion increased from 7 to 35 percent in the same period of time[2]. This marks an important difference with most of the countries in the region, where Christianity, whether in its Catholic or Evangelical versions, remains prevalent.

Although the phenomenon of religious disaffiliation is explained by multiple causes, the most important seems to be the growing critique to which the Catholic Church has been subjected by Chilean society with regards recent cases of clergy sex abuse. A key turning point in this respect was the 2010 sex abuse allegations made by members of “El Bosque” parish in Santiago, against the priest Fernando Karadima for repeated abuses against minors, which was widely covered by the media. This event sparked the uncovering of other serial cases of sexual abuse performed by the ecclesial hierarchy throughout the country that made public 78 complaints against priests. The Chilean Catholic Church’s image would not remain intact after this wave of allegations. Recent studies show a marked decrease in citizens’ confidence towards the institution in recent years, which has dramatically declined between 2010 (when Karadima was publicly accused) and 2011. In just one year, public trust in the Church fell from 61% to a bare 38%, making Chilean society the one that least trusts the Catholic Church in all Latin America. Between 2010 and 2017 the percentage of those who did not identify with any religion increased from 18% to 35%.

Francis did know about the sex abuse scandals in Chile. In a speech delivered from “La Moneda” presidential palace, side by side with President Bachelet, he did not hesitate to ask for forgiveness for these episodes. For many people, however, his words were tainted by his concrete actions, as he not only refused to personally meet with victims of abuse, but was also accompanied by Juan Barros, the Bishop of Osorno, in all public events. Moreover, the same victims who denounced Karadima, had also accused Barros of covering up and witnessing the abuses. The culminating point of the visit occurred minutes before the Pope was boarding the plane to Peru, as a group of journalists asked him about Barros’ presence during all the religious acts: “When they bring me a proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll talk. I have not seen a single proof against him. All this is a slander. Is that clear?” the Pope responded.

In a context marked by increasing levels of religious disenchantment,  such as the ones described at the beginning of this article, the Pope’s words were harshly received by Chilean society. Unlike the rest of the region, the Chilean sex abuse scandals have been clearly leading Catholics to massively “run away” from the institution, breaking their ties with the Church and developing more critical attitudes towards it. The hierarchy of the Chilean Church expected that the highest leader of the Vatican would firmly condemned the abuses and listened to the victims, in an attempt to contain the wave of disaffiliation. But, quite the contrary, his last words appear to have only served to deepen the disenchantment with Catholicism.

 Francis, the “popular world” and Chilean social movements

While the sexual abuse issue was the main focus of attention during Francis’ visit, there is a second factor that may explain why the Pope did not generate the same enthusiasm registered in his previous visits to the region, which might be his lack of connection with the mobilized “popular world”. Francis has achieved greater proximity with Latin American social movements thanks to the discursive turn he made with respect to – and in opposition to – his predecessors, which has captivated a large number of citizens.  John Paul II and Benedict XVI invested their energies in strengthening a conservative sexual agenda and fighting against progressive interpretations of biblical texts, especially the ones deployed by liberation theology, often inspired by Marxist views. On the contrary, and without necessarily modifying the conservative content of the Church doctrine, Francis is playing an ambivalent game in which he allows himself to strategically displace the conservative sexual agenda to the background, even providing more nuanced versions of it, aiming to prioritize a discourse centered on a renewed critique of capitalism (as a “culture of discarding”, as he names it) and a discourse focused on poverty.

Leaving aside discussions on to whether Francis’ politics represents a structural change for the Catholic Church or if it is just a discursive turn that seeks to co-opt new allies without modifying the conservative content of Vatican politics, it is undeniable that these renewed papal speeches have attracted the attention of mobilized popular sectors. For example, some key Latin American organizations participated in the “World Meeting of Popular Movements” held in Rome in 2014, such as the Brazilian Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST), Argentina’s National Indigenous Peasant Movement and the Guatemala’s Peasant Unity Committee. Likewise, Francis’ discursive shift from the Church’s obsession with sexuality towards poverty or “the social” has been read by some as a vindication of liberation theology[3]. In his previous Latin American tours, Francis has been able to capitalize this approach by including meetings with popular movements, peasants, and indigenous people, among others, in his visits’ agenda.

Francis’ gestures to popular sectors do not seem to have achieved the same impact in Chile. The fervor generated in other latitudes was not replicated by Chilean social movements, and the reasons for this are multiple. Although this is an area that still requires further research, some hypotheses can be raised. In other Latin American latitudes, it is possible to see connections and continuities between popular movements and Christian liberation movements from the second half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, most of the social demands that have impacted current political debates in Chile have been propelled by social movements that emerged after decades of de-politicization and demobilization, most of which have lost the memory of a shared political past with ecclesial grassroots communities, whose way of thinking were never in dialogue with liberation theology or other progressive faith-based projects. Thus, if Francis’ words were read by some American popular movements as acknowledging the sources that inspired their origins and religious motivations, they provoked a very different reaction amongst the most important social movements at play in the current Chilean political scenario.

Another hypothesis is related to the increased role of Chilean gender and sexuality politics in recent years – especially during the second government of president Bachelet (2014-2018) –, and the antagonism this provoked on the side of religious conservative activism, specifically the Catholic Church hierarchy. The decriminalization of abortion, the draft bill aiming to legally recognize self-perceived gender identity, the civil union law and the marriage equality bill are some of the main components of the recent legislative agenda, often targeted by the catholic hierarchy. Against their political interference, feminist and LGBTI movements have not hesitated to denounce the reactionary meddling of the Catholic Church in these parliamentary debates. Given this scenario, it was not easy for Francis to position himself as a legitimate voice for Chilean social movements: he leads an institution that has been consistently situated at the antipodes of the local activist agenda, an institution whose conservative enclaves that have dominated the country’s sexual politics have been a target of political action.

It is true that Francis’ sexual politics have not been as severe as the one promoted by his predecessors. He has spoken of forgiving women who have undergone abortions, as well as of non-judgement towards gay and lesbian people. However, he has also dedicated himself to carefully guiding the interpretations that should be made of his words, locating them within the boundaries of the Church’s magisterium, which was jointly elaborated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Francis has also encouraged and elaborated the notion of “gender ideology” that has become so fashionable in recent strategies of conservative activism as a discursive tool to delegitimize feminist and LGBTI politics. In this game, the Pope’s ambivalence continues to be aligned with the opposition to sexual and reproductive rights, that has for so long characterized the Vatican position.

 Chile post-Francis

Since its enthronement in 2013, the back-and-forth between conservative and more progressive and critical positions was central to Francis’ politics. The success of his style lies in the polysemy his speeches entail. In his speeches, it is possible to find gestures to liberation theology as well as to the conservative sexual politics of his predecessors.  In fact, Francis is a device prone to multiple interpretations that allows a wide range of actors – which can even be antagonistic to each other – to encounter answers in his words. However, this ambivalence worked against him in Chile.  Given the blatant institutional crisis of the Chilean Catholic Church, citizens expected drastic measures of condemnation on the role played by the hierarchy in current sexual abuses scandals.  Far from this, however, the Pope opted to play his traditional game of diffuse signals, which finally ended up with his own condemnation.

The papal visit to Chile seems to have defined the limits of the “Francis phenomenon”. The paradox is evident:  in a historical moment when the leader of the Catholic Church is attempting to leave behind the centrality of the conservative sexual agenda of his antecessors, the abusive sexual practices of the Church’s hierarchy have obstructed Francis in distancing himself from these issues.  Unlike John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who insisted on their inquisitive role regarding the sexuality of women and LGBTI communities, Francis is now sitting in the defendant bench to respond to and be accountable for the sexuality of his own institution.

As we know, the media’s response to Francis’ (failed) visit in Chile was quite immediate. Being aware of the detrimental effects of his last remarks before boarding the last plane to Peru, the Pope tried to clarify (although ambiguously) his statement in defense of Barros. At the time, he had to double his bet by appointing a Vatican representative to further investigate the allegations against Bishop Barros. In doing so, Francis finally seems to have understood that the clergy sex abuse issue put his leadership at stake.  What happened in Chile, rather than representing the exhaustion of the Pope model, marks the limits of a phenomenon. Francis will most likely continue to use the discursive style that has given him his own political identity, and has allowed to distance himself from his predecessors. However, despite the renewed air he tries to bring into the Church, the legitimacy of Catholicism is being eroded by its sexual politics.


This article first appeared in Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW) on 9 March 2018, and this version is reposted here with permission. The translation from Spanish was done jointly by SPW’s and Engenderings’ editorial members and external partners.


Photo of the authorJosé Manuel Morán is a sociologist and Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law of Universidad Nacional de Córdoba (UNC), and a Researcher at Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas of Argentina (CONICET). José Manuel is also a member of the Sexual and Reproductive Rights Programme of UNC. His academic interests include religious conservative mobilisations phenomenon in Latin America and their impact on sexual and reproductive rights from intersectional and biopolitical perspectives.



  1. To a lesser extent, Dominican Republic might be included in this group. It not only experienced a rise in the percentage of unaffiliated religious people over the past years, but also a relative rise in the Evangelical sectors.
  1. Other studies reveal less dramatic data. The “Bicentenario UC Survey” reveals, for example, that the number of Chilean Catholics corresponds to 59% of the population while the number of unaffiliated corresponds to 19%.
  1. In 2013, a few months after Francis’ enthronement, Evo Morales declared that he would support the Catholic Church if they decide to relaunch the liberation theology. Nonetheless Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, one of the main exponents of the Liberation Theology, has made explicit his admiration towards Pope Francis, and his belief that he is promoting a politics of liberation inside the Church.