Two major issues overshadowed Benedict XVI's visit late last month to Mexico and Cuba: the ongoing decline of Latin American Catholicism, and the question of how overtly he should address continuing human-rights abuses in Communist Cuba.
Benedict renewed a call for greater Catholic effort in Latin America, which maintains the appearance of a heavily Catholic culture: Actual adherence to Catholicism has declined sharply in recent decades. In Mexico, the number of people self-identifying (even loosely) as Catholics dropped from 96 percent in a 1970 census to 80 percent in 2010. Evangelical and charismatic churches have, to some extent, filled the gap for those falling away from Catholicism.
Most of Cuba also remains at least nominally Catholic despite the Communists' long-time commitment to atheism. They loosened many of Cuba's restrictions on public worship in the early 1990s, with Protestant churches the primary beneficiaries. Practicing Christians in Cuba most frequently attend charismatic and evangelical churches.
Although he spoke out against Cuba's communist system, its atheistic stance, and its long record of suppressing dissent, Benedict concluded his itinerary by holding a brief meeting with former dictator Fidel Castro. Some criticized that visit and said it tacitly affirmed the regime now controlled by Fidel's brother Raúl.
The death of Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III on March 17 added to the uneasiness of Egypt's Christian minority amidst growing political uncertainty and Islamist persecution. Shenouda had viewed President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime as a shield against Islamic extremism, protecting the Coptic population (about 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people) from anti-Christian violence of the kind that has wracked Egypt since Mubarak's deposal in February 2011. Shenouda's successor will have to contend with Islamists who are poised to commandeer the post-Mubarak political system.
Observers say that the process of replacing the pope should take several months. Church officials will receive nominations for the new pope, and then vote to form a slate of three finalists. In a striking final step, a young child will choose the new pope by selecting one of the names out of a box.
-Thomas Kidd is an associate professor of history at Baylor University, senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion; his most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots (see WORLD, Dec. 3, 2011)
In Massachusetts, controversy surrounds the disposition of a former campus of the Northfield Mount Hermon School, which evangelist D.L. Moody founded in 1879. The idyllic Northfield campus closed seven years ago, and the Green family-owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores-acquired it in 2009. The Greens originally planned to donate the campus to the C.S. Lewis Foundation to open a college there, but the foundation has struggled to raise funds to operate the institution.
Earlier this year the Greens began soliciting proposals from other institutions that might be able to use the campus (although the C.S. Lewis Foundation is apparently still in the running). When Liberty University of Lynchburg, Va., emerged as one of the leading candidates, some graduates of Northfield Mount Hermon protested, decrying the possibility that the campus could end up in the hands of a "homophobic and intellectually narrow institution."
Northfield Mount Hermon's website acknowledges the school's evangelical roots, but insists that education there was "never dogmatic." The protesters apparently believe that it would be better to leave the campus vacant than have it run by educators with a different perspective. -Thomas Kidd