AP

Anyone who woke from a 50-year coma on Thursday and immediately turned on Bolivian state TV to find out what's going on in the world would have been shocked to learn two things: we haven't invented flying cars yet, and the Reds must have won the Cold War because there's a commie in the Vatican.

They'd be forgiven for thinking so. Pope Francis' speech in Santa Cruz, Bolivia yesterday sounded like a mashup of Liberation Theology and old fashioned, lectern-thumping Latin American populism. The pope championed the "sacred rights of labor" and railed against excesses of "neo-colonialism" and the "intolerable" conditions of a capitalist system that serves the interest of large corporations, international financial institutions, and free-trade agreements.

The pope ended his speech with a call for “land, roof and work” for all. Oh yeah, and he had a "communist crucifix" of Jesus nailed to hammer and sickle — an unwelcome gift from fellow traveler and Catholic faithful President Evo Morales.

The truth is, the pope isn't a communist, although he has acknowledged that some people think he is when he gets fired up about issues of social and economic justice. It's a message he believes is "at the center of the Gospel," and one he preached during his days working with downtrodden communities in Argentina. So there's no reason to doubt the authenticity of his words.

Advertisement

But it's important to note that his message to Latin America this week appears to be custom tailored to the different — make that very different — audiences and political realities in each country on his tour. His words have as much to do with pragmatism as anything else.

One of the pope's main objectives in Latin America — home to 40 percent of the world's Catholic population, and falling quickly— is to get people back in the pews. Or, at the very least, slow the faithful's exit through the churchyard gates as former Catholics hear the calling of other denominations, or abandon religion altogether.

A Pew poll published last November found that the Catholic population in Latin America, which hovered around 90 percent from days of the conquest through most of the 20th Century, has now dipped below 70 percent. And the hemorrhaging is accelerating. The Pew study found that most of the church-flight has happened in the past generation; of the 84 percent of Latin American adults who say they were raised Catholic, only 69 percent still identify as such.

Advertisement

The same survey found that protestant churches — especially the evangelicals— are growing quickly throughout the hemisphere. The church-switching, the Pew study found, has to do with former Catholics wanting a "more personal connection with God," a "different style of worship," and a church that "helps its members more."

In short, those leaving the Catholic flock are looking for a church that is closer to the community and with less clergy clutter blocking their path to God.

Ironically, the head of the Catholic's hierarchal structure — the guy with the tallest hat in the room— has the best chance of getting folks back into church.

Advertisement

Francis, Latin America's first pope, appears to be channeling the charisma of former Pope John Paul II, who spoke Spanish and was enormously popular in Latin America. The Argentine-born pope is drawing huge crowds for his so-called "homecoming tour" of Ecuador, Bolivia and — starting later today— Paraguay. And so far he's telling each country what they want to hear.

In Ecuador, the pope echoed the government's conservative family views. He didn't speak out against the government's crackdown on freedom of expression, as some activists had hoped. But he did call for protection of the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous tribes in the jungle by warning against the “short-term benefits” of oil exploration — a comment that some interpreted as a criticism of President Rafael Correa's plans to drill.

In Bolivia, the pope seemed to echo John Paul II's famous criticism of "savage capitalism" — a line repeated ad nauseam by some Latin American leftists (looking at you, Daniel Ortega) — and asked for forgiveness for the Church's sword-and-cross colonization of the continent 500 years ago. It was a message met by nods in a poor country with an indigenous president who's critical of the Catholic Church.

Advertisement

The pope tailoring his message to different audiences isn't opportunistic. It's shrewd. As the leader of an institution that has been criticized as distant, rigid and stale, Pope Francis is showing that he knows his audience and can connect with them. And in doing so, he appears to be breathing new life and energy into the church in Latin America.

And that's one of the main reasons he got the job.