17 November 2021
17 Nov 2021

Is Latin America still Catholic?

Latin America has always been spoken of as a Catholic continent. It is true that in our countries there are a great majority of people baptized in the Catholic Church but they are by tradition and custom with almost no impact in life: they have therefore a superficial and vulnerable faith.


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The Aparecida document had proposed to reach them with a missionary mobilization involving all Catholics being aware of their faith, in order to achieve a true conversion to Christ of those who are already baptized in the Catholic Church and profess themselves Catholic but do not live out their faith.

Pope Francis continues to call for a “Church going forth” and proclaims that “mission is the greatest challenge for the Church today” (Evangelii Gaudium n.15). The watchword is to go to the peripheries with the first proclamation of Jesus (kerygma) and the protagonism of the laity. In a letter on March 19, 2016 to Cardinal Marc Ouellet of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, Pope Francis commented, “I recall the famous post-conciliar expression: ‘it is the hour of the laity.’ But it would seem that the clock has stopped.”

Indeed it has stopped, and we have fallen asleep. When the press speaks of the Church, it refers to the Pope, bishops and clergy who are in charge; the laity does not exist. The word of the people of God is not heard, not because they do not have it, but because they have no channels to express it. In Latin America, Catholics continue to be the majority but they are constantly decreasing. On the contrary, evangelicals are growing. It is not a de-Christianized continent like Europe but, from being formally Catholic, it has turned to evangelism. Obviously it is not a question now of crusades against the evangelicals as perhaps it was done in the past, nor of a competition between Christian Churches. Today there is a climate of fraternal rapprochement between the Churches.

The “mission” is only for those who do not know Christ or have forgotten him; it is for those Christians who have distanced themselves not only from the Catholic Church but also from all Christian practices in life. These are millions of people, not counting the new generations who are increasingly distanced from the faith. After centuries of Christianity, Latin America continues to be the continent with the most inequality, social injustice, misery, and violence. Many have forgotten that the mission of the Church is not to bring more people to its tents but to transform the world according to the spirit of the Gospel. The Christian, being a Christian, must be a committed person. On the other hand, the numerical success of the evangelicals is surely a stimulus to reformulate our pastoral, to promote the immense potential of forces that the Catholic Church has and to make an urgent self-criticism in this stage of listening to the People of God.

Is the Continent becoming Protestant?

The word “Protestant” refers to the great Churches that emerged from the Reformation initiated by Friar Martin Luther in the 16th century: Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican. These are the traditional or historic Protestant Churches; to these, must be added the Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Episcopalian Churches… But, while the historic Churches only remain, it is the Evangelical Churches that have had a rapid and massive diffusion since the beginning of the last century until today, especially in Central America.

Today even the term “evangelical” refers to all non-Catholic churches and is practically equivalent to “Protestant”. From the decade of the seventies when Catholics were more than 90% of Latin America, it has gone to 64.9% in 2017; and Evangelicals from 4% to 19%. The alarming number of Catholics who are moving to evangelical communities is striking. The most Catholic country in the world, Brazil, has gone from 95.2% Catholic to 61% in 2010; and evangelicals are now 26% of the population.

In the decade prior to the episcopal assembly of Aparecida, some 30 million Latin American Catholics have left our Church. The Peruvian bishop Norberto Strotmann, who is a sociologist, stated without hesitation that the Catholicity of Latin America as a whole will be at stake in the coming decades. If the current trend continues, by 2035 there will be a tie between Catholics and Evangelicals. According to Strotmann’s studies (cf. “The Church after Aparecida”), Latin America is the only continent where the growth of Catholics is lower than the growth of the population and the continent where, together with Europe, the Catholic Church loses more faithful.

Advance of Pentecostalism

Evangelical Pentecostalism is growing steadily and is fed precisely by traditional Catholics, without much formation. According to the Pew Research Center in a survey conducted in 2014, 55% of Argentine evangelicals said they had been raised in the Catholic Church and had found outside its spaces of greater community, participation and mutual help.

The Catholic Church in general did not understand this phenomenon and did not know how to react with another type of pastoral. It remained hopeless even among the poor, especially in the last decades with the abandonment of the basic ecclesial communities, the popular pastoral, the biblical groups, the liberating action. “Catholics have made the option for the poor and the poor have made the option for the evangelicals,” it was said.

The popular masses that, due to the phenomenon of urbanization, filled the peripheries of the big cities, were not sufficiently attended by the Catholic Church. The traditional Catholic parish is generally found in urban centers and middle class neighborhoods, with large structures. In the peripheries, on the other hand, where the poorest people and immigrants from neighboring countries live, a large number of small Christian communities have grown up, which does not need large worship space but meet in modest, rented places of worship: sheds, enclosed yards or in family homes, and simply identify themselves with a banner on the front. The pastors, who are tens of thousands, are people of the people with little theological preparation and academic courses, but very close to the people, they speak to the heart and use an accessible language, testimonial….

In these places of worship, people have direct access to the Bible and can express themselves freely; this attracts more and more followers. The converts give public testimony of their faith and also commit themselves to home visits, to offer a space in their homes. They are seen visiting hospitals and prisons. In today’s climate of anonymity and indifference, it is fortunate to find a group where everyone knows each other by name and is interested in each other; where everyone can enter and participate as equals, even the poorest or those who have made mistakes in life and need a hand to get them off drugs or out of crime. In these small groups, there are singing, feasting, praising God and interpersonal contact that brings emotions.

Pentecostalism is open to ecumenical dialogue and has had diffusion and adaptation even in the Catholic Church through the Charismatic Renewal movement. However, within the framework of this evangelical Pentecostal phenomenon coexist profit, manipulation, chaotic fragmentation of independent groups among them, annoying proselytism, absolute subordination to the local pastor, literal reading of the Bible and a traditionalist and conservative doctrine that will eventually enter into crisis. The Catholic Church shares with the evangelical Pentecostals many human and Christian values, but with notable differences in faith. There are 30,000 Pentecostal denominations in Latin America and this atomization of the Evangelical-Pentecostal universe poses a horizon full of questions. Even so, it challenges our pastoral and missionary strategy; and we can learn a lot regarding the renewal of our ecclesial structures.

“Pastoral conversion”.

The Catholic Church in general has not responded sufficiently to the challenges of renewal proposed by the Council and now proposed by Pope Francis urging everyone to a “pastoral conversion”. In some countries, in recent decades, the application of the Council has regressed.

José Comblin has said that the history of the Catholic Church in our continent is a “history of omissions”, by taking refuge only in the sacramental and ritual. Even so, it cannot be denied that prophetism has been present in our Churches, the option for justice and the poor, the irruption of the Bible, a new appreciation of popular religiosity, martyrdom… What happens is that the Catholic Church suffers from institutional fragility due to the low number, each time lower, of priests and religious.

It is paradoxical that Latin America, with 40% of the world’s Catholics, has only 16.3% of the world total of priests and 16.9% of religious. Even more serious is the extension of an elitist and traditionalist clericalism that is limited to religious services and prevents the laity, especially women, who are the ones who work the most at the grassroots, from playing a leading role and receiving formation. On this point, the document of Santo Domingo already spoke of “generalized inertia” (n. 96). Many parishes are like small ghettos where the people who go around are always the same.

In the Church we look for spirituality and instead of finding a school of prayer we sometimes find a club or an excessive politicization of the faith. The documents of the Church have spoken of the parish as a community or network of communities, but everything has remained a dead letter. Many have not understood that just as the family is the first cell of society, the small community is the first cell of the Church and makes it present in the most distant places and environments.

The Church institution is seen from the outside as a factor of power, closed in on itself and that at most it fulfills a moralizing function in society. In general, the parish is not seen as a family, a welcoming home for all and at the service of its brothers and sisters, but rather as a provider of religious services. The traditional parish does not reach the entire population. It is in the small communities, those that meet in chapels or homes, animated by the laity themselves, where the prayerful reading of the Bible takes place, where there is a family atmosphere, mutual knowledge and help, human warmth, personalized attention, closeness and service to neighbors.

In many Catholic spaces there is little incidence of liturgy in life; there is too much anonymity and a lack of pastoral care of hospitality. In preaching there is an entrenchment on doctrine and morals, with abstract, generic and tedious discourses. The promotion of ministries for the laity, men and women, is deficient. Our Church is very institutional and not very inculturated. A missionary methodology is not to count on a “strong” presence of the Church, that is to say, with great means of its own. It is rather that the missionary teams privilege personal contact, door to door, word of mouth, stepping in the mud of the marginal areas, drinking mate, speaking directly about Jesus so that people may know Him and be converted to Him. It is necessary to break with proselytism and clericalism that keeps an almost infantile laity at its service; what must be achieved is the evangelization of the people by the people. Pentecostalism is like a sting that impels us to value more the emotional and festive level of faith and stimulates us to the diversification of lay and popular ministries.

The earthly kingdom

It is not our intention to speak of the evangelical neo-Pentecostals that have emerged in the 1970s from the United States as a branch of Pentecostalism and are rejected by the historic Protestant Churches and also by the classical Pentecostals for not being faithful to Christ and the Gospel. They are pseudo-religious groups such as “Stop Suffering” (or Universal Church of the Kingdom) and “God is Love” that promise immediate, earthly happiness, with health and economic prosperity if one believes in God and pays the tithe. They perform miracles and chain exorcisms; they believe in a miraculous God who satisfies all our desires if you support the Church. They offer miraculous objects, brought for example from the Holy Land, capable of healing illnesses. To obtain benefits from heaven one must be generous and pay; and the more one is generous, the more one will be benefited by God. His pastoral work is characterized by the use of the media (press, radio, television, internet, cinema): precisely those media to which we Catholics give so little importance. Their success is astonishing. They are powerful churches that accumulate money and promise the poor welfare and a better future. They preach the theology of prosperity against the theology of liberation, because God blesses the rich. Material wealth is a manifest sign of divine favor.

These evangelicals seek political power; pastors establish who to vote for and have a large bench in the Brazilian parliament in support of Bolsonaro. They are against abortion, drugs, gay marriage, gender ideology, but they attribute social evils to the devil and are allies of the economic ultra-right. The Kingdom of God invoked by these groups is a very earthly, political kingdom, at the service of money. The founder of “Stop Suffering” -Edir Macedo- is a multimillionaire who lives in the United States, has his personal airplane and a wealth that grows exponentially. In his churches, half of the time dedicated to worship is to raise money. If God does not answer prayers, it is because he did not offer enough. The destination of all the money collected is also unknown. It has not been possible to verify if the believer really stops suffering, but what is certain is that he never stops paying.

Conclusion

In the face of this explosion of Churches and pseudo-Churches, of the advance of secularism and unbelief, of the scandals and abandonments that occur in our Church, the faith of many has entered into crisis. What is happening to us is a clear warning that God is asking us for a renewal that does not aim so much at numbers but at quality. But the message of Jesus is not in crisis. Although the Church is sinful, it has been able to transmit this message throughout the centuries with the testimony of a great number of saints and martyrs. And the good that it does in the world today is also innumerable, in the silent way that Jesus taught us, even if the press highlights only the scandals. Despite its human failings, it is the Spirit of Jesus who guides and protects it.

We believe that the Catholic Church continues to be the privileged way of salvation and for this reason it is necessary to redouble our missionary commitment; but God also acts outside the Church. There are many Christians from other Churches who cast out demons and do good in the name of Jesus even though “they are not of us”. Jesus says that we should not prevent them or treat them as adversaries or competitors (Mk 9:38-40); because “he who does good and is not against us is with us”. The Spirit of Jesus also “blows where he wills” (Jn 3:8) because “God wants all to be saved” (1 Tim 2:3-6) and accompanies sincere people who, without knowing Christ, seek God, strive for truth, love, justice and peace; and this is the Kingdom of God.

The Church herself is not at the service of herself but of the Kingdom of God, which is greater than the Church. And in the Kingdom of God there is room for honest people of all religions and even non-believers; and there are millions of them.

The Spirit is slowly leading mankind to Christ, the only Savior, and to his gospel. But in the final judgment, the people rewarded by the King will not necessarily be Christians and hence their surprise: “Lord, when did we see you? An old song says: “Where there is love, there is God”.

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