Thursday, November 13, 2014

Latin American Catholicism

On Tuesday (Nov. 11), the Pew Forum published their report on Religion in Latin America. The news media have been picking up on this today. For anyone interested in the Church, this report is a must read.

First, the simple snapshot, which these two graphics so clearly provide:

 94% in 1910, about the same in 1970, and then an accelerating, precipitous decline. 69% of Latin Americans claim a Catholic identity in 2014. [What is it with the 1970s??]

Look at the numbers in the chart below: Argentina, down to 71% from 91%; Brazil (the largest Catholic country in the world), down to 61%, Guatemala and El Salvador, 50% and Honduras, 46% (that is a majority of Hondurans are no longer Catholic). Uruguay is at the lowest, 42%, the most secular Latin American country.

What's also fascinating is that some countries showed an increase (15% in Colombia) in the Catholic population between 1910 and 1970. But since then, every single country has lost Catholics.

The two fastest growing groups are Protestant (which would include mainline, evangelical and, most especially, Pentecostal, with all kinds of overlaps), and a full 8% of Latin Americans consider themselves religiously unaffiliated (the equivalent of "nones" in US studies.)

The Church is bleeding. Haemorrhaging. There can be no doubt about this at all.

Much of the movement away from Catholicism and toward Protestantism in Latin America has occurred in the span of a single lifetime. Indeed, in most of the countries surveyed, at least a third of current Protestants were raised in the Catholic Church, and half or more say they were baptized as Catholics. For example, nearly three-quarters of current Protestants in Colombia were raised Catholic, and 84% say they were baptized as Catholics. 
The survey asked former Catholics who have converted to Protestantism about the reasons they did so. Of the eight possible explanations offered on the survey, the most frequently cited was that they were seeking a more personal connection with God. Many former Catholics also said they became Protestants because they wanted a different style of worship or a church that helps its members more.
Scholars of religion in Latin America offer several possible sociological explanations for the rise of Protestantism, and especially its Pentecostal variant. One theory posits that Pentecostalism’s compatibility with indigenous religions enhanced its appeal among Latin Americans. By emphasizing personal contact with the divine through faith healing, speaking in tongues and prophesying, Pentecostalism attracts those who share an affinity with indigenous religions that traditionally incorporate beliefs and practices associated with direct communication with the “spirit world.”
Then there's this
Catholics and Protestants in Latin America differ in their levels of religious observance. In every country surveyed, Protestants are more likely than Catholics to exhibit high levels of religious commitment – that is, to say they pray daily, attend worship services at least once a week and consider religion very important in their lives. 
The trends noted in Latin America match the trends seen in US Hispanics. It's not that they come here Catholic and then lose the faith. That does happen. But so many have already left the Church before they have gotten to this country. (This matches my experience in Hispanic ministry in my parish completely.)

A sociological-economic analysis 

Apart from the spiritual dimension of this reality, there is much to be gleaned from research in the social sciences. American sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, provides a very helpful historical and socioeconomic analysis of Catholicism in Latin America in his 2005 book The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success. (Among many popular works and scholarly works, he is also the author of this useful study, with Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion, U. of California Press, 2002). Stark gives a snapshot of the history of the institutional Church in the colonial period, its dependence on the monarchs of Spain & Portugal (who had the privilege to appoint bishops and create dioceses), the struggles over slavery, and the effects of state taxation to support the Church. His basic point: the Catholic Church during the colonial period, and through the rise of the independent Latin American states, until the middle of the 20th century, operated as a state sponsored monopoly. This led to a minimizing of pastoral care, and a lack of effort to truly evangelize, convert and disciple the peoples of Latin America.
For as Adam Smith recognized so clearly, religious organizations are not immune to the shortcomings that soon beset all monopolies. Rather, when fully supported by state establishments, 'the clergy, reposing themselves upon their benefices,' give 'themselves up to indolence' and neglect 'to keep up the fervour of faith and devotion in the great body of the people.' This surely was the case in Latin America. As a monopoly church imposed by the state, the Catholic hierarchy was content to claim everyone as a member while making little effort to actually generate active participation. Centuries of illusions to the contrary, Latin American enver became a "Catholic continent." In many places it wasn't even Christianized -- indigenous faiths persisted, and travelers often reported that many large areas seemed to be entirely without priests. (Stark, 2005, 204-205)
The "priest shortage," much talked about in North America and the West, pales in comparison to the numbers in Latin America.
In 1995, for example, one diocesan Catholic priest was said to serve 29,753 Catholics in Guatemala, 20,552 in Bolivia, and 17,835 in Brazil (compared with 1,822 in the United States and 1,956 in Canada) (Stark, 205).
The numbers, however, he says are "nonsense," because the number of Catholics are based on reports from secular authorities who routinely just reported high percentages of the population as Catholic, without any regard to religious observance, Mass attendance or even baptism (Stark, 205).

Recognizing that there is a relationship between ordination and religious practice (in contemporary Catholic language, discipleship), he writes:
First of all, the general level of Catholic commitment has not been sufficient to prompt many to seek ordination. Even today a substantial number of priests in Latin America are foreigners -- 87 percent of those serving in Mexico and Guatemala, 75 percent in Venezuela, and 55 percent in Chile. In contrast, only 12 percent of the Catholic priests in India are foreign born (citing Gill, 1998, Rendering Unto Ceasar: The Catholic Church and the Latin American State, University of Chicago Press, 86). Second, these small numbers of priests seem to have been adequate to meet the demands upon their services. Mass attendance has always been very low, and even baptism has been far from universal -- despite the fact that many get their infants baptized only to ensure their "good luck." As the distinguished David Martin has noted, "The Culture of the people has been quite resistant to Catholic teaching. ... Perhaps less than 20 percent of Latin Americans are regularly involved in the [Catholic] church" (citing David Martin, 1990. Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America. Oxford: Blackwell, 57-58). (Stark, 205) 
The issue is one of a religious monopoly versus competition:
However, Latin American irreligiousness does not stem from any sort of secular modernity; faith in magic and superstition flourish. No, Latin Americans remain [sic] unchurched because a subsidized clergy were content, as Adam Smith put it, to rest upon their benefices, while relying on the state to suppress all potential competitors. Nothing could be more obvious, given what has happened since most Latin nations dropped their laws against non-Catholic religions a few decades ago: vigorous Protestant groups are sweeping over the continent! In many Latin American nations the great majority of those now in church on Sunday mornings are Protestants, and in many of these same foreign nations foreign missionaries substantially outnumber Catholic priests. And as recent theories based on the idea of religious economies predict, competition has rapidly been invigorating Latin Catholicism. Where the proportion of Protestants is greater, the rate of Catholic attendance at mass is higher too! For the first time in history, Catholic seminary enrollments are rising in many Latin nations and the Catholic Charismatic Movement is growing very rapidly -- more evidence that religion thrives in a pluralistic religious economy. (Stark, 206. Emphasis added. Citations in text omitted.) 
If this analysis is substantially true, what we are seeing is not so much a decline in a strong, vibrant Catholicism over the past 40 years, as much as the rise of widespread, serious Christian commitment for the first time -- both in the Pentecostal & evangelical churches, as well as the Catholic Church. Here the narrative isn't a case of Christian commitment supported by a strong Catholic culture that is evaporating in the face of advancing secularism, as it seems to be in North America and Europe. Rather it seems, historically there was not any widespread serious Christian commitment in Latin America. The Church, it would seem, had been content with a veneer of Catholic identity over a vast populace (so, the continued flourishing of syncretistic religious practices, and, I suspect, the incorporation of pre-Colombian practices such as the quinceanera) supported by a Catholic culture, indeed, but also by a state enforced monopoly. And it was only after the monopoly ended, that the hierarchy, so to say, woke up.

Needless to say, this picture is a generalization, a snapshot. There were, I am sure, serious Christians, missionaries, religious, laity down the centuries. The Gospel always finds receptive souls. However, it was not as if in 1910, 90% of Latin America was zealous, Mass-going, devoutly Catholic.

 [Disclaimer: I am not a scholar of Latin American Catholicism. I have not read any sociological or other studies on the subject. I am not even that familiar with the history of the region. I am going off Rodney Stark's analysis, and drawing inferences from it.]


The decline in Catholic adherence and identity is hardly news to the Catholic leadership in Latin America. There have been complaints about "sects" poaching Catholics for decades. The response has been slow, but has happened, especially through movements such as the Charismatic Renewal. The 2007 meeting of the continent's Bishops at Aparecida with Pope Benedict reflected on this reality and reaffirmed the missionary nature of the Church and the commitment to mission. The principal architect of this document was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, now the reigning Pontiff. Here are some relevant bits from the Aparecida Document (a must read for Catholic leaders), on those who have left the Church to join other religious groups:
225. In our pastoral experience, often sincere people who leave our church do not do
so because of what “non-Catholic” groups believe, but fundamentally for what
they live; not for doctrinal but for vivential reasons; not for strictly dogmatic, but
for pastoral reasons; not due to theological problems, but to methodological
problems of our Church. They hope to find answers to their concerns. They are
seeking, albeit with serious dangers, answers to some aspirations that perhaps
they have not found in the Church, as ought to be the case. 
226. In our church we should enhance work along four lines:
a) Religious experience. In our Church we must offer all our faithful “a personal
encounter with Jesus Christ,” a profound and intense religious experience, a
kerygmatic proclamation and the personal witness of the evangelizers that
leads to a personal conversion and to a thorough change of life.  
b) Community life. Our faithful are seeking Christian communities where they
are accepted fraternally and feel valued, visible, and included in the Church.
Our faithful must really feel that they are members of an ecclesial community
and stewards of its development. That will allow for greater commitment and
self-giving in and for the Church.  
c) Biblical and doctrinal formation. Along with a strong religious experience
and notable community life, our faithful need to deepen knowledge of the
Word of God and the contents of the faith, because that is the only way to
bring their religious experience to maturity. Along this strongly experiential
and communal path, doctrinal formation is not experienced as theoretical and
cold knowledge, but as a fundamental and necessary tool in spiritual, personal,
and community growth.  
d) Missionary commitment of the entire community. It goes out to meet those
who are afar, is concerned about their situation so as to attract them once more
to the Church and invite them to return to it. 
The term missionary disciples (which Pope Francis' exhortation Evangelium Gaudium uses liberally), comes from this document.

So, on this vast continent, with the rise of education, of prosperity (uneven, to be sure!), and the tools of communication and mass media, there is an increasing opportunity to propose again the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Church is being called to embrace this fully, and not to seek consolation in the support of the state, of the culture, of influence, of power.  The heart of this is missionary discipleship: the formation of mature Catholics, who pray, who study the Word of God, who live the fullness of the Sacramental life of the Church, who are well formed, so that, transformed by the encounter with the Person of Christ, they can go out and bring His Good News to all around.

The Great Commission has not changed. And the Lord urges His Church to, again, as always, go out, make disciples, baptize and teach. 

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