Catholicism is rapidly losing ground to Protestants in Latin America, according to the Wall Street Journal. “Seven countries in the region — Uruguay, the Dominican Republic and five in Central America — had a majority of non-Catholics in 2018, according to a survey by Latinobarómetro, a Chilean-based pollster,” it reports. “In a symbolic milestone, Brazil, which has the most Catholics of any country in the world, is expected to become minority-Catholic as soon as this year, according to estimates by academics that track religious affiliation.”
The report confirms what critics of liberation theology feared: that its politicized and spiritually insubstantial version of the faith would alienate, not attract, religiously minded Latin Americans.
Anticipating the confusion and division liberation theology would cause the Church in Latin America, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI condemned it as a distortion of the Gospel. “This conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth does not tally with the Church’s catechism,” said Pope John Paul II. Pope Benedict XVI called liberation theology a “singular heresy” — a “fusing of the Bible’s view of history with Marxist dialectics.”
Does the hierarchy even care if Latin America goes non-Catholic?
Liberation theology’s proponents said that it would invigorate the faith in Latin America. But it clearly hasn’t. The plunge in the number of Catholics across the continent validates the anxieties of those previous pontiffs. Socialist ideology disguised as theology has had the effect of driving Catholics into the arms of more Bible-based preachers. Like so many other Marxist-inspired “liberation” movements, liberation theology has failed too.
“The rise of liberation theology in the 1960s and ’70s, a time when the Catholic Church in Latin America increasingly stressed its mission as one of social justice, in some cases drawing on Marxist ideas, failed to counter the appeal of Protestant faiths,” says the paper. “Or, in the words of a now-legendary quip, variously attributed to Catholic and Protestant sources: ‘The Catholic Church opted for the poor and the poor opted for the Pentecostals.’”
They are opting for the Pentecostals in part because they would rather receive help in getting out of poverty than hearing left-wing lectures about it. “Pentecostalism’s loose organizational structure has helped it make inroads into Latin America’s poorest neighborhoods, where churches offer material as well as spiritual help,” according to the report. “Lay-led churches with flocks as small as a few dozen families organize donations of rice and beans for hungry families, fund soccer clubs for young boys to lure them away from drug gangs and organize private healthcare as an alternative to Brazil’s failing public hospitals.”
The report also notes the modern Church’s lack of evangelical zeal, which is in marked contrast with the fervor of Pentecostalism. Does the hierarchy even care if Latin America goes non-Catholic?
“Under Pope Francis, who met with Pentecostal and evangelical leaders when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, the Vatican has sought to coexist peacefully with those of other beliefs rather than fight the rising tide of rival faiths,” says the report. “Pope Francis has often inveighed against missionary efforts aimed at winning converts. At a 2019 Vatican synod on Latin America’s Amazon region, there was scarcely any discussion of the church’s losses of adherents, even though a recent report by a church agency showed that 46% of the Amazon region’s 34 million inhabitants weren’t Catholics. The gathering devoted more attention to the region’s environmental challenges, a signature cause of the current pontificate.”
Taking religion out of religion, which is essentially the project of liberal Catholicism, was bound to weaken the Church in Latin America. The more temporal, political, and self-consciously “relevant” it becomes, the less it appeals to those seriously searching for God.
“According to the 2014 Pew survey, the most popular reason given by former Catholics in Latin America for embracing some form of Protestantism was to have a more personal connection with God, cited by 81% of respondents,” says the report, which adds later in the piece, “The Rev. Martín Lasarte, a Uruguayan priest appointed by Pope Francis to the 2019 Vatican synod on Latin America’s Amazon region, believes the liberation theology movement has often placed political and social issues above the religious experience. In such cases, ‘it lacks the existential sense of the joy of living the Gospel, this personal encounter that so many Pentecostal churches give to the person,’ he said.”
The politics of Latin America and North America (as seen in recent polling about the movement of evangelical Hispanics into the GOP) is changing as a result of this religious shift. In other eras, Catholic Hispanics gravitated to the right while Protestant Hispanics moved to the left. Now we see the opposite. In the United States, Catholic Hispanics, according to pollsters, are sticking with the Democrats even as they repudiate Catholic teachings. Meanwhile, evangelical Hispanics, tired of Democratic wokeness, increasingly vote Republican.
The same evangelical forces propelling Brazilian politics to the right are turning up in American politics. Natalie Jackson, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute, says that the GOP’s gains in Hispanic voters are due largely to the rapid growth of evangelical Hispanics. “Hispanic Protestants look more like white Protestants [in terms of their voting pattern] than Hispanic Catholics,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s the largest gap we see in our data among Hispanics.”
The loss of the Church’s dominance in Latin America fits a paradoxical pattern. As the Church turns from a transcendent mission to a trendy one, from focusing on the next life to talking about this one, its influence over the world decreases.
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