MEXICO CITY, Oct 21 (IPS) – For the Catholic church hierarchy in the Vatican, Latin America has changed from the “Continent of Hope” to the continent of concern, as followers are leaving the church in such large numbers that it could lead to the collapse of Catholicism within a decade and a half.
Although Latin America is still home to almost half of the 1.07 billion Catholics in the world today, numerous studies indicate that their numbers are declining throughout the region.
The loss of Catholic faithful “is a painful reality that calls out dramatically to us as pastors of Latin American churches,” said Cipriano Calderon, a member of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops and former president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
In Brazil, where there are more Catholics than in any other country in the world — roughly 100 million, out of a total population of close to 180 million — close to half a million followers are leaving the Catholic church every year.
Something similar is happening in Mexico, the country with the second largest number of Catholics. Roughly 88 percent of its 102 million inhabitants today identify themselves as Catholics, revealing a decline of almost 10 percent compared to the mid-20th century.
In Colombia, only two out of every three people profess themselves Catholics today, when almost the entire population was Catholic in the 1950s.
The phenomenon is particularly marked in Guatemala, where almost one-third of the country’s 12 million inhabitants have left the Catholic church, and most of those leaving have converted to evangelical Protestantism.
Meanwhile, 71.3 percent of Costa Rica’s 4.2 million people declare themselves to be Catholic today, when just one year ago, a full 77 percent professed this faith, according to a survey conducted by the department of mathematics at the public University of Costa Rica.
However, another poll carried out by Unimer Research International, a private firm, revealed that 52 percent of the Costa Ricans consulted “no longer believe” in the Catholic church, while only 44 percent said they do believe.
According to the Costa Rican Episcopal Vicariate, the Catholic church is currently losing an average of 658 followers a day in that Central American nation.
“God is being pushed to the backburner,” lamented the president of the Episcopal Conference of Costa Rica, Jose Francisco Ulloa.
But for Elio Masferrer, chairman of the Latin American Religious Studies Association, it is not a matter of a loss of faith, but rather the fact that the Catholic church is losing its traditional hold on what he calls “the religious market”.
“If the (Catholic) church doesn’t make changes to its centralised structures and authoritarian messages, it will suffer a genuine collapse in Latin America within roughly 15 years,” he predicted to IPS.
Israel Batista, the general secretary of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) believes that Roman Catholicism, ruled by the Vatican, is losing ground in the region because “it hasn’t succeeded in responding to the demands of the faithful,” and has maintained “hierarchical structures that are distanced from the people.”
“The Catholic Church will have to change if it wants to stay strong,” Batista told IPS. His group, CLAI, is based in Ecuador and represents over 150 Baptist, Congregational, Episcopalian, Evangelical, Lutheran, Moravian, Mennonite, Methodist, Nazarene, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed and Waldensian churches in 21 countries throughout Latin America.
Masferrer and Batista concur that the Vatican has become too distanced from the daily lives of the people, their earthly tribulations, and their need for compassion and love. And this has created a void that the evangelical Protestant churches have rapidly positioned themselves to fill.
Batista noted that over 15 percent of Latin Americans today belong to evangelical churches, which have experienced a “spectacular leap” in growth in the region in recent decades.
“When you go to an evangelical church, you are taken into the community, which is relatively free of hierarchy, whereas in the Catholic churches, the faithful are scattered and receive advice and even orders from faraway places like the Vatican, which often do not relate whatsoever to the reality of the people,” he said.
During the reign of Pope John Paul II, which began in 1978, the number of Catholics in the world, measured by the number of baptisms, grew from 758 million to 1.07 billion people. Nevertheless, this rise in numbers does not imply an actual expansion of Catholicism, because it doesn’t take into account the growth of the world’s population as a whole.
In fact, Catholics accounted for 17.9 percent of the world’s population in 1978, but they now represent 17.2 percent. In addition, many of those who were baptised as Catholics, and are thus counted as parishioners by the Vatican, have in fact left the church.
Statistics from the Pontifical Yearbook reveal that over the last 26 years, the number of priests has fallen by 3.7 percent, while the number of nuns has plunged by 20.9 percent.
“No matter which way you look at it, the statistics show that the Catholic church is in decline around the world, and Latin America has played a major part in this,” said Masferrer.
He offered other statistics to contrast the differences between the Catholic and evangelical Protestant churches in the region. In Mexico, for example, there is one priest for every 7,200 worshippers, whereas in the evangelical churches, the ratio is one pastor for every 230 followers.
What’s more, the average age of evangelical pastors in Mexico is 32, as compared to 65 for Catholic priests.
“The (Catholic) church will fall into crisis unless significant changes are made to the Vatican structures, which have become much more centralised and authoritarian under Pope John Paul II,” he stated.
For Batista, one of the most obvious errors made by the Catholic church in Latin America has been the way it has lost touch with the region’s poor, “who have been welcomed in by the evangelical churches.”
During the 1960s and 1970s, a significant number of Catholic bishops and priests in Latin America became involved in the liberation theology movement, based on their belief that the church could not simply minister to people’s souls while ignoring their needs here on earth.
They worked in close contact with the poorest and most marginalised sectors of society, as Jesus was said to have done, spreading the gospel while participating in the struggle for economic and political justice.
In fact, the arrival of evangelical Protestant churches was welcomed and even promoted in some Latin American countries as a way of drawing people away from what many viewed as the dangerously “left-wing” liberation theology.
But this danger soon passed, as the Vatican hierarchy itself, under Pope John Paul II, became openly critical of the political involvement of the priests and bishops in this movement, many of whom were excommunicated.
A quarter of a century later, there are now extremely few progressive bishops left in Mexico and Brazil, which John Paul II has visited four and five times, respectively.
Fully conscious of the loss of followers, but strictly adhering to the Vatican line, the former president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America has been calling on the priests and bishops of the region to work harder to ensure that the problem does not become even more severe.
“A few years from now, will we still be able to say that half of the Catholics in the world live in Latin America? Do we not see how the Catholic church is being bled dry by the numbers of followers who are continually leaving our church to join sects, or to turn their backs on Christianity altogether?” he asked at a recent gathering of Latin American bishops.
“This is an extremely grave phenomenon, which requires an urgent and serious response,” he added.
Evangelical Protestantism is now the second leading religion in Brazil, according to the 2000 census. The followers of the different denominations have grown from nine percent of the population in 1991 to 15.1 percent, while the proportion of Catholics has dropped from 83.7 percent to 73.7 percent.
The Pope himself has called on Catholic church leaders in Latin America to “pay special attention to the problem of the sects,” as the Catholic church refers to the evangelical Protestant churches.
“Resolute pastoral action is essential for dealing with this serious problem, by reviewing the pastoral methods used, strengthening the structures of communion and mission, and making the most of the evangelising possibilities of a purified popular religiosity,” he declared.
One of the strategies he proposed was the creation of a Latin American Catholic television network.
But in Batista’s opinion, if the Catholic church does not learn to be tolerant towards other religions, and to work in closer contact with the people and address their individual needs, it will continue to lose ground no matter how much “propaganda” it puts out.
“People feel alienated by a church that condemns divorce and is not willing to listen, an authoritarian church that opposes the use of condoms, and isn’t willing to adapt to the times and the real needs of people,” said Masferrer.
“But expecting changes in all of these aspects seems just short of impossible under the current Vatican leadership,” he concluded.