Followers dropped 10 percent in’90s and only a third of worshippers actually practices religion, 2001 study says
SAO PAULO, Brazil — For the first time in 500 years, Brazil’s Roman Catholic Church is fighting for its turf. Materialism is one rival, an energized evangelical movement another. But the worst enemy is an increasingly indifferent population.
“Something happened over the past decade and, yes, it worries us,” says Bishop Odilo Scherer, secretary-general of Brazil’s Catholic Bishops Conference.
What happened, according to the Brazilian Census Bureau, was a major decline in the percentage of Catholics in Brazil’s population — which fell from 84 percent in 1991 to 74 percent in 2000.
While Brazil, with 178 million inhabitants, is nominally still the world’s largest Catholic country, its fervor can be less than overwhelming.
In 2001, a survey by The Religious and Social Studies Center, a Rio de Janeiro academic group, found that only a third of declared Catholics in Brazilian cities practiced their religion.
The survey also detected the kind of tensions familiar to the American church. More than 70 percent of Brazilian Catholics disagreed with the church’s position against contraception, while 63 percent favored divorce as an option for troubled couples.
Domingos Santos, a 50-year-old man who sells flowers in front of a Catholic church in Sao Paulo, echoes many: “I don’t attend Mass very often because I work all the time. My main concern is my wife and children. When I pray, it’s for more customers.”
Says theologian Fernando Altemeyer of the Catholic University of Sao Paulo: “The Catholic Church is not giving people what they want. For those who want hope, excitement or, in some cases, wealth, the evangelical movement was made to order.”
Evangelical Protestants grew from 9 percent of Brazil’s population in 1991 to 15 percent in 2000, says the census bureau.
“People are troubled in today’s world by drugs, divorce, violence and alcohol, but when they go to the Catholic Church for succor, all they get is dogma; when they come to us, they get a sense of community,” says Jose Luiz Lopes, a pastor for the Assembly of God, Brazil’s largest evangelical church, with some 8 million members.
Part of the evangelical appeal is theatrical. Faith healing, speaking in tongues and, in the case of one church — The Universal Kingdom of God — frank appeals to God for personal wealth lend an excitement absent from Catholic rites.
“It’s easy for new churches to make such an appeal,” Altemeyer says. “They are unburdened by centuries of doctrine.”
But religion in Brazil has always been a garment loosely worn. Many Catholics, for example, dabble in other religions, especially Umbanda, a cult that includes contact with the dead.
Glaucia Rodrigues, a nominal Catholic in her 40s, sells “Spiritist” literature at a Sao Paulo newsstand. “Catholics don’t have all the answers,” she says. “In a ‘spiritist’ session, we experience direct contact with something cosmic.”
Brazil’s Catholic Church is unaccustomed to competition.
Catholicism was the state religion from 1500 until a republic was declared in 1889. Even in the 20th century, it was largely unchallenged.
So now, how does such an entrenched institution fight back? New blood is one answer.
In January, Pope John Paul II accepted resignations of three powerful cardinals: Serafim de Araujo, 80, of Brazil’s third largest city of Belo Horizonte; Jose Freire Falcao, 79, of the capital of Brasilia; and, Aloisio Lorscheider, 79, of the shrine city of Aparecida. The pope replaced the three with experienced bishops in their 40s and 50s.
The Brazilian church is now led by men such as Scherer, 55; Walmor de Azevedo, 49, the new archbishop of Belo Horizonte and a Biblical scholar; and 69-year-old Cardinal Claudio Hummes, head of the country’s largest archdiocese — Sao Paulo.
The stately Hummes speaks five languages and seems a decade younger than his years. He projects cool authority.
“We are taking a missionary approach,” he says. “We are reaching out to the poor, especially in big cities. We are combating cynicism with the Gospel.”
New practices also help. Catholic “charismatics,” for example, seek the same direct experience of the Holy Spirit as many evangelicals.
Meanwhile, pop star priest Marcelo Rossi has released hit records and uses the theatrical methods of Protestant evangelicals when he celebrates Mass accompanied by throbbing music and dancing.
And another powerful strain also animates Brazilian Catholicism — protest.
Church leaders spoke out against injustice even when Catholicism was the official religion. In the 17th century, Antonio Vieira, a sturdy Jesuit who trekked hundreds of miles to preach to Indians in the Amazon, thundered against colonial-era slavery, denouncing “the inhuman traffic in which the merchandise is men.”
More recently, the leader of Catholic “Progressives” was legendary Cardinal Lorscheider. The jaunty 6-foot-4-inch Franciscan battled for land reform, called priestly celibacy “outdated” and received a dozen votes at the 1978 conclave that chose the successor to Pope Paul VI.
“But those days are over,” says Altemeyer. “There are not more than a dozen progressives among the 300 active members of the bishops conference.”
Instead, the conference is now doctrinally conservative but “socially aware,” Altemeyer says, a legacy of the 1960s theology of liberation, that sought to put the Latin American Church on the side of the poor — but was criticized as being too close to Marxism.
“We are beyond the theology of liberation,” says Scherer. “There is a consensus now incorporating sensitivity to social issues, but rejecting Marxism.”
Cardinal Hummes breathes confidence: “The Brazilian church is more united than in decades, vocations are up (17,000 priests, against 14,000 a decade ago); we are showing, to all baptized Brazilians, that we are the way home.”
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