Latin American Catholicism

By Froehle, Bryan T.; Gautier, Mary L. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Latin American Catholicism

Froehle, Bryan T., Gautier, Mary L., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


In comparison to North America's almost 20 million square kilometers, the 24 countries or territories of the Caribbean cover only a little more than 200,000 square kilometers. Population density is much higher, with nearly 161 people per square kilometer in the Caribbean, compared to 16 in North America. Countries or territories in this region include those on the islands of the West Indies, which include the Greater and Lesser Antilles, as well as island chains such as the Bahamas, just outside the Caribbean Sea.

The Caribbean stretches 4,000 kilometers from the southern tip of the United States to Venezuela, dividing the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The historical importance of these diverse islands as trading and military outposts has resulted in a great diversity of separately governed microstates and a variety of official languages. The islands of the northern part are larger and comprise the Greater Antilles. They include Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the Cayman Islands (a British territory), and Puerto Rico (a territory of the United States). These were the territories first encountered by Christopher Columbus and the first Spanish missionaries in 1492-3.

Of the 24 nations and territories in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic has the greatest Catholic population of any of the islands. The Church counts 88 percent of the 8.5 million inhabitants as Catholic. This results in an average of 9,277 Catholics for each of the 804 priests. Forty-seven percent of its priests are diocesan. More than 27,000 catechists and over 1,600 women religious minister to Catholics in 485 parishes in 12 dioceses.

The Lesser Antilles are southeast from Puerto Rico to Venezuela, and include territories of the Netherlands, Britain, France, Venezuela, and the United States. They include Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire, together with the Leeward and Windward Islands. The Leeward Islands include the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, St. Eustatius and Saba, St. Martin, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, and Montserrat. The Windward Islands include Martinique, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Catholics comprise about 80 percent of the population of Aruba, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia, Martinique, and the Netherlands Antilles (which include the islands of Curacao, Bonaire, Saint Eustatius and Saba, as well as part of Saint Martin). For the most part the populations of these island territories and microstates are quite small. The largest by far is that of Trinidad and Tobago. As a result, despite the fact that only about one in three persons in Trinidad and Tobago is Catholic, its nearly 400,000 Catholics give it the greatest number of Catholics anywhere in the Lesser Antilles. Within the islands and microstates of the Lesser Antilles, the number of parishes ranges from 61 in Trinidad and Tobago to one in Anguilla, where 3 percent of the population of 7,000 is Catholic.


Given its common colonial origins, the Catholic Church in Mexico has more in common with the nations of Central America than with Canada and the United States. For purposes of this book, therefore, Mexico is treated as part of "Mesoamerica," a region that encompasses all the countries of Central America, including Panama.

In spite of shared cultural roots, the diversity between the countries of this region is great. A wide variety of pre-Columbian languages and cultural phenomena survive in Guatemala. English is the official language of Belize, and Belize shares much in common with the islands of the Caribbean basin. Panama was historically tied to South America as part of Colombia, and only came to be seen as part of Central America in the twentieth century. Finally, Mexico is a separate case in its own right, and its sheer size dwarfs the rest of the region in geographic, demographic, and economic terms.

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