Magazine article Washington Report on the Hemisphere

God Is Not Dead: The Decline of Catholicism in Latin America

Magazine article Washington Report on the Hemisphere

God Is Not Dead: The Decline of Catholicism in Latin America

Article excerpt

Since the Conquistadores came to conquer the New World, Latin America has been characterized by devout adherence to the Roman Catholic faith. However, for the past two decades, there has been a significant decline of Catholicism in the region, enough to spark serious discussion amongst scholars and people of faith. Many Latin Americans have increasingly converted to Protestantism, or Evangelicalism, which is the preferred term in Latin America, or have declared themselves atheist, especially in countries like Chile and Brazil. The Catholic Church's hold on state and moral authority is decreasing rapidly, due in large part to technology, mass media, and competition. People are now more exposed to varying opinions and free to choose their beliefs. In addition, Latin America has become more liberal throughout the years, and its people's changing religious practices.

Catholicism in Latin America

Daniel H. Levine, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, argues that Latin American Catholicism in the 20th century was like a "lazy monopolist," as its power and position were virtually guaranteed by law, custom, and a network of elite connections. Due to its hierarchical nature and identification with traditional elites, the Catholic Church has been faulted for Latin America's slow progress into modernization. Supposedly, the Church sole interest was preserving its privileged position in the legal and social structures that historically was the source of its influence and power.

Despite its elitist history, the Church also played an influential role in criticizing military regimes and sponsored various Catholic missions during the Colonial period. The 1960s witnessed the emergence of the "progressive church," marking a transformation of the Catholic Church from an elitist institution to the "church of the poor." The transition, which occurred after the Second Vatican Council in 1962, was rapid and dramatic, occurring within two decades. Along with attention shifting toward the popular classes, there was also a transition from short-term charity to searching for long-term solutions to poverty and other issues facing the masses. Churches in Chile and Brazil began to support social justice reforms, and bishops were increasingly interested in land reform, literary campaigns, and rural cooperatives. Liberation Theology, which examines the meaning of faith in relation to the commitment to abolish injustice and build a new society, was the driving force behind progressive Catholicism in the 1960s and 1970s. On top of this, the Church began to move from condemning only specific rulers or regimes as unjust to labeling entire economic, cultural, and political systems as sinful, particularly legal systems that allowed abortion, contraception use, and homosexual rights. This helped to mark the Church as the highest moral authority throughout Latin America.

Recently, Catholic leaders have been concerned over the growth of Protestantism, the emergence of Católico a mi manera (Catholic in my own way), and those who have declared no religion at all. From this concern has arisen the Comunidades Eclesiales de Base (Base Ecclesial Communities; CEBS) and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) as a response to the increasing perception of the Church as archaic and traditional. With ties to Liberation Theology and originating within the United States in the late 1960s, these movements are directed by lay people and based on independent Bible study. It is an attempt to reconcile Pentecostal practices, like baptism in the name of the Holy Spirit, with core Catholic devotions to the Virgin Mary and other saints. There have always been alternatives to Catholicism in Latin America, but these have usually been suppressed, hidden, or incorporated into Catholic practices. Now, the Church is struggling to convince the Latin American population that it can meet their needs.

Protestantism in Latin America

Enter Evangelical Protestantism. …

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