CELAM update: A surprising ecumenical mood, despite 'anti-sectarian avalanche'

New York

Given massive Catholic losses in Latin America to Pentecostal and Evangelical movements, it’s no surprise that “the sects” have loomed large in discussions at the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida, Brazil. By one estimate, more people converted to Protestantism in Latin America during the 20th century than during the Protestant Reformation in the age of Luther.

What is perhaps more surprising are the intermittent ecumenical flourishes in Aparecida, suggesting a budding desire for dialogue as well as denunciation.

To be sure, several bishops have complained of aggressive “proselytism” by Pentecostal and Evangelical groups. Guatemala’s Ramazzini, for example, said that 20 years ago these groups launched a well-organized campaign called “New Dawn,” which aimed at making 50 percent of the Guatemalan population Protestant by the end of the century. By most measures, it worked; in 1970, according to a national census, Guatemala was 88 percent Catholic, while in 2002 the official number was 52.6 percent. Many religious sociologists believe that today, Guatemala is Latin America’s first majority Protestant nation.

On the other hand, the CELAM discussions also have been marked by a surprising degree of ecumenical awareness.

For one thing, the assembly includes seven observers from various Christian bodies, including the Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and Pentecostal traditions, as well as representative of Latin American Judaism.

Towards the end of last week, the “representatives of the Reformation,” as the Protestant observers were designated, had the opportunity to address the bishops. Néstor Oscar Míguez, a Methodist pastor from Argentina, spoke on behalf of the group, urging that the “diverse Christian presence” in Latin America not be marked by “confrontation and competition,” but by “the common vocation to be disciples and missionaries of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Speakers at CELAM are generally limited to five minutes, and four minutes into Míguez’s address a warning light came on to indicate he should finish. Observers said, however, that Míguez missed the light, and ran over time. The normal procedure would be for his microphone to be turned off, but Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa of Santiago, Chile, one of the co-presidents of the assembly, intervened, saying: “Pastor, go ahead. Take all the time you need.”

When Míguez finished, observers said, the assembly broke into loud applause, a rare violation of protocol.

That bit of ecumenical courtesy built on earlier moments of understanding. For example, last week, after several bishops had made critical comments about Pentecostal and Evangelical “sects,” Errázuriz opened one afternoon session by saying that the term “sect” should not be understood to refer to the historic Protestant churches, or to those Pentecostals and Evangelicals present in the assembly.

Harold Segura, the Baptist delegate to CELAM, posted a blog entry on May 15 saying that one of the lay people present even approached him and another Protestant observer to apologize for the “anti-sectarian avalanche” in the discussions.

In some ways, an amicable tone was set by Pope Benedict XVI himself. Following his speech to CELAM on May 13, the pope was expected to greet only a handful of the Catholic bishops present. At the last minute, however, the pope also met the Orthodox bishop and the Jewish delegate, as well as Ofelia Ortega, a Cuban Presbyterian and President of the World Council of Churches. (Benedict also greeted a number of Catholic priests and laypeople.)

Observers say that one factor driving this new ecumenical sensitivity in Latin America is awareness that despite inter-confessional rivalries, there is also tremendous opportunity for common cause on social and political concerns.

In Brazil, for example, where the Minister of Health has recently floated the idea of broader legalization for abortion, it’s generally the Pentecostals who are most receptive to a pro-life message. Moreover, Pentecostals are not an inconsiderable force in Brazil’s political galaxy; at the moment, the Pentecostal “block” in the national legislature represents about 10 percent of the total, roughly 60 members. While the Pentecostals come from different parties and hold different positions on issues such as tax policy and international relations, they are compactly in favor of conservative positions on social questions such as abortion.

More broadly, Latin American Pentecostals and Evangelicals often stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Catholics in defending the role of religion in public life.

“It’s not just the specific question of abortion or homosexuality,” one Brazilian journalist told NCR. “It’s the broader question of the ‘religiousness’ of Brazil. If the pope had to rely just on the Catholics, the country would actually be much secularized than it already is.”

In that light, one of the unexpected fruits of the CELAM meeting may be a new ecumenical impulse, despite the “anti-sectarian avalanche” of some episcopal rhetoric.

"We must look in a new way at all those who profess faith in Christ. Let's put away attitudes of condemnation, of division, or desire for the reconquest of lost spaces," said Cardinal Julio Terrazas Sandoval of Bolivia. "Dialogue and fraternal closeness will permit us to walk together, bound together for the unity of the Church."

In his blog for Sunday, Segura told of visiting the birthplace of Frei Galvao, the first saint born in Brazil, who was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI May 11. Segura described how he was warmly welcomed by a Catholic priest who is also participating in the CELAM conference, as well as relatives of the new saint.

"Ecumenism is not merely a matter of specialized theologians enclosed with monastic walls, deciphering the mysteries that separate them and arriving at fixed agreements," Segura wrote. "Ecumenism has another dimension, that of daily life, of respect among people who do not believe the same thing, of easy friendship among those who are different, of courtesy which is a sign of charity and a breath of a new world. ... Without renouncing our faith, we can stop our hatreds and give testimony to reconciliation. The Fifth General Conference should deal with this, too."

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