By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
São Paulo, Brazil
Although much conversation surrounding Benedict XVI’s trip to Brazil has focused on defections from the Catholic church to Pentecostalism, one expert on Brazil’s religious situation says the more important, albeit less discussed, phenomenon is the striking rise in the percentage of Brazilians with no religious faith at all.
Fr. Jose Oscar Beozzo, who directs the Center for Evangelizing Services and Popular Education in São Paulo, told NCR May 10 that between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of the Brazilian population that identifies itself as “Protestant,” with most of that number being Pentecostal, rose from 12 to 17 percent. Over the same period, Beozzo said, the percentage who say they have no religious affiliation went from 0.7 percent to 7.3 percent, a ten-fold increase. Those numbers, he said, come from Brazil’s state-run Institute of Geography and Statistics.
“This is the infinitely more important movement in the Brazilian religious situation,” Beozzo said.
The decline in religious affiliation is unevenly distributed across Brazil, he said. In rural areas, relatively small percentages have abandoned religion, while the total rises in urban zones such as Rio de Janiero, where Beozzo said it’s 15 percent.
What’s especially noteworthy about this phenomenon, which Beozzo said is still growing, is that it’s not really a sign of “secularization” in the classic Western sense, though he said one can find elements of secularization on university campuses and in more middle- and upper-class segments of urban society in Brazil.
For the first time, he said, increasing numbers of Brazilian poor are simply saying that they no longer have any faith.
Beozzo said there have been three waves of growth in religious non-affiliation in Brazil’s history. The first, he said, came at the end of the 19th century among the liberal and intellectual classes. The second came in the first half of the 20th century, with the rise of anarchism and Communism among the working classes. Today’s wave, he said, is the first time that non-affiliation has become a “mass phenomenon.”
Beozzo attributes the progressive abandonment of religion among the country’s poor to the intersection of two factors. First is Brazil’s economic development over the last thirty years, which has created new affluence at the top of the economic ladder but left millions of people behind. Over 10 million jobs have been lost, he said, in the last 25 years, fueling a “dramatic increase in desperation.”
The second factor, he said, is the rapid urbanization of Brazilian society, which has created new urban peripheries where the traditional social networks of family, community and church have broken down.
“I talk to these people,” Beozzo said. “What they tell me is that they do not believe that religion has any meaning for them. They don’t believe it has any capacity to change their lives.”
In that sense, Beozzo said, the rise of religious non-affiliation among the Brazilian poor can be read as an index of hopelessness. It’s not so much a specific lack of faith in God or the church, he said, as a collapse of faith in virtually everything.
Beozzo said the rise of Pentecostalism, which he insisted is relatively modest, is connected to the same two factors. The Catholic church, he said, is generally “not present” in the new urban peripheries, which has created a religious vacuum. Some Brazilian poor have responded by embracing Pentecostalism, while a growing percentage have turned their back on religion altogether.
Beozzo said he was not optimistic that in the short run, Benedict’s pastoral visit would do much to reverse these trends.
“I’m a historian,” he said. “Religious phenomena develop over a long arc of time. Isolated events, even the most important, generally have only a small impact. They can’t really change the underlying social fabric.”
If change is going to come, he said, it must be the result of long-term, grassroots efforts which “unfold in the lives of the people.”
Towards that end, Beozzo said that it’s important for the church to realize that “clerical” solutions, meaning relying primarily on clergy to carry forward the church’s pastoral efforts, are, in his view, doomed to failure.
“We have only 18,000 priests for something like 140 million Catholics,” Beozzo said. “Meanwhile, the Assemblies of God have eight and one-half million faithful in Brazil, and over 52,000 pastors.”
In light of those discrepancies, Beozzo said, the only option is for the church to fully embrace the laity as protagonists of the church’s various ministries. In some sense, he said, this is already reality; 80 percent of Sunday celebrations in Brazil, he said, are currently led by laity due to the absence of priests.
On the other hand, he said, sometimes church authorities, especially in Rome, are sometimes slow to embrace this more lay-led pastoral model. He cited the case of a set of directives for popular liturgical celebrations developed by the Brazilian bishops, and intended for use by various grassroots groups in the church – above all, the thousands of “base communities” throughout the country. When the directory was reviewed in the Vatican by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, he said, they ordered its use suspended.
“It’s still officially suspended,” Beozzo said, “but in reality it’s widely used. When the people show up on Sunday, many times it’s a choice between this or nothing. Our future is as a lay-led church.”
“That’s not by choice,” Beozzo said. “It’s simply the church we’ve got.”