Falling number of Latin American Catholics is an opportunity to live Pope Francis' challenge

by Michael J. Gillgannon

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A recent survey report by Pew Research Center concerning religious affiliation and practice in Latin America has merited much attention.

The study graphically portrays the loss of members by the Catholic church (from 90 percent of the population 50 years ago to 69 percent and falling today) amid the growth of Protestant churches, particularly Pentecostal groups. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Protestants in Latin America identify themselves as Pentecostal. Some are beginning to lament the losses or simply deny them. But those with experience would know that the survey is a serious sociological report on the realities in 18 Latin American countries and Puerto Rico.

It merits profound attention by the leadership of the Catholic church in both North and South America because it documents the truth that the colonial-cultural Catholicism of 500 years in Latin America can no longer be taken for granted, at least not in faith or religious practices.

Church leaders lament the losses. Many decry the pressure tactics of the new Christian missionaries visiting homes and seeking converts. (Of those surveyed, 58 percent said their new church reached out to them.) And many remember the charges, with some foundation, that tied fundamentalist biblical groups to American political interventions in the Cold War opposing Catholic social progressives in countries like Guatemala under Pentecostal military dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt.

However, many Latin American missionaries would see this as a wake-up call. It is a positive advance in a new time to fulfill the prophetic challenge of Pope Francis to the Catholic church. Is the church capable of renewing itself? Will it be a church in mission to the new global world of the 21st century? There ought to be no more colonial cultures of automatic participation in religion. Faith and conversion to faith has content and consequences. But it must be free with an informed conscience. Conversion by the sword tying the church and state together is outdated and unworkable (though still in vogue in some parts of Africa and Asia).

What did we see 50 years ago as American missionaries? We saw brutal military dictatorships all over Catholic Latin America. Incredible poverty. Societies sunk in their colonial cultural roots of medieval Spain and Portugal deeply divided by class and race. Ninety percent illiteracy in indigenous populations closed out of elitist public educational systems. Infant mortality rates up to 30 percent, three of 10 births, in urban barrios and rural villages. A general social acceptance of torture, forced disappearance, and exile of dissenters by police and military officials to overcome anarchy and Marxist atheism. Institutional corruption in all judicial and governmental structures of society and some areas of the church. Latin American historians will continue to extend this list of negatives.

But the spirit of the marginalized people never gave in. We missioners were constantly amazed and energized by the determination of the Latin American people. The story of maintaining their identity and dignity is a long and glorious one.

A mysterious providence still seems to accompany them through the rapids of their historical currents of change. Currents like the Second Vatican Council, the Cold War, free trade, the globalization of commerce and finance, modern technologies of communication, the migration of millions from a rural society to an urban society, mega-cities of 15 million and more people. The good and the bad of this global development process have brought Latin America into the modern world in 50 years. It is not a time for lamentation. But it is a time for thoughtful analysis and redirection of energies and resources.

There are few European and even fewer North American missionaries going now to Latin America. They are not needed. The Latin American churches are finally on their own. Their prophets and martyrs, like Archbishop Oscar Romero, have illumined their path. The Latino Catholic church has many native bishops and clergy and committed laypeople. But it cannot continue its past colonial culture of dependency. Its faithful people must now be active participants in the renewal promised in Vatican II, as Pope Francis has envisioned, and the Latin American bishops' outline in such documents as Puebla (1979) and Aparecida (2007). 

Some pastoral and social points that need immediate attention in Latin America:

  • Faith formation and liturgy must be updated and more local diocesan formation centers must be established.
  • Popular religiosity must be respected but thoughtfully renewed to include indigenous native symbols and customs in the liturgy, art and architecture.
  • Catholic eco-theology needs to dialogue with indigenous nature religions and their "Pacha Mama" (Earth Mother).
  • There must be a renewed contemporary theology of popular devotion to Mary to change the social role of women in a deeply misogynist Latin Catholic culture.
  • Church leaders must follow Pope Francis and bring Catholic ethical principles into the marketplace of free trade and globalization. They need to help their people and societies to practice a "preferential option for the poor." But in developing countries now, that means a vocal church with a values-centered message questioning the excesses of free markets, a consumer society, and a race to the bottom for workers' rights and wages.
  • There must be support of all social struggles for human rights, like trafficking, in collaboration with other interested national and international organizations.

The Catholic church in the United States needs to see its future in the Pew report. Latin America is home to 425 million Catholics, or 40 percent of the world's Catholic population, and its immigrants and descendants are on track to be the largest single population group in the American church. Will it be able to assimilate these seekers? Or will it repeat the mistakes of the colonial church taking a "cultural Catholicism" for granted? Without an update in faith formation in welcoming communities, the popular religiosity the immigrants brought with them will not last. The Pew study shows their children cannot and will not remain in the Catholic church. You cannot put new wine into old wineskins, as Jesus taught so well.

[Fr. Michael J. Gillgannon is a priest of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese. He was a missionary in Bolivia for 38 years.]

A version of this story appeared in the Dec 5-18, 2014 print issue under the headline: Study a wakeup call for church in Americas.

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