The Christ the Redeemer statue is seen atop Corcovado Peak in Rio de Janeiro CNS photo from Reuters

In 1991, the American sociologist David Stoll sparked Protestant optimism about challenging Latin America’s Catholic majority with his book “Is Latin America Turning Protestant?” 

Stoll predicted that by 2000, evangelicals would be significant minorities in most of the countries, and probably majorities in countries such as Brazil. 

And now that Rio de Janeiro has been selected to host World Youth Day 2013, religious head counting and questions about how Catholic the world’s largest Catholic nation really is are starting to surface.

Faith losing its hold

According to Brazil’s 2006 national census, the official number of Catholics in the country is around 130 million. Nevertheless, according both to the national census and several major statistical studies, the number of Catholics has been consistently decreasing in the last three decades. 

In August, the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), a leading institute for social studies and statistics in Brazil, released its “New Map of Religions,” showing sobering figures. 

According to FGV, the number of Catholics in Brazil went from 73.8 percent of the population in 2003 to an all-time low of 68.4 percent in 2009. 

But evangelicals found very little ground to claim victory: The fastest-growing group in Brazil is those who claim to be nonbelievers or agnostics: a number that rose from statistical insignificance to 6.7 percent of the population. During the same period, evangelical growth went from 17.9 percent to 20.2 percent.  

The poll also reveals that although the Assembly of God church is the second-largest church in number of worshippers, it is closely followed by “spiritism,” a mix of Afro-American cults and New Age practices developed locally by cult leader Allan Kardec. Best-selling author Paulo Coelho has had a significant influence in the growth of “Kardecismo.” 

The most alarming fact is the falling numbers of Catholics in the 15- to 19-year-old range. According to the FGV, 67.5 percent declared themselves Catholics in 2009, compared with 75.2 percent who did so in 2003. 

Behind the numbers

“The shrinking number of Catholics in Brazil is a phenomenon that has been constantly reported in the last 20 years,” said Rafael Tavares da Silva, editor-in-chief for ACI Digital News, the largest Brazilian Catholic news agency. 

“Nevertheless these figures should be taken with a grain of salt, or maybe two,” he added. 

“Catholicism, to many, was the default response when asked to which religion they belong in Brazil. But this is an answer you would get from almost anyone, from the most devout Catholic to a drug lord who practices witchcraft. 

“So, I believe is fair to say that the numbers, more than showing Catholics falling away from the Church, actually show the reality of those who were already very far away from it,” Tavares da Silva told OSV. 

He also pointed out that mere statistics are missing the point of the important revival of committed Catholicism over the last 25 years, especially among what he calls the “John Paul II generation.” 

The engagement of Brazilian Catholics with their Church is represented in phenomena such as the fact that Brazil has four major Catholic TV channels and when they are combined, their ratings are as high as the secular networks.  

Catholic revival

Another revealing fact about Catholicism in Brazil is its impact in the local culture. Despite Coelho’s worldwide fame, the all-time best-selling book in the country’s history is by Father Marcelo Rossi, a charismatic priest from São Paulo. Rossi’s “Agape” has sold more than 2 million copies and counting. 

The country is also the birthplace of two of the fastest-growing charismatic communities in the Church: Canção Nova (The New Song) and Shalom. Both have recently received pontifical approval and minister with success among the youth, promoting vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. 

Founded by the Brazilian layman Moyses de Azevedo, Shalom community has 4,752 missionaries in Brazil, some of them with vows of celibacy, who live in small communities dedicated to the New Evangelization. At one Shalom event alone, the Halleluya Festival 2011 in Fortaleza, the community gathered 800,000 people, many of them young than 25. 

Rodrigo Luiz, spokesman for Canção Nova Channel and a missionary of Canção Nova community, said statistics miss the vibrancy of what he calls “the JPII Springtime.” His community boasts more than 1,200 missionaries, most of whom are younger than 30. 

“Unlike other traditional Catholic countries in Europe, the churches (in Brazil) are full of young people. In July this year, our winter camp brought together over 150,000 youth. Young people have been increasingly discovering how dynamic and fulfilling it is to belong to the Catholic family,” Luiz told OSV. 

Alejandro Bermudez writes from Peru.