Latin America is known for being home to almost half of the world’s Catholics, and because of this and the vibrancy of their faith, the region was christened the “Continent of Hope” by Pope Paul VI.

 This title was soon cast in iron by Pope John Paul II, when he decided to make Latin America — specifically Mexico — the destination of his first papal journey in 1979.

Nevertheless, political upheaval, violence and dramatic inequalities have led many to question the real status of Catholicism in the region.

Until the late 1990s, the fad among Catholic bishops and scholars was to focus on the “threat” posed by the growing number of evangelical “sects” in the region. Extremely influential in fueling this concern was David Stoll’s book “Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth.”

The Stanford graduate, an evangelical, argued that evangelicalism’s spiritual appeal is that it “calls into question the claims made for its great rival, the Marxist-tinged liberation theology that was the hope of the Catholic left.” By all appearances, wrote Stoll, “born-again religion has the upper hand.”

In his 1991 book, Stoll assembled statistical extrapolations that led him to predict that evangelicalism would be the majority religion in countries such as Guatemala, Chile and Brazil by 2000.

Thus tremendous attention was paid to the increase of Protestantism, a phenomenon many blamed not only on the lack of sufficient priests in the region, but also on the influence of liberation theology and its highly sociological message. The late Peruvian Jesuit theologian Francisco Interdonato noted in the same year that Stoll’s book was published that “there is no doubt that a map of where liberation theology has been most successfully promoted almost perfectly overlaps with a map of evangelical growth.”

Emerging secularism

Stoll’s observation appears to be confirmed by a decrease of Catholics and an increase of evangelicals in Guatemala, Brazil, El Salvador, Peru and Bolivia; the countries where liberation theology had strong supporters among the clergy and religious.

Catholic sociologist Pedro Morandé, vice rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Santiago (Chile), believes that the undeniable growth of evangelicals in the region was due more to successful Protestant proselytizing of nominal Catholics than anything else. These were Catholics who were, in practice, fallen away from the Church.

 “They would claim to be Catholics in a census, but that was as Catholic as they were,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.

Nevertheless, the beginning of the new millennium has shown not only a stall in evangelical growth — indeed, none of Stoll’s predictions became reality — but amazingly, the significant growth of a category that until recently was almost inconceivable in Latin America: the ranks of the nonbelievers.

In fact, the latest polls show that both Catholics and Protestants are losing ground, even if slowly, to the growing number of those who claim to belong to “no religion,” or proclaim to be non-believers.

In 2008, the California-based Protestant organization PROLADES — Programa Latinoamericano de Estudios Sociorreligiosos (Latin American Program for Social and Religious Studies) — put together a report that offers the important but scattered information on religious affiliation in Latin America. The data was drawn from various sources, from simple polling data to national census figures.

The chart, created by Clifton L. Holland, is believed to be skewed toward inflating the number of Protestants, but most importantly it is the first report to reflect the massive growth of nonbelievers, especially when compared with data from the previous decade, where nonbelievers were statistically close to zero in most Latin American countries, with the exception of Uruguay and Brazil.

Timothy J. Steigenga, professor of political science and comparative politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found in Guatemala and Costa Rica that “leavers” from evangelical, mostly Pentecostal, backgrounds may be going into what he calls “the dark pool of no religion.”

Dominican Father Edward L. Cleary said that “this is a new category, one virtually unknown previously in Guatemala and much of Latin America.”

“What is it like to be without religion in this hotly religious country? Would one feel relief to be on an island of calm away from the heat of religious passion? Do people who say they have no religion still believe in God? Are they hurting and in need of help? We know almost nothing about this category,” he wrote in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research.

In fact, according to an analysis from the Latin American Studies program at the Dominican-run Providence College, it is clear that secularization is affecting evangelicals as much as Catholics.

According to the analysis, some of the most important religious trends in the region are:

  • The increase of evangelicals has peaked in two of the three countries most talked about when dealing with evangelical growth: Guatemala and Chile.
  • Apostasy among evangelicals is extraordinarily high.
  •  Lack of regular attendance among evangelicals has been a problem in some countries for years.
  • The category of no religion is growing in the region. Polls conducted in Guatemala have shown since 1990 that about 12 percent of the population says it has no religious affiliation.

Nonbelief is not just a matter of church attendance. As secularism rises, so do laws that contradict Catholic teaching, most recently Argentina’s legalization of same-sex marriage last month.

Needed: Missionary zeal

It was precisely the challenge of secularization that captured the attention of some 200 bishops who gathered in May 2007 at the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean at the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil.

In his homily inaugurating the summit, Pope Benedict XVI said, “this is the priceless treasure that is so abundant in Latin America, this is her most precious inheritance: faith in the God who is Love, who has shown us his face in Jesus Christ … This is the faith that has made America the ‘Continent of Hope.’ Not a political ideology, not a social movement, not an economic system: faith in the God who is Love.”

“Pope John Paul II,” the pope also said, “called you to a new evangelization, and you accepted his commission with your customary generosity and commitment. I now confirm it with you, and in the words of this fifth conference I say to you: be faithful disciples, so as to be courageous and effective missionaries.”

After two weeks of meetings and discussions, the Latin American bishops wrote in their conclusive document: “The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission and to relaunch it with fidelity and boldness in the new circumstances of Latin America and the world. It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers, and threats, or those who seek to cloak the variety and complexity of situations with a mantle of worn-out ideological slogans, or irresponsible attacks. What is required is confirming, renewing, and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel rooted in our history.”

 Indeed, the conviction that the Catholic faith needs to be relaunched and enriched with a greater missionary zeal is becoming a more common idea among the bishops in the region.

 Recently, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, archbishop of Santiago, Chile, told ACI Prensa news agency that “Catholics in Latin America were lacking a missionary zeal, probably because they got used to the fact that everyone around them was also Catholic, and there was no need for evangelization. But that time, for better or worse, is over. We either are ‘evangelical’ Catholics or are not Catholic at all.”

A similar conviction is shared by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, who, since the beginning of his ministry in Argentina’s capital in 1998, has warned that “culturally speaking, we Catholics are a minority. We have to acknowledge that. And there is a certain advantage in recognizing that we are a minority: It will make us more self-aware, more responsible, more conscious of the need to reflect the true essence of our faith.”

After the meeting in Aparecida, the bishops, in fact, made clear that “a Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of the faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing, that does not convert the life of the baptized, would not withstand the trials of time.”

“Our greatest danger,” they added, “is the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church in which everything apparently continues normally, but in reality the faith is being consumed and falling into meanness.”

“In Latin America and the Caribbean … we find ourselves facing the challenge of revitalizing our way of being Catholic … This requires, on the basis of our Catholic identity, a much more missionary evangelization, in dialogue with all Christians,” the bishops said.

Hopeful movements

In Aparecida, the Latin American bishops also recognized signs of hope: the new vitality that has come in the form of lay, ecclesial movements.

The charismatic renewal is one of those movements that have experienced an outstanding growth. There are some 33 million charismatics in Brazil, around 11 million in Colombia and almost 9 million in Mexico.

The region has also seen the birth of local movements and religious congregations that are expanding around the world. The Peruvian Christian Life Movement, the Brazilian Shalom movement and the Heralds of the Gospel are just a few among the news signs of hope.

Moreover, according to a report from the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Latin America, during the late 20th century, Mexico ranked second — only after Italy — as the largest provider of new charisms and spiritual families to the universal Church.

“Many of these new congregations are not to known in the U.S. or Europe,” said Mexican political and religious analyst Federico Muggenburg. “But they are certainly helping change the face [of the Church] in many places in Africa, Asia and Oceania, and, obviously, in our own Continent of Hope.”

Alejandro Bermudez, the director of ACI Prensa news agency, writes from Peru.

Chile

Chile was, next to Guatemala, an evangelical success story, especially among the middle class and the military. Nevertheless, secularization is now a challenge for both the Catholic majority and evangelicals.

In fact, the Chilean Institute of Public Studies has published several studies in the last decade rating church attendance among different religions.

The polls show consistently that less than half of Chile’s Pentecostals attend church once a week, and more than a third hardly attend church at all.

According to Father Cleary, “this finding was scandalous to Pentecostal pastors … by and large, [they] took up the challenge of religious nonpractice directly and honestly, searching their souls for reasons for the worrisome dropping out.”

The Catholic Church has gone through a similar soul searching. This April, on the occasion of Chile’s bicentennial, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone reminded the Chilean bishops of the need to “look into the future with the fervent desire of reviving the energy of the first evangelizers.”

He expressed support for the Chilean bishops’ initiative of providing a Catholic component to the project “Chile 2010,” a nationwide effort to make Chile the first Latin American nation to leave behind “Third World” standards.

“Our faith, which we receive through the Church, is the greatest gift of your nation, infinitely more valuable than any other good or project that comes from the human heart,” the cardinal said.

The bishops have not been short of projects. Thanks to an ambitious youth program launched in 2006, the Church in Chile has seen a significant growth in youth involvement. Earlier this year, more than 150,000 Catholic young men and women went on mission trips that combined social work with evangelization.

“The fruits in greater youth commitment, as well as in religious and priestly vocations, are already visible,” said Bishop Alejandro Goic, president of the Chilean bishops’ conference, during a recent evaluation meeting.

Brazil

Brazil is the largest Catholic nation in the world: Some 159 million out of 189 million, according to the 2010 Catholic Almanac.

Nevertheless, since the late 1980s, evangelical Protestantism has become the second-leading religion in Brazil. According to the 2000 census, the different evangelical denominations have grown from 9 percent to 15.1 percent in 10 years, while the number of Catholics has dropped from 83.7 to 73.7 percent.

Since 2000, secularization has become the greatest challenge for all denominations. Recent polls show the number of self-proclaimed nonbelievers is growing at a faster pace than any other religious affiliation, especially in the wealthy and heavily populated southeast.

Sao Paulo, for example has grown at a rate that has dramatically outpaced the construction of parishes. In the 1980s, the late Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, a strong supporter of liberation theology, chose promoting “ecclesial base communities” over building new Catholic churches, leaving Brazil’s largest and richest city devoid of parishes.

 At present, one can travel several miles in any direction in some neighborhoods before finding any Catholic parish. And because of high property values and increased construction costs in the city, there is no prospect of building any, thus turning Sao Paulo into the largest “churchless” urban area in Latin America.

Another significant problem is Spiritism, as well as African-American cults such as Macumba, Umbanda and Candomble.

The late Archbishop Antônio do Carmo Cheuiche, emeritus of Porto Alegre, Brazil, was an expert on African-Brazilian cults. He explained in early 2009 that “religious confusion and syncretism are the main consequences of the process of secularization.”

As an example, he pointed out that most of the Maes do Santo, or “priestesses” of the Umbanda cult, claim to be Catholic, while the hundreds of thousands of Catholics who deposit white flowers in the ocean on the feast of Mary Mother of God “are actually worshiping Iemanyá,” a Candomble goddess. “This kind of confusion makes the case for the urgent need of the new evangelization,” he said.

Colombia

In Colombia, only two-thirds of people profess to be Catholics today when almost the entire population was Catholic in the 1950s.

According to recent polls, the capital city of Bogota, as well as the wealthy city of Cali, lead the country in the number of people who profess to be “nonreligious,” with 17 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

The process of secularization in the country, nevertheless, is uneven. While major cities are the place where more secularized lifestyles can be found, in other regions of the country the Catholic Church is one of the few, if not the only, source of security and stability.

Moreover, in some regions, like Antioquia, the number of priestly and religious vocations continues to be staggering and shows no sign of decreasing.

As an example, the Diocese of Sonson Rionegro in Antioquia, with less than 100,000 inhabitants, has three full major seminaries: one to form local priests, one for so-called late vocations and a third for missionary vocations. Several Latin American bishops, in fact, line up to bring these missionaries to dioceses with severe priest shortages.

Also, despite the success of former President Alvaro Uribe in pacifying the country — homicide rates fell 45 percent and kidnappings 90 percent during his tenure — there is a general consensus that only the Catholic bishops can offer a glimmer of hope for bringing an end to the activity of Marxist guerrilla groups, especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.

“The bishops are willing, and have always been willing, to mediate not only for the release of the kidnapped (by FARC) but for a lasting peace that may end organized violence in the country,” said Bishop Rubén Salazar Gomez, president of the Colombian bishops.

In fact, despite 78 percent of Colombians supporting President Uribe’s “tough hand” against organized crime and FARC, 75 percent of Colombians believe that the mediation of the Catholic Church is “the best way” to put an end to 40 years of guerrilla activity in the country.

Guatemala

Guatemala could be called the Pentecostal paradise that wasn’t.

Latin American experts consistently identify Guatemala as the most Protestant country in Latin America. Guatemala is indeed the country with the highest percentage of evangelicals.

But according to Virginia Garrard Burnett and Bruce Calder, both U.S. experts in Guatemalan religious trends, since the 1990s, Guatemalan Protestantism had reached a “kind of natural limit.” They quote a pastor saying in resignation, “Some people will always be Catholic.”

According to Father Edward L. Cleary, author of “Shopping Around: Questions About Latin American Conversions,” “only now is it clear … that the growth of Pentecostalism and Protestantism leveled off in Guatemala some time ago at about 25 percent of the Guatemalan total population.”

He also explained that the Gallup organization in Guatemala began doing surveys in the country in the 1990s, including questions about religious affiliation. “These surveys, repeated at various intervals, and by now in the public domain for a number of years, consistently have showed Protestant affiliation to be in the 25 percent range.”

But the end of what was perceived as the “evangelical threat” does not mean an end to the Church’s problems.

In fact, the almost two decades of heavy influence from liberation theologians and its mostly political approach to religion has contributed to the dramatic shortage of priests and the fact that Guatemala has the lowest rate of priestly vocations in the region.

Thus, in 2009, the 17-member Guatemalan Bishops’ Conference released a pastoral letter calling for a “new evangelization” in the country.

“We need a process of personal and pastoral conversion to Christ to open the doors to new ways to carry out the Church’s mission,” the bishops wrote.

“We are required to study, reflect, plan and design more effective ways to bring (the new evangelization) to our communities, our parishes and our dioceses,” they also said.

Mexico

The upcoming national census in Mexico became yet another source of conflict between the Catholic Church and the left wing, frequently anti-clerical Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) when an ambiguous census question regarding religious affiliation listed “Christian” as separate from “Catholic.” The question was cited by the Catholic bishops as a source of potential confusion in determining the real number of Catholics in the country.

The PRD reacted by accusing the Mexican bishops of “deliberately trying to exaggerate the number of their followers.” But according to Father Valdemar Romero, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, “the saying that 85 percent of Mexicans are Catholic, but 99 percent of them are Guadalupanos, is only partially a joke.” “Two things are the undefeatable pillars of our country’s Catholic identity: Our Lady of Guadalupe and our martyrs,” he said.

The Mexican Catholic bishops’ concerns, therefore, are focused on the rapid progress of secularization, and not on the growth of evangelical denominations, which seem to be facing problems on their own.

Kurt Bowen, an expert on religious trends for Acadia University in Canada, recently found that in Mexico “48 percent [of evangelicals] continued to be active … [and] attended a church service at least once weekly.” The vast majority of the other 52 percent never or almost never attended services.

According to Archbishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Tlalnepanta, who is president of the Mexican Bishops’ Conference, “the problem is not only the growing religious indifference among Catholics, but the existence of an organized effort to de-Christianize Mexico.”

This effort, according to Archbishop Aguiar, has an evident expression in the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage push in Mexico City, politically controlled by the PRD.

Nevertheless, “the disease seems to be the antidote,” said Federico Muggenburg, a Mexican political and religious analyst.

“The effort to impose legislation at odds with Mexico’s Catholic tradition and culture has sparked an energetic Catholic revival, which, among other things, has legally ‘bulletproofed’ 17 of the 31 Mexican states against abortion.”