Christianity is still a very important part of Latin American identity but the Roman Catholic Church now plays a less important role within that. Some question how long Latin America will continue to be a predominantly Catholic region. In 1910, 90% of Latin Americans were Catholic; by 2010, this was reduced to 72%.
Huge increase in the proportion of Pentecostal Churches. Despite early involvement of US missionaries, growth over last 40-50 years has been a particularly Latin American phenomenon. Growth rates are particularly high in Brazil, Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Brazil is still the largest Catholic population in the world (123 million) but Pentecostals now 43 million and gaining about 600,000 per year. 38% of Guatemalans are Pentecostal.
Members of Pentecostal Churches are imbued with energy and drive. They stress self-help and the belief that, by choosing certain patterns of behaviour, a person can bring about improvement in their circumstances in this life. They offer a sense of belonging within a community and can provide some structure and order to those who would otherwise be lost in the chaos of the modern changing world. Strongest support lies in the poorer communities but they have broadened their appeal to the urban middle classes.
The Pentecostal community are increasingly involved in politics but do not identify with a particular ideology. Their belief in self-improvement and actively taking responsibility for changing conditions could eventually have an impact on the style of Latin America’s politics.
The Catholic Church is still a significant source of social and welfare services such as hospitals, schools, and soup kitchens (often virtually sole providers because of limited state capacity). It is prepared to criticise some of the harshest consequences of globalisation and speak out against government policies that cause poverty and social tensions. It is involved in debates over environment, corruption, indigenous rights and plays a key role in mediation and in reducing levels of violence.
The election of a Latin American Pope will provide huge boost to the confidence of the Catholic Church in the region but might not reverse the rise of Pentecostalism.
All the Churches are losing influence in the debate over social issues but still remain amongst the most trusted and respected institutions in Latin America.
Latin American Christianity is having impact beyond the region. Liberation Theology and Pentecostalism offer lessons that can be applied elsewhere in the world. Latin American immigrants in North America and Europe will influence Churches in the host communities. Pentecostal Churches are sending missionaries to rest of the world with the aim of conversion.
The Church and The Conquest.
The Spanish who conquered Latin America brought with them the robust Roman CatholicChurch of the 15th century Iberian Peninsula. This was the Church of the reconquista, of reclaiming Spain for the Catholic faith. The conquest of the new world was seen as an extension of doing God’s work through the use of arms and the atrocities involved therefore had the sanction of the Church. During the colonial era, the leadership of the Church was an arm of the King of Spain (who had the right to appoint all the priests and bishops in the Americas), and therefore conservative and authoritarian in nature. This led to some ambivalence concerning injustices experienced by the indigenous communities. Similarly, in Brazil, the Catholic Church was an arm of the authority of the state and the Portugese crown.
The Post-Independence Era.
After the independence struggles with Spain, most of the new nationalist governments wanted to establish early control over the Catholic Church, seeing it as a remnant of Spanish authority. They insisted on appointing their own bishops and those from the Peninsula soon returned to Spain. From independence into the early 20th century, there was a struggle between conservative politicians who wanted to maintain social and political order, and more liberal groups who wanted to build modern states based on progress, education and equality under the law. In general, when the latter were ingovernment, they sought to cut the powers and privileges of the Church; when conservatives ruled, they gave more powers to the Church. The stand of the Church was more nuanced, although they tended to be supporters of order and of traditional morals. Nearly all governments, whatever their bent, did support the charitable elements of the Church. The Church was providing social services in fields such as education and health that the state could not afford to provide. This became a large element of the Church’s work, involving priests and laity, including women. The Church therefore came to be seen as having a role beyond matters spiritual.
Increased Political Involvement and The Growth of Liberation Theology.
From the 1930s, rural poverty and landlessness encouraged massive migration to the urban areas in search of work, resulting in a huge increase in urban poverty and social and political tensions. The rapid industrialisation experienced in Latin America during these years also led to the rise of the industrial elite. From the 1930s-1960s, the Catholic Church was sometimes struggling to find a role in these newly-industrialised societies. The hierarchy and Church leaders tended to defend the established order as essential for harmony, social cohesion and stability (and for the survival of the Church itself). However, especially from the 1960s, many priests and the laity began to debate the need for change, arguing that the Church had to identify with, and give a voice to, the poor. It was not enough to care for the poor, or even to denounce poverty; the Church had to encourage action to change society and remove the root causes of poverty. In other words, religion was to be part of social and political reconstruction. This argument had an international element, since poverty in Latin America was portrayed as the result of the subordination of the Latin American economies to world capitalism, whose interests were safeguarded by the industrial elite and the landowners in Latin America.
Grassroots Ecclesial Communities (CEBs) were formed at this time. These local groups provided prayer sessions, health-care, education and general mutual support. They also ran discussion groups, criticising capitalism and its impact on the poor. What the CEBs offered was the opportunity for ordinary Catholics to become involved in improving society, rather than just helping to run the local church. Under authoritarian governments, the CEBs became a surrogate for the political participation that was no longer allowed. The Workers Party (PT) of President Lula of Brazil had its origins from one of these groups. CEBs also, indirectly, undermined the authority of the Church hierarchy because a shortage of priests meant many of the groups were under lay guidance. The bishops soon found the CEBs increasingly hard to control.
The 1968 session of the Latin American Bishops’ Council (CELAM), held in Medellin, was dominated by the debate between the traditional elements and those who advocated subversive violence as the only way to promote justice and end “institutionalised violence”. Two guerrilla groups, the Montoneros in Argentina and the Tupamaros in Uruguay, grew out of the latter bloc. The outlook of the Catholic radicals soon became known as Liberation Theology and involved priests organising their followers for political action and social change to bring about equality. An important element was that profound participation by the people should replace profound dependence and passivity. Liberation Theology was feared by the conservative secular press, the traditional laity, the authoritarian governments, the Catholic hierarchy in Latin America and the Vatican. Because of their criticism of capitalism and of the US, and their admiration for the Cuban revolution, they were seen as subversive, anti-church and even Communist. The Vatican additionally feared that Liberation Theology risked the Gospel being captured as a political message rather than a spiritual one.
The response of the Catholic Church to the authoritarian right-wing governments of the 1970s and 1980s was mixed. Some supported the military governments, believing they were the best defence against atheism and Communism. Some, especially as the dictatorships became more entrenched, provided a critical voice, openly criticising the abuses of human rights and the conditions of the poor. And many of those killed by the military governments were Church leaders and workers. Those priests linked to Liberation Theology, and the workers in the CEBs, were especially vulnerable.
Protestants first made contact with the region operating as smugglers and traders during the colonial era. There had also been unsustained attempts by the Northern European powers to colonise some areas in the Caribbean basin. However, Protestants arrived in Latin America in significant numbers from the mid-19th century, when some of the more liberal governments wanted immigrants from Europe to help develop the new countries. These governments realised they could not attract these immigrants unless they offered religious freedoms. The immigrants came mainly from England (Anglicans1), Scotland (Presbyterians), Wales (Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists) and Germany (Lutherans). They settled all over South America but principally in Brazil and the Southern Cone. The last wave of Protestant immigrants were the Mennonites. There are Mennonite colonies in Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia and Belize but most are in Paraguay. They began to arrive from Canada in the 1920s, welcomed by the Paraguayan government who wanted to populate the Chaco region in order to deter Bolivian encroachment; further waves followed for 60 years, mainly from Russia, Canada and the US, and the community now runs the successful dairy industry. All of these immigrant groups were ethnically, culturally and linguistically different from their Latin American neighbours. They tended to stick together and did not proselytize, so they remained a small group.
They were lateraugmented by Protestant missionaries. North American and European Protestant missionaries did much less work in Latin America than in Africa or Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but liberal governments in the region made a positive effort to attract them, in order to counterbalance the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and other conservative elements. They perceived Protestants to be liberal, tolerant, and able to make a positive contribution to building a modern state. Some came from Britain but most were from the US and by the mid-19th century they were present throughout Latin America. They established missions and won some converts from Catholicism but by the early 20th century the Protestant community had not grown significantly. They tended to be urban and lower middle-class, winning few converts amongst the upper-classes or the poor.
Pentecostalism, a style of worship associated with speaking in tongues, visions of divine guidance and a strong zeal in spreading the faith, first made an impact in Latin America in Chile in 1909 in a Methodist church in Valparaiso. The followers soon broke away and formed the Pentecostal Methodist Church. This grew and broke into many smaller churches; they then started attracting converts from Catholicism, especially the urban poor attracted by the sense of community. Later, Pentecostalism was introduced to the Italian community in Sao Paulo and the Assemblies of God were founded in northern Brazil. By 1944, Pentecostal communities were present in every Brazilian State. The Pentecostal Churches had a non-traditional attitude to authority, believing that all members could attain positions of leadership, including women. Members were required to give some of their income (typically 10%) to their church. Their churches also had a tendency to split, with groups breaking away to form new churches; this, together with their liberal attitude to authority, led some churches to be seen almost as heretical. Originally a church for the urban poor, its appeal extended to the rural towns and, by the late 20th century, the urban middle classes.
The Pentecostal Church is now present throughout Latin America and has contributed to a significant increase in the number, and proportion, of Protestants in the region.Their growth rates since the 1960s have been especially noteworthy. The latest figures (in 2005) from the World Christian Database put Pentecostals as 13% of Latin America’s population and 80% of all Latin American Protestants. Growth rates vary from country to country, with Brazil, Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua at the upper end. In Brazil, according to the 1990 census, Protestants (primarily Pentecostals) were 9% of the total population. By the 2000 census, they were 16%. According to the 2010 census, they were 22%. Roman Catholics made up 83% of the population in 1990, 74% in 2000, and 65% in 2010. Brazil is still the largest Catholic population in the world at 123 million. But Pentecostals are now 43 million and gaining about 600,000 per year. In some of the main urban centres, especially Rio de Janeiro, Pentecostal places of worship can outnumber Catholic ones by seven-to-one and there are believed to be more Pentecostal pastors than Catholic priests. Guatemala is themost Protestant country in Latin America. Although long-established, growth rates since the 1960s were partly because Catholic priests were seen by successive right-wing governments as having left-wing sympathies, so becoming a Protestant was seen as a safer option. A Gallup survey in the early 1990s concluded that 19% of Guatemalans were Protestant; by 2012, this had climbed to 38.2%, of which over 80% were Pentecostals. Since the mid-1980s, Guatemala has had two Pentecostal Presidents (General Efrain Rios Montt and Jorge Serrano). In Honduras, a 2008 Gallup survey put the Pentecostal community at 36%. El Salvador, Pentecostal communities are estimated at 27%. In Nicaragua, the 2005 estimate was 23%. Chile is the Southern Cone country with the highest proportion of Pentecostals, 15% according to the 2012 census.
This growth rate is having a marked impact on Christianity in Latin America and raising concerns in the Catholic Church. Latin America still has the world’s largest Roman Catholic community (483 million, about 41% of the world’s total of 1.2 billion, according to the World Christian Database). But some commentators question how long Latin America will continue to be a predominantly Catholic region. In 1910, 90% of Latin Americans were Catholic; by 2010, it was 72% (Pew Research Center 2010 figures). There is, effectively, an unregulated, “marketplace for religious goods”, with the churches having to compete for customers. The Catholic Church no longer has a monopoly. People are looking for spiritual comfort and help from the church in coping with the daily struggle; if the traditional church does not give them this, they will look for a church that does.
The Pentecostal communities are imbued with energy and drive. They stress self-help and the belief that, by choosing certain patterns of behaviour, a person can bring about some improvement in their circumstances in this life. They attract people because their message tends to be easily accessible and lacking in obscure theological arguments. They offer a sense of belonging within a community and can provide some structure and order to those who would otherwise risk becoming lost in the chaos of the modern changing world. They teach life skills and basic management, primarily for helping to run the churches but with the added benefit of helping the individual make progress in their own life. They also promote women to positions of responsibility. They work not only through churches but also through their well-established and effective network of TV and radio stations (important in countries where there might be high rates of illiteracy or semi-literacy). Although it has broadened its appeal to include many of the middle class, the growth of this church has been mainly because of its attraction to the poorer communities, those very groups who were supposedly the concern of Liberation Theology and the CEBs some decades ago.
Realising that the Pentecostals have become a significant bloc, political parties have made conscious efforts to court them. The Pentecostals’ belief in reform has developed into bringing this religious view into politics and to public life. Since the early 1980s, Pentecostal communities have become increasingly active in politics, although there seems to be no identification with a particular ideology. In Brazil, many Pentecostal groups have voted as blocs since the late 1980s in order to get their members elected and to extract concessions from the leading presidential candidates in return for support. President Lula was originally viewed with suspicion by Pentecostals because of his perceived anti-religious Marxism but he deliberately courted them in the run-off in 2002 and attracted significant support. There is now a Congressional Pentecostal caucus that constitutes 15% of Brazil’s Deputies. The official number is 76, although the real bloc is probably over 100, one of the largest and best-organised groups in Congress. There are Pentecostal Deputies in almost all of the parties. At local level, Pentecostals have nearly 10,000 councillors. One of the most prominent current Pentecostal politicians is Marina Silva of the Green Party. She received 19% in the first round of the Presidential elections in 2010 but, in 2014, she might struggle to maintain Pentecostal support if she also wants to appeal to her more liberal supporters. In Chile, despite a longstanding tendency to “remain apart” from society and keep to themselves, some Pentecostals became politically active in the late 1960s, especially in the unions. Significant numbers supported Allende, possibly partly because of the traditional alliance between the Christian Democrats and the Roman Catholic Church. After the 1973 coup, Pentecostals were split in their reaction to the Pinochet government; some opposed him, but others decided to back him. This was partly because they disliked the chaos and social disorder of Allende. It was also because they saw the military government as a chance to secure public recognition and equal rights (on a par with the Catholic Church) in exchange for their support. For Pinochet, faced with opposition from the Catholics, this offered the chance of religious legitimacy. It is not yet clear if we will see a change in the style of Latin American politics as a result of Pentecostal involvement, with their emphasis on taking more personal responsibility for improving one’s conditions, rather than passively waiting for others to provide,
The Charismatic movement relates to a style of worship, rather than to a specific church. It has developed in recent decades and is to be seen in all denominations, especially Roman Catholic. Traditional Catholics worry that it will lead to converts to Protestantism, but others see it as an effective way to counter the Pentecostal threat in Latin America and revive the Catholic Church, especially with the young.
The Churches’ Current Priorities.
The Churches, particularly the Catholic Church, are no longer torn by the debate of the 1960s-1980s. With the return to democratic government of the last 30 years, the Churches are no longer calling for the destruction of the political establishment. To some extent, the more socially conservative forces in the Catholic Church have regained influence. But the impact of the 1968 Medellin Bishops’ Council does live on because the priority of the Catholic Church is the poor, social justice and human rights. In many countries, the Catholic Church is still a significant provider of social and welfare services such as hospitals, schools and kindergartens, orphanages, hospices and soup kitchens. Sometimes these complement effective state services, but very often they will be virtually the sole providers because of limited state capacity. Church provision can also be more flexible than that of the state and have more impact in times of crisis and disaster.
Direct political activity by clerics is now relatively unusual. One exception was Fernando Lugo, a Paraguayan Catholic bishop who entered politics in 2005 and was absolved from his vows when he won the Presidential elections in 2008. Nevertheless, Church leaders do enter the political debate and are prepared to criticise some of the harshest consequences of globalisation. They speak out against government policies that contribute to poverty and social tensions, and politicians who seek to undermine democracy for their own ends. In Venezuela, relations between the Catholic Church and Chavez deteriorated markedly as a result of persistent Church criticism of government policy, especially corruption, lack of press freedom and declining quality of democracy. Now, post-Chavez, the Catholic Church is very concerned about increasing divisions and violence in Venezuela. The Churches are also become involved in regional debates as varied as the environment, land rights, the exploitation of resources, corruption, indigenous rights and citizen security.
Despite a less overt political role than in the past, they are prepared to take a stand in support of mediation and negotiation and against conflict. In Honduras, the Catholic Archbishop of Tegucigalpa was a key figure in helping to resolve the political crisis involving Zelaya in 2009. In Cuba, the Catholic Church is probably the only organisation independent of the regime with the size, organisation and motivation to be capable of influencing change. For many years, it has had an important intermediary role on human rights, helping to secure the release of political prisoners. The Catholic Church considers it has an important part to play in the Cuban transition, helping to ensure a controlled process rather than a rush towards violence, revenge and social breakdown. Relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government have improved and some restrictions on Church activity have been lifted (especially in Havana), although there is still concern about religious freedoms. In Mexico and Colombia, members of the Church have found themselves in danger for speaking out against the interests of drug trafficking or illegal armed groups. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church has played a role in Colombia over the years in sustaining a degree of dialogue between the government and the guerrillas.
In some of the countries of Central America where state capacity is very weak, the Catholic Church considers it has an important role to play in reducing levels of violence and in teaching that human life has some value. They have helped to support the gangs truce in El Salvador and have tried to encourage similar truces in neighbouring countries. They are particularly committed to helping young people escape from a life of violent crime, believing that only the Church has the credibility to help them transform their lives. The Pentecostal churches are also involved in this work and some observers have noticed an interesting contrast in the approach of the two churches. The Catholics stress the need to address the conditions of poverty that lead people to join the gangs in the first place, and point out that elites must introduce reforms and justice before the violence can ever end. The Pentecostals have a more robust response, concentrating on the behaviour of the individual and suggesting that violence is the result of bad morals. Individuals must renounce violence and bring discipline into their lives. Joining the Pentecostal Church involves a process of religious conversion but also of social transformation, of leaving behind your former violent habits and joining a different community. Because the Pentecostal communities have such strong roots in their local areas, they can offer youths a social network to help their long-term reintegration into mainstream society.
In general, the Catholic Church does not want to be the direct antagonist of political regimes. If the Catholic Church speaks out about a problem, politicians will worry. In addition to safeguarding the interests of the universal Catholic Church, the Papal Nuncios therefore have an important role to play in mediating to protect the local Catholic Church leaders against their politicians.
In the view of the Churches, many of the problems of contemporary Latin America stem from a weakening of Christian values. The Catholic Church in particular believes that preserving those values and, through education, passing them on to the next generation is a vital part of its role and of maintaining its influence. They are increasingly concerned that, in some countries, the politicians are attempting to remove Christianity from state education. They also worry that foreign aid donors are imposing conditions that will undermine Christianity. All the Churches are certainly losing influence in the debate over social issues such as abortion, divorce, womens rights and gay marriage. Despite very energetic lobbying, they are unable to prevent the introduction of laws reflecting the views of increasingly secular and liberal societies. Nevertheless, opinion polls across the region show that, despite some child-abuse scandals, the Churches are still held in considerable respect and trusted more than politicians, the business class and the armed forces.
Impact of an Argentine Pope.
Within Argentina, the appointment of Pope Francis has produced a sense of national pride, and hope that it will raise Argentina’s standing in the world.
Beyond Argentina, there will be a sense of pride (even amongst non-Catholics) that someone from their region has been chosen as the first Pope from outside Europe since Gregory III in 731. They will see it as recognition of the contribution that Latin America can make to the world. More specifically, it will be a tremendous boost to the confidence of the Catholic Church as it faces pressure from the rise in Pentecostalism and from those who want to remove Christianity from public life. The 2007 meeting at Aparecida of the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) resulted in a document, known as Aparecida. It is now seen as an important forward-looking manifesto for the Catholic Church in the region. It showed the Bishops wanting to engage the Pentecostal Churches on their own turf, stressing morality, values, teaching, but also economic, social and environmental engagement by the Catholic Church. The principal drafter was the then Cardinal Bergoglio. This emphasis on meeting the needs of the poor and the most marginalised will encourage those Catholics who are looking for an influential role in creating a new economic model, something between the ALBA outlook and the perceived excesses of globalised capitalism. The Pope’s call for evangelism and for the Catholic Church to “get out into the streets” is causing some Catholics to believe that many of those who drifted away to Pentecostalism will now come back. This might be over-optimistic.
The Impact of Latin American Christianity on The Wider World.
For most of its history, Latin America received ideas from the rest of the world, mainly from Europe and North America. This was certainly the case with the Christian Church: Spanish Roman Catholicism; Northern European Protestantism; North American Pentecostalism. From the mid-20th century, however, the Churches in Latin America have had a growing influence on the Christian community in the wider world, in four main respects.
First, some of the leading Christian thinkers in recent decades have been from Latin America and their work has had a strong impact on the international debate about the nature of modern Christianity. Latin American priests also now occupy a significant number of posts in international church bodies. The Latin American Church has had increasing influence in the Vatican. In 2005, three of the front-runners to replace Pope John Paul II were from the region; in 2013, a Latin America cardinal was finally chosen.
Secondly, Liberation Theology was very much a Latin American innovation, a Latin American reaction to Latin America’s problems. However, it soon caught the attention of the wider Christian community, initially in the rest of the Third World and then beyond, including in non-Catholic churches. It has become an essential part of the Christian debate and is considered to have lessons that can be applied in other parts of the world. Pentecostalism is starting to have the same impact. Despite the early involvement of North American missionaries, the way it has grown has been a particularly Latin American phenomenon and other parts of the world are trying to work out the causes of this growth and any lessons they could learn. One of the main Brazilian Pentecostal Churches, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, now has a presence well beyond Latin America.
Thirdly, Latin Americans are now emigrating in significant numbers, mainly to North America but also to Europe. They take their faith with them when they emigrate. In the US, the Latin American immigrants are now a significant and growing proportion of the Roman Catholic community and are using their influence to change the nature of that community. Today, the proportion of Latin American Catholics in the US is about a third; this is likely to grow to approximately 50% in 10 years time. Latin American Pentecostal immigrants are also starting to have an impact in changing the composition of the overall US Protestant community.
Fourthly, the Pentecostals are now sending an increasing number of missionaries from Latin America to other parts of the world, with the aim of encouraging conversion. They work not only within the Latin American immigrant communities but also in the non-Latin host communities.
1 The Anglican Church describes itself as a “catholic” church but for the purposes of this paper and in common English usage is often deemed “Protestant”