Catholicism’s Latin American Problem | Dr. Samuel Gregg | CWR
Those interested in reviving Catholicism’s saliency in everyday life in Latin America should consider how they can make Christ front-and-center of their social outreach
It’s hardly surprising that the election of Latin America’s Pope Francis has focused more attention on Latin American Catholicism since the debates about liberation theology which shook global Christianity in the 1970s and 1980s. The sad irony, however, is that this renewed attention is highlighting something long known to many Catholics but which non-Catholics are now becoming more cognizant: that Latin America’s identity as a “Catholic continent” is fading and has been doing so for some time.
By that I don’t mean that most Latin Americans no longer identify as Catholic. That’s still the case. Indeed, in many countries south of the Rio Grande, it remains overwhelming true. But what’s clear is that Catholicism’s ability to shape Latin America’s religious context is in decline, or, from another perspective, faces some significant competitors: and not just from Evangelicals but also agnosticism and atheism.
Two recent surveys of religion in Latin America have underscored this point. The more noticed survey, conducted by Pew, illustrated that the percentage of people identifying as Catholic in almost every Latin American country has fallen significantly. And even among those who identify as Catholic, significant numbers describe themselves as being at odds with Church teaching on some key faith and morals questions. Indeed, 60 percent of converts to Evangelicalism say that one reason they left the Catholic Church was that they were looking for more assertive teaching on moral questions. This matters in societies in which, as the Pew survey indicates, most people say they adhere to what would be conventionally called conservative positions on all the usual hot-button issues.
It is true, the survey notes, that regular Mass-goers in Latin America cleave much more closely to Church teaching than those Catholics who don’t. That pattern is more-or-less universal in global Catholicism. It’s also the case that the practicing rate of Latin American Catholics puts your average Western European country to shame. That said, the survey also states that Evangelicals are generally more committed to a life of prayer, regular worship, and other church-based activities than even church-going Catholics.
One reason we can have some confidence that the Pew survey presents a relatively accurate picture of Catholic Latin America is that the results track very closely with another less-noticed survey of religion in America, released in April this year by the Latinobarómetro Corporation, one of the continent’s most respected survey organizations.
To give one example, the Latinobarómetro survey suggests that fewer than half of Hondurans today (47 percent) are Catholic. That’s down from 76 percent in 1995.