The news that many have abandoned Catholicism in Latin America makes sad reading for us Catholics. This news is not, however, new: we have known for some time that the Church in South and Central America has been haemorrhaging adherents, mainly to Pentecostal congregations, and other groups that are generally termed “las sectas”, or sects, such as the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists. The latest research from the Pew Foundation merely serves to underline how advanced this trend is, and it should serve as a wake-up call. There is no point in denying the trend, though as ever, the wake-up call comes late in the day.
What is wrong with the Church in Latin America? Well, for a start, there is much right with it, but there are certain things which need to be addressed, and are, to my knowledge being addressed.
The first major challenge is social dislocation. Throughout the Americas people are migrating to large cities. This means that places like Buenos Aires are experiencing a huge influx of people from the countryside, and from other countries too. The same is even more true of the megalopolis that is Sao Paulo which is home to virtually every nation under the sun. Also to be considered as Latin American megacities are Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, which are homes to thousands upon thousands who have migrated north. When people leave their villages in this manner, they also, sadly, often leave behind their religious practices. Devout Catholics on arrival in the big city, an alien and new community for them, may stop going to Church, or may meet up with a welcoming new church that rapidly gains their support. Incidentally, this is also true of Britain: many Catholics from abroad may come to London and switch religious allegiances in the process, or lose religious allegiances altogether.
In a place like Sao Paulo it may be hard for the Church to organise, especially in new barrios that seemingly spring up overnight. This is one of the reasons that Pope Francis was so keen when Archbishop of Buenos Aires to move out to the “periphery”, in other words, to establish parishes in new areas of habitation, at the expense, if need be, of established parishes in places where the mass of the population no longer lived.
How does this affect us in Britain? Simply put, we need to see these places in Latin America as mission territory, as indeed they are, and support them financially.
But the problems of Latin America go further. Amongst the population there is huge ignorance of the faith, and this means that people are often attracted by Pentecostalism simply because their traditional allegiance to Catholicism has been hollowed out. This ignorance is not helped by the fact that so many, living in remote districts, have received little effective catechesis. Once again, this problem also exists in Britain where ignorance of the faith among Catholics is gross, and where there is little excuse for it, as we do not have the historical difficulties of Catholicism in countries like, for example, Peru.
Then there is another matter, that the article in this paper highlights, the question of the ‘prosperity gospel’. This is not simply a question of pastors from American mega-churches telling people that Jesus will make them rich. If only it were so crude, and so easy to refute! It goes deeper than that, as I am sadly reminded every time I meet some of my Chilean Protestant relatives who always keen to point out that in Chile the Catholic Church was the Church of the rich elite, and never lifted a finger for the poor masses, but told them that poverty was good for them.
This deeply offensive caricature is still believed by many people, partly because it has some truth in it. Liberation Theology was an attempt to redress the balance and answer the question of poverty. Though the question it was answering was the right question, the answer it was giving was not the right answer. But the question remains. What are we going to do about the single biggest challenge Latin Americans face, namely poverty? Likewise the “prosperity gospel” is not the right answer, but the question remains.
The Church is strongly committed to good governance for all people. It is not, as far as I am aware, in bed with any corrupt or dictatorial regimes. Yet when it comes to delivery of good governance, Catholic-majority countries are not doing too well. This is true in Africa, but it is glaringly obvious in Latin America. This is perhaps the foundational reason for the loss of allegiance in these countries: despair brought about by poverty, and despair confirmed by governments’ complete failure to govern well and provide for their people.
Let us close on a hopeful note. The Church continues to struggle for the poor, and on the side of truth. Consider the case of Bishop Gerardi. Never heard of him? There may well be thousands more like him of whom you have never heard as well!