Latin America has long been associated with Catholicism. For the first time in history, the head of the Church is a Latin American. To this day, Brazil and Mexico rank as the second and third most Catholic countries on earth, while the Church has shaped both the social mores and politics of the region. Yet, the decline of Catholicism across Latin America can no longer be ignored, losing ground as it has for many reasons: the rise of Evangelicalism, leftist politics, increasing racial awareness, and the chill winds of global secularism. But more than anything, the Church is increasingly less associated with individual Latin American countries’ national identities: the very strategy which has kept the faith strong in central and eastern Europe.
To date, just under 40 per cent of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America. Yet the influence of the Church is waning, with a message perhaps too broad for its own good. For many Latin Americans, the historic leftism of the region – as well as a growing racial awareness and secular outlook – has upended generations of Catholic adherence. In the last few years, both the Pope’s native Argentina, as well as Mexico, have legalised abortion, although abortions remain illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or if pregnancy poses a risk to the mother’s life. Same-sex marriage is also increasingly recognised across the region, including Argentina (2010), Brazil (2013), and Chile (2022).
By the numbers, the collapse of Catholicism has been immense. According to data from Latinobarómetro – as reported by Axios – between 2010 and 2020, Brazil’s Catholic population fell from 66 per cent to 55 per cent. By some estimates, it will soon fall below 50 per cent. In Mexico, the figures for the same period were 83 per cent and 74 per cent. Perhaps the most dramatic collapse has been in the Pope’s native Argentina, where the Catholic population crashed from 76 per cent in 2010 to 49 per cent in 2020. Catholics are also now a minority in Guatemala (41 per cent), El Salvador (39 per cent), and Uruguay (34 per cent). The secular trend has also been evident among Latinos in the United States: between 2009 and 2018/19, the percentage of Catholics among this group fell from 57 per cent to 47 per cent.
While secularism and a sense of grievance at past abuses in the Church are factors in decline, a perceived failure – especially among poorer Latin Americans – to address social problems, not least related to law and order, may also have been key. As such, cultural and national identification with the Church – often the one thing which glued together very diverse populations – has been waning. Meanwhile, just as the number of Catholics across Latin America fell from 70 per cent to 57 per cent between 2010 and 2020, other Christian faiths sprang to life, in particular Evangelicalism, often coming with a strong conservative message. In Brazil, the number of Evangelical Christians rose from 3 per cent in 2000, to 18 per cent in 2010, and 22 per cent in 2020 (some estimates put it nearer to 30 per cent). In Guatemala, the corresponding figures were 19 per cent, 34 per cent, and 41 per cent.
It seems that contradictory forces are at work: on the one hand, the Church is up against progressivism, secularism and alienation – as in the Anglosphere and western Europe – while simultaneously losing out to religions which talk the language of conservatism but without the baggage many have come to associate with Catholicism, with the Church failing in its moral messaging. Meanwhile, increasing racial awareness may also be working against what many have come to view as a vestige of colonialism. Yet, nothing suggests countries like Brazil have abandoned conservativism even as Catholicism nosedived. If anything, Latin Americans want a faith they can identify with.
As argued by Chayenne Polimédio, writing in the Atlantic: “According to a 2016 survey, 54 percent of the Brazilian population held a high number of traditionally-conservative opinions, up from 49 percent in 2010. The shift is particularly evident on matters of law and order”. According to Polimédio, the “shift has been accompanied by a massive growth in the country’s Evangelical Protestant and Pentecostal churches”. This Fall, Brazilians will go to the polls, with President Jair Bolsonaro hoping to ride the wave of Evangelical support which brought him to power in 2019. Polling suggests, however, that the leftist former President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is likely to unseat Bolsonaro on the back of Catholic and Evangelical support, even as polls suggest Evangelical voters are less likely (6 per cent) than Catholics (21 per cent) to vote for left-wing parties.
As reported by DW, according to Ricardo Ismael, of the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro: “Many low-income earners and lower-middle-class people felt the promises of the Evangelical neo-Pentecostal churches spoke to them”, while Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto – of the Catholic University of Sao Paulo – sees the rise of Evangelical Christians as a consequence of a rural exodus in the latter half of the 20th Century, with a religious rural population taking refuge in more conservative Evangelical churches as they encountered a more permissive Catholic urban landscape. According to Borba Neto: “The Catholic discourse focuses more on social issues, the rights of the poorest in society”, while “the Evangelical discourse – and particularly that of the neo-Pentecostal churches – concentrates on moral values.” Likewise, according to Ismael, neo-Pentecostal churches “concern themselves with moral values, fight against the lack of security in cities and call for an end to the welfare state”.
While evidence from Latin America suggests secularism and alienation from the Church – including past abuses and association with colonialism – may well be factors in the decline of Catholicism, less of a factor (in countries like Brazil, anyway) has been progressivism. If anything, it has been a failure to articulate strong moral values which has catalysed the move towards Evangelicalism. Moreover, it has been a failure to meet not just moral needs but a sense of identity. This would suggest the conclusions of the Synodal Path in Germany are wrong. Evidence from central and eastern Europe suggests that when a culture remains conservative, and the local Church articulates a strong moral position, and remains a key part of peoples’ identity, then the faith thrives. It may not be too late to reverse a decline but the Church needs to find its voice again in Latin America, and fast.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund