The Catholic Church is in trouble in Latin America. There is a major trend underway in the region, threatening to end Catholic supremacy. Protestant churches — especially the Pentecostal ones — are growing quickly and becoming politically influential, from Mexico down to Chile.
Nothing reflects this trend better than the Chilean Government’s proclamation of 31 October as a Protestant and Pentecostal church public holiday. Announced at the end of 2008, the decision was described by The Economist as a "cultural milestone".
And while socio-theological prophecy is not its specialty, the magazine was onto something when it speculated that "Protestantism by Latin America’s socially aspirational poor looks like an inexorable trend". What The Economist didn’t mention is that Latin American Protestants — especially Pentecostals — are seeking and exercising increasing political influence all over the region.
The fact that around 14 to 15 per cent of Chile’s population of 20 million are Protestants is not lost on Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet, an agnostic and socialist who was briefly exiled in Sydney in the 1970s. Her declaring the public holiday "was a decision taken in the context of the next December 11 election, and the Government is courting the growing Protestant vote, especially the Pentecostal," Rubén Orellana, a leading Methodist pastor, told newmatilda.com.
The growing political power of Pentecostals — the fastest growing branch of Protestantism in the world — marks a shift for the movement, previously regarded as "apolitical", and more concerned with individual conversions.
There are around 30 political parties in Latin America that could be branded as Pentecostal (or Evangelical). A few of them are already well established. One example is the right-wing Nicaraguan party "Camino Cristiano Nicaraguense" (Nicaraguan Christian Path). At the 1996 elections the party became the third-largest political force in Nicaragua.
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez — whose relationship with the Catholic Church has soured since he came to power in 1998 — has attracted the support of Pentecostals for his programs of social assistance for the poor. Bolivian president Evo Morales has developed a similar proximity towards these churches. His friendly relationship with Protestants has been in sharp contrast to his confrontations with the hierarchy of the Bolivian Catholic Church. In 2006 Morales rewarded Protestant Churches’ support for his government by appointing Casimira Rodríguez, an indigenous Methodist, as Justice Minister.
Brazil has the largest community of Pentecostals in the world. Since 2002 the left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been actively courting them. In 2006 President Lula’s Workers Party forged a powerful political coalition with the Brazilian Republican Party (BRP), established by the large Pentecostal group the Church of the Kingdom of God. The Brazilian Vice-President José Alencar and 62 members of the Brazilian Congress are Pentecostals. While there is no evidence of a "bloc vote", the political slogan "A brother votes for a brother" voiced in the latest Brazilian elections speaks of a trend of Pentecostal faithfuls voting for Pentecostal candidates.
In Mexico — a historical stronghold of Latin American Catholicism — Pentecostals have become a powerful presence in grassroots movements. In Chiapas — the birthplace of the radical indigenous Zapatista movement — over 30 per cent of the community is Protestant. A former local governor, Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia, is a member of the Evangelical Church of the Nazarene.
The impact of the Latin American Protestant movement is not only political. It is also changing the religious landscape of the region dominated for centuries by the Catholic Church. Fifty years ago 90 per cent of the 560 million Latin Americans were Catholics, today it’s 70 per cent and still declining.
And this is happening while Protestant and Evangelical churches keep on growing. Today 20 per cent of the Latin American population is Protestant. With 75 million adherents, Pentecostals are the overwhelming majority among these, according to the 2005 figures from the World Christian Database.
Guatemala is the Latin American country with the largest percentage of Protestants, with Pentecostals making up the majority of these. The Protestantism movement in Guatemala emerged in the mid-1800s, and has enjoyed rapid growth since the 1960s. Today 30 per cent of its 13 million population belongs to a Protestant Church.
Some predict Brazil will follow Guatemala’s path and in the next two decades Pentecostals will be a majority of Protestants. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, nearly 40 out of 188 million Brazilians today are Protestants. Three large Pentecostal churches are the dominant forces in this group: the fast-growing Pentecostal Universal Church, the Assembly of God (with 10 million followers), and the Kingdom of God Pentecostal Church. The latter has developed an unparalleled media apparatus, controlling newspapers, magazines, television networks and radio stations.
The rank and file of the Protestant movement come mainly from the poorer classes, many of whom live in Latin America’s sprawling shanty towns. What’s concerning the hierarchy in the Vatican is that they’re not coming primarily from population growth, migration or indigenous religions — they’re coming directly in disenchanted droves from the Catholic Church.
According to the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), 10,000 people a day leave the Catholic Church and around 8000 each day convert to Protestantism. "The largest number of converted evangelicals come from the Catholic Church", Bernardo Barranco, a sociologist and religious expert, said.
"Pentecostalism is an attractive option to the poor of the region", Dr Manuel Ossa, a theologian at the respected Diego de Medellín Ecumenical Centre in Chile, told newmatilda.com. "Pentecostalism relies on the so-called ‘theology of prosperity’ to attract followers", he said. "This claims that material wealth is a divine blessing achieved by an active and frequent participation in the religious services."
In marked contrast to the weekend’s empty pews in Catholic masses, the Pentecostal churches popping up all over Latin America — typically no more than humble, undecorated wooden houses — are thriving, noisy and crowded places of worship.
Respected Belgian Catholic theologian and priest José Comblin told magazine Punto Final that Pentecostals were filling the vacuum left by the Catholic Church in the impoverished slums of Latin American. "The Catholic Church has abandoned the popular masses," he said. "In one of the Brazilian shanty towns where I live — with around 10,000 people — there are 84 Pentecostal chapels and three Catholic."
The loss of Catholic followers to the Protestant movement was one of the major points of discussion at the 2007 Latin American Episcopal Conference held in Brazil. The final document said the expansion of Protestantism "constitutes a serious concern due to the fact that the majority migrating into these groups are Catholics."
The late Pope John Paul II described the growth of Pentecostal Churches as an invasion of sects, and rapacious wolves who were robbing Latin America of its Catholic culture and destroying social cohesion. However, according to many observers, that Pope was himself one of the culprits behind the vacuum left by the Catholic Church among the poor.
The role claimed for itself by the Catholic Church as the "preferential option for the poor", was not part of John Paul’s narrative. Closer to spiritual conservative centre and right-wing upper-class movements such as Opus Dei and Legionaries for Christ, Pope John Paul II destroyed Liberation Theology, a movement that was seen as a real option for the poor and a sort of antidote to the Pentecostal tide. Followers of Liberation Theology — Catholic priests and lay members working with the poor, marginalised and ethnic minorities — were unendorsed by the Vatican and persecuted by right-wing governments.
This is a big part of the hearts-and-minds battle for the region’s poor that the Pentecostals are winning. Expect to see these groups wielding a lot more political power in the near future.
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