The Most Allegedly Catholic Continent

Miguel Pastorino on the State of Religion in Latin America

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MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, JULY 7, 2005 ( The growth of Pentecostal denominations and other similar groups in Latin America is due to the “pastoral vacuum” that the Catholic Church has suffered in the last decades.

In this interview, Miguel Ángel Pastorino, director of Uruguay’s Service for Study and Advice on Sects and New Religious Groups and member of the bishops’ National Commission of Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue, addresses the current religious phenomenon in Latin America.

Q: In the 1980s, experts talked about a massive exodus of Latin American Catholics to sects, going so far as to number their defection rate at 400 believers per hour.

Pastorino: Of course this “passage” of Catholics continues today. Not only is there an exodus to different Gnostic and esoteric proposals, Afro-American cults, para-Christian sects, spiritualism, and “platillista” sects [those that believe in UFOs], but there is also a silent turn to religious indifference, a product of the advanced secularization of large cities.

The Pentecostal movement is the one that has grown the most, and there is nothing that indicates a stagnation; rather, it seems to be growing wildly.

There is already talk of almost 150 million Pentecostals in Latin America, not counting the charismatics of other historical denominations. And specialists speak without much hesitation about the “Pentecostalization” of Latin America. In 1996 the Concilium review stated that already 400 million Christians were Pentecostals, but it also included the charismatics.

When Franz Damen spoke about the figure you mentioned, he was referring in the main to the Pentecostal groups, which at one point were all considered “fundamentalists sects”; today there is ecumenical dialogue with many of them. And the challenge is not easy, as the broad Pentecostal spectrum is very complex and there are many currents, from established churches committed to ecumenism and society, to dangerous sects that attack people’s integrity.

Moreover, there is a Catholic self-deception when it comes to the numbers, in the most allegedly Catholic continent, which isn’t so Catholic.

Given that the Church counts the number of persons baptized and does not take into account that the majority of them do not persevere in Catholicism, there is already talk among the social analysts of an evangelical majority in Latin America.

Already in 2000 there was talk of 26% of Pentecostals in Chile, 16% in Brazil, 34% in Guatemala, and I think that today the figures have surpassed these statistics.

At the financial level, the evangelical market moves just over $1 billion annually and generates some 2 million jobs. According to a recent study, since 1960 the evangelicals doubled their percentage presence in Paraguay, Venezuela, Panama and Haiti; they tripled their proportion in Argentina, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, and quadrupled in Brazil and Puerto Rico. They grew sixfold in Colombia and Ecuador, and grew sevenfold in Guatemala.

In Uruguay, there are many nominal Christians, because 54% say they are Catholic, but only 2.3% attend Mass; and of those who attend Mass, not all are committed to the faith of the Church and its mission.

Instead, every converted Pentecostal is a militant in the faith and this is a real disadvantage for the historical Churches. Evangelicals in Uruguay have risen to 11%, and Afro-Brazilians to 9%.

[This is] except for Catholic ecclesial movements, which are experiencing vigorous growth in America, counteracting the progress of the sects and becoming a hope for Catholicism, being a source of vocations and formed, committed laymen.

Q: What are the main causes of this exit?

Pastorino: Although there are many causes of an external order to the historical Churches, the majority of them of a sociocultural order, I think that no less important a reason is what John Paul II called the “pastoral vacuum,” namely, the lack of committed spiritual care and solid doctrinal formation on the part of the Catholic Church, and also of the other historical Protestant churches which are declining in faithful in the same way.

After the Second Vatican Council, in our context ordinary pastoral activity favored personal processes and the social dimension, neglecting two fundamental aspects of religious experience: the spiritual and doctrinal dimensions, thus leaving a vacuum for “alternative” answers to proliferate.

This neglect, together with superficial evangelization which does not stress Christian identity very much, has ended up by diluting Catholic identity, reducing it to moral commitments or sacramental practices.

While the Church amalgamated itself with modernity and its faith in reason and progress, the modern world with all its myths and secular gods was falling.

Then the men and women of today, tired of modern institutions, bureaucracy, reason, and the exhaustion of so many utopian projects, are in search of experience, mysticism, an emotional spirituality; they are not interested in the “reasons” but in the “living,” they do not care for “doctrine,” but for “results.”

Pastoral care was rationalized to the point of exhaustion; it was too modernized and bureaucratized. And postmodern man, desirous of encountering God, met only with ideologies, meetings, and excessive planning within his churches — not inner experience. And this has led him to seek in other wells the “living water” which he doesn’t find there, where it should abound.

In this regard, John Paul II said in 1992: “It can also happen that the faithful do not find in pastoral agents that strong sense of God that they should transmit in their lives.”

This is why I think that the crisis of faith and spirituality in many sectors of the historical churches is one of the main causes of this massive exodus to the sects — or to indifference — but not to irreligion.

Eighty-one percent of Uruguayans say they believe in God; however, for the most part they believe “in their way” and the most common way of living the faith is a la carte, or in Peter Berger’s words: “to believe without belonging.” As I mentioned, only an infinitesimal percentage is found in traditional religious confessions.

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