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16/03/2013 | A Catholic Comeback for Latin America?

NYTimes Staff

The world is rapidly reading up on Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the 76-year-old Argentine who is now Pope Francis. What can we deduce from his age, his choice of a papal name, his background as a Jesuit? Most of all: What does it mean that the cardinals chose a candidate from outside Europe? It might signal, in part, that the church is nervous about its thriving rival in Latin America: evangelical Protestantism.


What can the Catholic Church do to compete with the appeal of evangelicalism in Latin America?

Catholicism’s Secret Weapon

Virginia Garrard-Burnett, co-editor of the forthcoming "Cambridge History of Religion in Latin America" and the author of "Protestantism in Guatemala: Living in the New Jerusalem," is a professor of history and religious studies at the University of Texas, Austin.

The choice of a Latin American as pope — even one who is, like many fellow Argentines, of direct Italian descent — is a wise one for the Catholic Church. Although a third of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America, the church has been steadily hemorrhaging members to evangelical Protestantism, especially Pentecostalism, for the past three decades. The election of the new pope signals as clearly as white smoke that the church takes this threat seriously, as well it should.

The Catholic population of several Latin American countries — including Brazil, the largest Catholic nation in the world — has slipped by more than 20 percent in the past 13 years alone. We can acknowledge both that the new pope was selected through prayerful deliberation and that his election may well prove to be a powerful membership retention strategy for the church in its besieged heartland.

What else can the Catholic Church do to compete with the appeal of Pentecostalism in Latin America? The church has several options. The first is to try to beat the Pentecostals at their own game, through encouraging the growth of “Catholic charismatic renewal,” a type of Catholicism popular at the grass roots that in some ways mimics Pentecostalism in its exuberant worship services, speaking in tongues and other lively displays of the “gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

A second option takes the inverse approach. This is to revitalize the Catholic “brand” by encouraging the revival of traditional pieties that had long been part of the Catholic repertoire but which fell by the way after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s: the novenas, adoration of images, pilgrimages and other popular devotions long beloved by everyday Catholics.

A third option would be for the Vatican to advance neotraditional Catholic organizations, like Opus Dei — a rigorous and secretive Catholic entity built around strict discipline that is growing rapidly in many parts of the world, including Latin America.

The problem with all of these options, however, is that they have been tried and found lacking. The church actively promoted them all during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Yet none has reversed or ended the flow of Latin American Catholics toward evangelical Protestant denominations or, increasingly, into the category of “nones” — people who claim no religious affiliation at all.

There are other areas, however, where the Catholic Church has the upper hand. The first of these is its strong voice in advocating for the dignity for the poor. Where many neo-Pentecostal churches in particular advocate a “prosperity theology” that promises wealth for believers, the Catholic Church welcomes home the many for whom those promises fall short.

Last but not least is the Catholic Church’s best weapon: the Virgin Mary. When Latin Americans return to the Catholic Church, as some do after having left it for an evangelical church, the overwhelming reason they give is their continuing affection for the Virgin, who has no prominence in evangelical Christianity. In Pope Francis, a strong advocate for the poor and an ardent devotee of the Virgin, the Catholic Church may rediscover its competitive advantage.


Strategic Errors the Church Could Repair

Frances Hagopian, the editor of "Religious Pluralism, Democracy, and the Catholic Church in Latin America," is the Jorge Paulo Lemann visiting associate professor for Brazil studies in the Department of Government at Harvard University.

A Latin American pope will excite the faithful, but will not be enough to win back a skeptical populace. Latin America today is more religiously plural and secular than at any time in the past five centuries. Accepting a smaller church as the price of doctrinal purity would be anathema in Latin America, where the Catholic Church still sees itself as defending Latin American soil for the one true faith.

However, the church faces a dilemma as it strives for popularity: appeals to win back the poor could drive away the upper classes, especially the well-educated, urban middle class, whose numbers are growing and whose support the church needs. Similarly, restoring ritual and emphasizing priestly authority have reversed the slide in new vocations, but not in church attendance.

Decades of strategic decisions by the church put it into this predicament. Cozy alliances with government authorities led the church to depend ever more on keeping friends in high places. Perhaps nowhere did the church depend on such allies, even in the face of horrific state violence, more so than in Pope Francis’s Argentina. Though the modest new pontiff is undoubtedly personally committed to the poor, the Argentine episcopate has lately championed social justice only after clashing with the current governments over moral issues.

Even where the church bravely opposed military repression, as in Brazil, the conservative turn of recent years has jettisoned some of its most active and committed laity, formed in the crucible of the liberationist church whose most important contribution was not its economic doctrines – which always baffled the poor – but its small religious communities that built solidarity, trust and participatory skills. Without these lay leaders, the church is today less plural than and less representative of the broader society, and therefore less capable of leading, defending and comforting its people.

The Latin America Catholic Church today needs to recognize it cannot impose Catholic doctrine onto plural societies through alliances with state officials, but it should strive to win doctrinal compliance through the moral persuasion of the faithful. That is how the church works in liberal democracies worldwide. The real issue is not for how long the celibate priesthood survives but whether the church can embed itself in civil society, allow a plurality of voices to be heard, and humbly listen to the faithful who have become more fully aware of their rights and responsibilities.

Not Just a Latin American Problem

 Juan Carlos Aguirre is the executive director of Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders and a member of the Advisory Council to the Institute of Mexicans Abroad.

With the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, the Catholic Church in the United States has an extraordinary opportunity to energize its flock. Much of the increase of Catholics in the U.S. is because of immigration from Latin America, where other Christian faiths and secularism are taking hold and where some are abandoning organized religion. The church has many challenges, but electing Pope Francis has given hope to many who see a sign that the church hierarchy is finally taking into account the importance of Latin America.

n the U.S., the Catholic Church is facing many of the same challenges as in Latin America. Evangelicalism and secularism are on the rise, at the expense of Catholicism. A big challenge here is the shortage of priests. One of the advantages in evangelicalism is that any of its members can become a pastor or minister, which is not the case in the Catholic Church. Evangelical churches are on a constant mission to bring new members to their ranks and any member can be designated to spread the good news; not so for Catholics, or at least that’s not how many Catholics see their role.

Perhaps if Catholics were more proactive, the trend could change. In order for that to happen there needs to be more prominence for the laity. I doubt I will see married priests anytime soon, but celibacy, in my view, should be optional for diocesan priests. Eliminating this barrier could increase the number of vocations, and perhaps contribute to a larger role for the laity.

Organized religion in general is being challenged, and Catholicism especially. But finally having a pope from outside Europe is refreshing; we can see that the church hierarchy is truly universal. The papacy of Pope Francis will have a great impact on Latin American Catholics in the U.S. if the Catholic Church takes advantage of this historic moment.

Evangelicals Are More Responsive

 Wilfredo De Jesús is the senior pastor of New Life Covenant Ministries in Chicago.

Although I am excited that the new pope is Latino, the reality is that it does not change the dynamic of how the Catholic Church struggles with helping its membership develop a transformational relationship with Christ – in Latin America, in the U.S. or elsewhere.

How the Catholic Church is preaching and teaching the message of the Gospel is not resonating with the people, including the Latino community in the U.S., and especially second- and third-generation Latinos here. People today are not seeking a traditional style of worship or a distant God; they are seeking a more real God, a God who restores and redeems.

Evangelical churches' message of the Gospel is sacred and consistent, but our method of fishing for people changes. My church in Chicago is not confined to a rigid bureaucracy; we operate through more than 120 ministries, allowing us to meet people wherever they are in life – in their brokenness.

As Christians we can’t put God in a box, and we can't wait for people to look for God there. The Catholic Church must follow the example of the first pope, Peter, and step out of the boat and into the storms of people’s lives.

A Burden of History

 Daniel H. Levine, author of "Politics, Religion and Society in Latin America" and "Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism," is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Michigan.

Latin America accounts for almost 40 percent of the world’s Catholic population, and the Catholic Church has long been dominant in the region. But in recent decades, it has barely kept pace with population growth, while “evangelicos” – Protestants, including Pentecostals – have expanded rapidly, making the region now religiously pluralist for the first time in its history. The Catholic Church remains the largest denomination, but it is now one among many, and faces stiff competition everywhere for resources, followers and access to the public sphere.

Latin America’s Catholic leaders have been worrying in public for years about how best to compete effectively with surging Protestant growth. The predominant response has been to insist on order, unity and the “reconquest of public space.” Is this strategy likely to work? Is the election of Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, likely to help the church cope with the challenges it faces and emerge stronger? There are grounds for doubt.

One way to understand the growth of new churches in Latin America is that they work hard to attract and hold people with experience of change, often newly urban and steeped in the television-soaked cultures of the region. These churches work well with new media, have local leaders close to the community, and provide expanded roles for women and minority groups. They are dynamic, adapting easily to new settings, and they are transparent.

Adaptability, openness, inclusion of women and transparency are not easily associated with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, especially the Argentine hierarchy, which is one of the most conservative in the region. In addition to the general run of crises and scandals affecting the Catholic Church, Argentina’s hierarchy and clergy bear a special burden of close ties with the last military dictatorship. Some clergy were directly complicit in crimes like kidnapping children and torturing and killing priests, sisters and lay workers. Few in the hierarchy, including Bergoglio as a bishop at the time, did much to challenge the regime. This is a lot to overcome.

The church has not always been so hierarchical. There are other traditions, including those recovered at the Second Vatican Council, which would respond to the challenge of change not with a defensive stress on order and unity, but rather by conscious provision for diversity within the church, greater inclusivity, openness and transparency. Given his record, Pope Francis seems more likely to continue the policy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who emphasized strengthening and defending the institution and cracking down on dissent, rather than embracing the “aggiornamento” called for by Pope John XXIII, who wanted to open the windows and let fresh air into the church.

Rethink the Top-Down Priesthood

David Stoll is the author of "Is Latin America Turning Protestant?" and "El Norte or Bust!: How Migration Fever and Microcredit Produced a Financial Crash in a Latin American Town."

The single greatest advantage of evangelical churches over the Catholic Church is their decentralized leadership. Roman Catholicism and its eastern rite sisters are the oldest bureaucracies in the world. Christ's vicar on earth appoints bishops who appoint priests, in a hierarchy of appointment that extends downward to every parish.

In contrast, evangelical and Pentecostal churches recruit their leaders from below, based above all on their ability to attract a crowd. In a Guatemalan town I know, the most important training ground for first-generation evangelical pastors in the 1980s was the Catholic Church. Half these men were former Catholic catechists who bolted to a wider Protestant canopy.

Some wings of the Catholic clergy have been struggling to empower lay leaders for many years. But they still bump into clerical ceilings. So why not bestow the Roman collar on a wider range of Catholics? As it stands, celibacy and lengthy seminary training are obstacles to potential priests, and once ordained a priest is removed from his own milieu and turned into a foreign appointee elsewhere. Why not extend clerical prerogatives to anyone who demonstrates the power of the Holy Spirit and makes a serious commitment to theological education? This should include women and married people.

A more open approach to leadership, from the parish on up, would end the chronic shortage of clergy and bolster the Catholic Church's most important competitive advantage: its ability to provide moral authority for an entire society. By learning from Pentecostal forms of worship and congregational structures, Catholic charismatics have already shown that they can compete with Protestantism. So can the rest of the Catholic Church – by acknowledging the equality of women and the right of clergy to be married.

NY Times (Estados Unidos)


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