The rise of Protestantism in Latin America


(Catholic Herald/Gavin Ashenden) “The Vatican is losing the largest Catholic country in the world: it is a huge and irreversible loss,” says José Eustáquio Diniz Alves, a renowned Brazilian demographer and former professor at the national statistics agency. At the current rate, he estimates that Catholics will represent less than 50% of Brazilians next year.

According to a new Pew Research Center survey on religion in 18 Ibero-American countries and Puerto Rico, tens of millions of Latin Americans have left the Roman Catholic Church in recent decades and embraced Pentecostal Christianity. In fact, almost one in five Ibero-Americans now describes himself as a Protestant.

The broader context is that for most of the 20th century, from 1900 to the 1960s, at least 90% of the population of Latin America was Catholic. In the last fifty years, that number has dropped to 69% and continues to decline.

This can be interpreted in many ways. Sociologists can tell us that Pentecostal Protestantism better reflects the culture of the local indigenous community. Theologians might point out that the entire emphasis on liberation theology was a failure, and that it was based on a category error and a theological misunderstanding.

Father Martín Lasarte, a Uruguayan priest present at the synod on the Amazon, believes that the Liberation Theology movement has often put political and social issues before religious experience. “He set out to try to get political answers from people hungry for an experience of God. He replaced spirituality with Marxism. It lacks the existential sense of the joy of living the Gospel, that personal encounter that so many Pentecostal churches give to the person”, he points out.

The survey asked former Catholics who converted to Protestantism for the reasons that led them to do so. Of the eight possible explanations, the most cited was that they were seeking a more intimate experience or relationship with God. Many former Catholics also said they became Protestants because they wanted a different style of worship or a church that was more helpful to its members.

What is especially tragic in this situation is that the Catholic Church has always been revived, restored and reinvigorated by the Holy Spirit, who works through individual saints in each generation. That a Church whose existence and vigor depend entirely on the Holy Spirit has been unable to provide an experience of participation in the life of the Spirit is a mixture of tragedy and perhaps clerical ineptitude.

It is not that the Church is not prepared for the dimension of the Spirit. Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) was an Italian monk turned prophetic mystic. He was famous for predicting that there would be three Church ages. The first was from the Father, the second from the Son, and the third from the Holy Spirit. He thought that the age of the Spirit would come in his generation. Like so many other prophetic figures, he may have been right on the analysis, but not on the timing. It’s not that no age is without the Holy Spirit, but the explosion of Pentecostalism in the early 20th century may indicate a special presence.

Philip Jenkins, the well-known Church historian, also suggests that history could be classified in this way, but with a historian’s hindsight he suggests that the Father’s era could be from the early Church to the Reformation; that of the Son, from the 16th to the 20th century; and that of the Spirit, the dividing line marked by the outbreak of Pentecostalism in 1905. It is estimated that, since then, a quarter of the almost two billion Christians are or have become Pentecostals or Charismatics.

The Counter-Reformation responded to the crisis of the Reformation with a creative and redemptive response. How has the Catholic Church responded to this outburst of global restorative spirituality?

Pope Paul VI officially welcomed the Catholic Charismatic Movement as an integral part of the Catholic Church in 1975. Cardinal Suenens oversaw the next stage of its growth through the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Service (ICCRS). It is not a small movement. There are an estimated 160 million people involved in the Church. Saint John Paul II offered a theological statement and analysis, saying in March 1992:

“At this moment in the history of the Church, the Charismatic Renewal can play a significant role in promoting the much-needed defense of the Christian life in societies where secularism and materialism have weakened the ability of many people to respond to the Spirit. and discern God’s loving call. Your contribution to the re-evangelization of society will be made, first of all, through personal testimony of the indwelling of the Spirit and manifesting his presence through works of holiness and solidarity.”

During Pentecost 1998, the Pope set out to build a bridge between the coherence of the structure and the pneumatic dynamism:

«The institutional and the charismatic are, so to speak, coessential in the constitution of the Church. They contribute, although in a different way, to the life, renewal and sanctification of the People of God”. It is from this providential rediscovery of the charismatic dimension of the Church that, before and after the Council, a remarkable pattern of growth has been established for ecclesial movements and new communities.

Why has this become a crisis in the Catholic Church, and in South America in particular?

Perhaps in the same way that generals are always fighting the latest war (rather than the current one) there is a propensity in the Church to misinterpret the triangulation that links what God has done in the past, integrating it with what he is doing in the present. the present, and most difficult of all, what will be asked of the Church tomorrow. Living in the past is too easy and comfortable for an institution. The spirit of entropy is never the same as the Spirit that gives life.

But just as Catholics gave way to Marxism a generation ago with the blind alley of Liberation Theology, which totally ignored the appetites and needs of those it addressed, the same mistake is being made. perpetuated by the cultural Marxists of this generation. They have ingested the spirit of the times and are convinced that further integration with secularist categories – what we could almost call “Liberation Sexuality” – are what the Church needs to revive.

The way in which Pentecostalism is legitimately and successfully meeting the needs of this generation to access a vivid and transformative experience of God must be recognized and reciprocated.

Why should the Church limit itself to the experience of absolution in the confessional when, as St. Paul describes, the Acts of the Apostles and the lives of the saints suggest that there is much more to be received at the hands of the Holy Spirit?

How can a Church that recognizes the power of the Spirit to miraculously change the elements of the Mass look away from the Holy Spirit’s ability to change the human heart and equip the Body of Christ with the spiritual gifts to provide the spiritual strength that transforms the society?

Rather than seeing the rise of Pentecostalism as a challenge or threat to the Church (although it clearly is), it could be seen as an example of how the Catholic Church can do better. An analogy that has been made is that the institution of the Catholic Church is an exquisitely developed engine that requires and can make the most of higher octane fuel. The Holy Spirit and the Catholic Church are made for each other, unless the Church opts for politics, power and sexuality as an alternative to the pneumatology of spiritual renewal.

Just as the Church responded with a Counter-Reformation when the age of the Son became a historical reality, it might consider responding to what, at least in terms of spirituality, has become the age of the Holy Spirit.

In this tragic hemorrhage of Catholics from the Church, it has the mission of recovering its lost people with a counter-pentecostalism. A movement is needed in the Church that reintegrates the life and experience of the Holy Spirit in the sacramental and supernatural Church.

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The rise of Protestantism in Latin America