The race for Latin American souls intensified this week with the naming of a new Catholic team captain: Pope Francis.
By choosing an Argentinian-born pontiff, the Catholic Church may be hoping to win back millions of its South American adherents who have turned to Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, Mormonism and other faiths for spiritual solace.
Benedict XVI, now pope emeritus, had already named 2013 "The Year of Evangelism." And his successor, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, is reportedly even more determined to seek out the church’s lost sheep.
No matter how exciting it is for Latino Catholics to have one of their own as pope, though, Francis’ election "won’t completely wipe out Pentecostal advances," says Timothy Matovina, an expert on Latin American Catholicism at Notre Dame. "One man will not likely change the trends of a whole continent."
After all, since the 1980s, Evangelical and Pentecostal movements have increasingly eroded the historic church’s numbers, drawing millions of former Catholics into their churches. In the pope’s home country of Argentina, for example, only 20 percent of Catholics regularly practice the faith, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
A steady stream of Mormon missionaries also has found Latin America to be prime territory for converts to the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have grown even faster.
The new pope’s greatest impact, Matovina says, will be "to inspire Catholics on the ground to do their part to evangelize in the name of the Catholic faith."
Latino Catholics, the Notre Dame scholar says, "will be inspired and animated."
And they will be thrilled and touched the first time their Holy Father speaks in his native tongue, Spanish.
Even for an academic such as Matovina, he says, it will be "an emotional moment."
But will it change anything?
A dominant faith » Catholics have owned the religious territory south of the border since the Spanish arrived in the hemisphere a few hundred years ago. The explorers brought their faith with them from the old world, largely eliminated the Indians’ religion and never mentioned the Protestant Reformation. As a result, Catholicism became synonymous with South American religion, entwined with the culture and government.
By the 1980s, however, other proselytizing churches arrived, offering smaller settings for worship and freer forms of worship. Pentecostal preachers set up churches in homes, or small store fronts, providing lively sermons and music. New religious movements including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists also scoured the countries, finding new members among dissatisfied Catholics. By some estimates, Catholicism has lost up to 20 percent of its members since this proselytizing onslaught.
One of the many attractions of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, Matovina says, is that they have more "indigenous leadership."
Their ministers do not have the lengthy, rigorous training of a Catholic priest, he says, "but that is often an advantage. They are close to the people in education and social rank."
What the influx of these other religions has done to Catholicism goes beyond numbers: It has introduced the idea of choice.
Years ago, Matovino worked in a rural Mexican village that was totally Catholic. It was the only faith the people knew. When various Protestant and other Christian faiths arrived, they presented Latin Americans with the notion, he says, that "religion is something you choose, rather than something you inherited."
Once that happens, "secularization is soon to follow," he says. "It is not because people talked themselves into an atheist corner like they do in the U.S., but because they’ve changed several times so eventually decide just to go their own route."
The marketplace of religions came to Latin America during a "revolutionary transformation of demography from rural to urban living," Matovino says. "It was a time of tremendous upheaval."
Pentecostalism in particular appealed to people who were detached from their ancestral home and trying to make it in the teeming, impersonal cities. Other new faiths also provided support and intimacy.
The small churches offered, he says, "hope to displaced poor in a time of despair."
But do the numbers of Catholics leaving and joining other faiths add up?Next Page >
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