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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?
Sheep stealing or fluid faith? » Today, nearly 300 million people, or 72 percent of Latin America’s population, is Catholic, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Pentecostalism claims about 75 million adherents in South America, most of whom were former Catholics. Both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventist Churches are growing rapidly.
The LDS Church, too, sees Latin America as its success story. From 1990 to 2012, the total LDS population in South America rose dramatically from fewer than 1 million to more than 3.5 million. In the early 1990s, there were only four LDS temples on the whole continent; now there are 41 — including the second Argentine temple now being built — nearly a fourth of the church’s total number. It sends nearly half of its missionary force to proselytize in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking nations.
Membership figures don’t tell the whole story, of course, as there is a large discrepancy between the numbers on the rolls and those in the pews every week.
The real figure is about 25 percent of the total, a ratio that has held steady for years despite many attempts to improve it, says LDS demographer Matt Martinich, who compiles and analyzes LDS data for the website cumorah.com. "A lot of converts who are found by missionaries, never socially integrate into a congregation and so go inactive."
A better figure is LDS Church congregational growth, which requires a certain number of lay members for a new ward or branch to be created, says Martinich of Colorado Springs, Colo. "We haven’t seen real congregational growth over the past decade."
Still, Mormon leaders remain hopeful — a large number of new LDS missions created earlier this month were in Latin America.
The problem with religious data in Latin America, says Utah Valley University anthropologist David Knowlton, is that it is built on Protestant assumptions about membership, namely that to be counted, one must attend services regularly. But that’s not the way Catholics view their faith,
Knowlton, who is an expert in Latin American cultures and faiths, sees two kinds of Catholicism — congregational and popular.
The former type is characterized by Mass attendance and participation in confession, while the latter involves rites of passage such as baptism, First Communion, weddings and funerals, he says. Catholicism is still extremely strong as part of Latin American life, especially at times of crisis, even if many people don’t participate fully in its rituals and practices.
These kinds of Catholics may still pray to Mary or celebrate some of the festivals, even after they become Pentecostal or Mormon, he says. "People are exploring a whole range of religious possibilities and these are too complex to explain with simple numbers."
Henri Gooren, an international religion expert at Oakland University in Michigan, is skeptical about the new pope’s ability to alter the religious calculus in Latin America.
"The pope will only energize [highly] committed Catholics, [who] are unlikely to drop out and become Pentecostals or Mormons anyway," Gooren said in an email. "I doubt if the pope will have much of an impact on nominal Catholics; the kind of cultural Catholics who were never much socialized into [orthodox] Catholicism in the first place."
Even Utah Bishop John Wester doesn’t see the new pope as being a religious tipping point.
While selecting a humble Argentine pope may initially electrify the church, providing a "big bump," Wester said Friday, in the long term, religious folk "will continue to do what they want."
Ultimately, the return of Catholics will depend a lot, he says, on whether people see the church as "a welcoming and hospitable place where people can come and connect with the Lord and each other."
It will take more than a pope to make that happen.
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