The latest Latinobarómetro public opinions survey confirmed that the Catholic Church is continuing to lose millions of baptized faithful, most of whom are moving towards evangelical Protestantism, especially its Pentecostal wing. Catholicism does not exceed 50% of the population in Uruguay and in all of Central America, with the exception of Costa Rica. It will be the same this year in Brazil.
The Spanish and Portuguese-speaking American continent is ceasing to be predominantly Catholic. Neither documents, nor synods, nor a thousand-and-one conditional pastoral plans seem to be able to prevent millions of baptized Catholics from joining Protestant church communities, especially those of Pentecostal denominations.
In 1995, 80% of the Latin American population identified as Catholic. By 2018, they are only 59%. The percentage of evangelical Protestants now exceeds 20%, and 65% of them are Pentecostals.
“The Vatican is losing the largest Catholic country in the world: it's a huge, irreversible loss,” said 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 make up less than 50 percent of all Brazilians by early July.
The reasons for this development are complex: political changes that have reduced the advantages of the Catholic Church over other religions, and increasing secularization. During the pandemic, evangelical churches have been particularly effective in using social media to keep their followers engaged.
Critics inside and outside the Catholic Church also point to its failure to meet the religious and social demands of many people, especially the poor. Latin Americans describe the Catholic Church as disconnected from the daily life of its faithful.
The rise of liberation theology that saw clerics insist on the social justice mission of the Church, often drawing on Marxist ideas, failed to counter the appeal of Protestant religions.
This decline in the influence of Catholicism has considerable social and political consequences. In countries like Brazil, conversions to Pentecostalism have boosted socially conservative views from the favelas [a type of slum, ed.] to the halls of Congress, helping propel right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro to power in 2018.
While President Bolsonaro still identifies as Catholic, he was baptized by a Pentecostal pastor in the Jordan River in 2016 as part of the preparation for his presidential campaign. Pentecostals and Evangelicals are well represented in his cabinet and constitute a third of the Brazilian congress. His wife attends an evangelical church.
A lack of spirituality and missionary spirit
According to the Wall Street Journal, the main reasons why so many Catholics leave the Church for other church communities are, according to sociological studies, that they find “a greater personal connection with God” (81%) and more help for their members (60%) in the other communities.
In addition, Evangelical worshipers are much more observant than Catholics, with the majority of Protestants (65%) attending worship more than once a week, while only 16% of Catholics do the same with their Mass attendance.
Fr. Martín Lasarte, a Uruguayan priest present at the synod on the Amazon, believes that the liberation theology movement has often placed political and social issues above religious experience. In this case, “it lacks the existential sense of the joy of living the Gospel, this personal encounter is what so many Pentecostal churches give to the person,” he said.
Some Catholic movements in Latin America have sought to win back the lost sheep, either by imitating Pentecostalism or through a certain traditionalism.
Since the 1970s, charismatic Catholicism has tried to keep many Catholics attracted to Pentecostalism in the ranks, with faith healing and speaking in tongues, combined with Catholic practices, including devotion to the Virgin Mary. In 2020, 22.8% of Catholics in Latin America were charismatic, according to the World Christian Database.
Militant conservative Catholicism – more recent – emphasizes apologetics. One of the main leaders is Fr. Paulo Ricardo, who has 1.5 million followers on Facebook. He has condemned liberation theology as heresy and enthusiastically supported elements of Mr. Bolsonaro program, such as the relaxation of gun ownership.
Tithes and profits from a business empire run by the Evangelical Churches of Brazil – which includes television networks and cruise lines – have given the movement financial muscle that allows it to expand into poor suburbs and fund political campaigns.
In downtown São Paulo, a $300 million replica of the Temple of Solomon bears witness to the meteoric rise of evangelicalism. Built in 2014 by one of the largest and wealthiest neo-Pentecostal churches in Brazil, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the temple can accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers.
Many Pentecostals preach a “prosperity theology” – better known in the United States as the Prosperity Gospel – according to which the grace of God is reflected in material wealth. At the Temple of Solomon in São Paulo, men in suits regularly line up at the altar with bags and credit card readers to receive offerings, while the pastor promises his followers that they will get rich if they make generous donations.
Unfortunately, although he made his first international trip to Brazil in July 2013, and has since visited nine other countries in the region, Pope Francis is clearly not leading a crusade to reclaim the region for Catholicism.