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John Allen on Latin American Catholicism & Pope Benedict's Visit PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Friday, 04 May 2007 08:44
John Allen has a most interesting column this morning light of the series of posts on Independent Christianity and Pope Benedict's upcoming visit to Brazil. It's all illuminating but here are the passages that are especially pertinent to our discussions here on ID.

John Allen:

Pentecostals: While Latin America is home to almost half the world’s Catholic population, in some sense the Catholic church is under siege. Belgian Passionist Fr. Franz Damen, a veteran staffer for the Bolivian bishops, found that the number of conversions from Catholicism to Protestantism in Latin America during the 20th century actually surpassed the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 16th century. In 1930, Protestants amounted to one percent of the Latin American population; today it’s between 12 and 15 percent. A study commissioned in the late 1990s by CELAM found that 8,000 Latin Americans were deserting the Catholic church for Evangelical Protestantism every day. Some religious demographers believe that Guatemala has already become the first majority Protestant nation in Latin America.

Theories to explain the attrition abound. Some conservatives blame liberation theology for politicizing the church, while liberals fault the hierarchical and clerical nature of Catholicism. Conspiracy theorists point to heavy funding and logistical support from Pentecostal and Evangelical churches in the United States. In the end, however, most observers seem to believe that the key factor is the failure of the Catholic church to deliver even rudimentary pastoral care to a large segment of the population, leaving millions of nominal Catholics without any real catechesis, spiritual formation or regular access to the sacraments. That created a vacuum which the Pentecostals have exploited. In turn, this failure is attributed to a severe priest shortage. (That point will be addressed below.)

One response to the Pentecostal challenge has been the growth of the Catholic charismatic movement, an enthusiastic and spontaneous form of spirituality focused on the gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, and inspired preaching. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 62 percent of Guatemalan Catholics call themselves “charismatic,” the highest percentage in the world, followed closely by Brazil at 57 percent. Overall, charismatics now account for roughly half the entire Catholic population of Latin America.

Some observers believe the growth of the charismatic movement is helping to stem the Pentecostal tide, because it offers most of what Latin Americans find attractive about Pentecostalism within the Catholic church. Others, however, worry that it too closely mimics the Pentecostals, especially when it comes to the “prosperity gospel” and an emphasis on immediate emotional gratification.

In that light, two challenges await Benedict XVI.

First, can this notoriously cerebral pope, famous for generating more light than heat, wear enough of his heart on his sleeve to win over audiences steeped in the charismatic style? Second, can Benedict affirm the enthusiasm and deep faith of the charismatics, while at the same time ensuring that they remain rooted in the broader pastoral concerns of the church?

Priests: By universal consensus, the shortage of priests throughout most of Latin American has created enormous holes in the church’s network of pastoral care. While the priest-to-person ratio in the United States is 1 to 1,229, in Brazil it’s 1 to 8,604, and in Honduras it’s 1 to 14,462. The experience of Fr. Ricardo Flores, pastor of San Jose Obrero parish in a residential neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is typical: he’s responsible for his large urban parish, as well as 14 other churches in the area that have no resident priest; he’s a professor at the seminary, teaching a full load of four courses each semester for around 60 students; and he’s the ecclesiastical moderator for two large national movements.

Though there are upticks in vocations in some countries, there’s no foreseeable future in which there will be a sufficient number of priests to staff all the parishes in Latin America, to say nothing of comforting the sick, teaching the young, and conducting the other ministries of the church. For many Latin American Catholic leaders, the answer is obvious: lay empowerment.

“Our current pastoral model is exhausted,” said Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. He favors an aggressive program of forming laity to fill the gaps, learning from the success of the Pentecostals in fielding small armies of lay preachers and evangelists.

Given that liberation theology also promoted lay empowerment, however, in a way that critics saw as forming a kind of “church from below” in opposition to the hierarchy, other Latin Americans remain wary. In that light, if Benedict XVI chooses to speak positively about lay collaboration, it could have decisive significance for which way CELAM chooses to move.


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