SANTIAGO, Chile — When evangelical sociologist David Stoll published his book Is Latin America Turning Protestant? in 1990, the title summarized what Latin American bishops thought was the region's greatest challenge: the unstoppable growth of Protestant sects.

More than a decade later, figures show the number of Catholics in the region is, in fact, slowly declining — not to due to conversions to Protestant denominations but to plain secularization.

And Latin American bishops are taking notice.

“The challenge to Chile's Catholicism is not posed by evangelicals, as it was believed until quite recently, but by a fast process of secularization occurring mainly in the cities,” said Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, archbishop of Santiago and president of the Chilean bishops’ conference. “Lapsed Catholics in Chile have become agnostics or nonbelievers, rather than evangelicals.”

In early April the Chilean government released the official figures of the latest census, which found 70% of the population is Catholic — 7% less than 10 years ago — while the number of evangelicals grew approximately 3%.

In fact, the “Latin American Barometer,” a yearly report that polls social tendencies in 23 Latin American countries, had consistently shown during the last five years that, although Catholicism is still the largest Latin American denomination (approximately 73% are Catholic), more and more people are becoming nonbelievers.

This trend toward secularization in cities led more than 30 Latin American bishops, including eight cardinals, to convene a conference in March to discuss the challenges of pastoring in large cities.

The conference, titled “New Evangelization in Mega-Cities,” analyzed both pastoral experiences and statistical data that show, in the ever-growing Latin American cities, it is becoming more and more difficult to keep a strong Catholic foothold.

Some bishops point to the unprecedented growth of cities as the problem.

“Unfortunately, the tendency in Latin America is still [toward] an uncontrolled, unpredictable growth of large cities at the cost of rural areas and small towns,” said Bishop Jorge Jiménez Carbajal, president of the Latin American Bishops’ Council. “The future of the New Evangelization in Latin America, thus, is closely tied to the cities.”

The differences between city and rural living can account for some of the changes in the way people follow their faith.

“The economy, the kind of relationships established by urban employment, the physical distance, the influence of media and technology, the urban stress and many other factors are really challenging the mostly rural structure of the traditional parish,” said Alberto Methol Ferré, a Uruguayan Catholic intellectual who has been an adviser to the bishops’ conference.

“In our largest cities, most of the parishes are unsuccessfully struggling to keep a personal relationship that is almost impossible when parishes are too large and priests are too few,” he said. “Don't get me wrong — parishes are vital to the Church, but in large cities, they definitively need ‘re-engineering.’”

“Mega-cities have become a pastoral phenomenon of their own,” said Bishop Carlos Aiguiar, the bishops’ council's secretary-general. “Call it Rio de Janeiro, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Lima or Mexico City — you will be facing mostly the same challenges, the same consequences of globalization, for which we are not very well prepared.”

Some say the best way to promote the New Evangelization in large cities would be to implement smaller, simpler administrations. Many propose the division of the largest archdioceses.

According to Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, archbishop of Lima, Perú, the decision to divide the archdiocese taken by his predecessor, the late Cardinal Augusto Vargas Alzamora, was “not only timely, but pastorally wise.”

“‘A mass of people can hardly become a flock,’” said Cardinal Cipriani, quoting his predecessor.

In fact, several dioceses have gone down the path of territorial division: MedellÌn, the second-largest city in Colombia, and Sao Paulo in Brazil are some of them.

The next “mega-dioceses” in line for division are Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and especially Mexico City — probably the world's largest city, with 21 million inhabitants, and also the most heavily populated archdiocese, with more than 17 million Catholics.

But other experts believe the mere division of territories is not a solution.

“The figures [of the Chilean census] just make evident the need for a missionary zeal that should energize all Catholics, not only priests and religious,” said Chilean Cardinal Errázuriz. “Catholics from all walks of life — professionals, the youth, the families — need to go out, door to door, establishing personal connections, lively communities, proclaiming the Gospel in our cities.”

Lay Movements

According to Cardinal Errázuriz, the new lay movements in the Church are a “great source of hope in this regard, [but] we need to strengthen this trend, which is rather new.”

Other Latin American bishops join the Chilean cardinal in the belief that lay movements can provide the kind of relationships many Catholics need in large cities — some 50 representatives from different lay organizations were invited to the conference in Santiago.

“It is more and more evident that most of the lay movements do not compete with parishes but, on the contrary, help them in the process of adapting to new urban realities,” said Father JoaquÌn Alliende Lucco, president of the Cultural Commission of the Archdiocese of Santiago.

Father Alliende is a member of Schoenstatt, a movement founded in Germany and widely popular in Chile.

“Movements ... are just a way in which the Holy Spirit, through His Church, is responding to the new challenges posed by today's cultural and social trends,” said Luis Fernando Figari, a Peruvian lay founder of the Movimiento de Vida Cristiana (Christian Life Movement), a group rapidly growing in Latin America and Europe that has also been established in Denver and Miami.

“Obviously, there are many alternatives that have to be combined to respond to the challenge of an increasingly secularized lifestyle in Latin America,” Cardinal Errázuriz said. “The people of God, from the bishop to every single committed lay person, are sharing the responsibility of giving a positive response to the question posed by Our Lord: ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’”

Alejandro Bermúdez is based in Lima, Perú.