MEXICO CITY— Not many years ago observers of the Latin America predicted that most of South and Central America would become Protestant or highly secularized by the first years of the third millennium.
They reasoned this way: Social and political upheavals of recent decades, the arguments over liberation theology and the aggressive tactics of evangelical Protestant denominations would greatly diminish the numbers of Latin Americans who call themselves Catholic.
But things haven't turned out quite that bad. The Millennium Poll on Religion, a massive survey carried out throughout Latin America by a pool of leading pollsters from various countries, has found that the Church remains a resilient — and majority — force in the religious identity of Latin Americans.
The survey's results, released in late March, reveal hard religious data and point to important trends in 10 Latin American countries, from Mexico to Argentina, with Brazil the only major country not included.
According to the survey, some 82% of Latin Americans claim to be Catholic.
Mexico is the most Catholic country in the continent, with 88% of those surveyed claiming Church membership. The figures are similar in most of the remaining countries: 86% in Paraguay, 83% in Ecuador, 82% in Argentina, and 81% in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Uruguay is the least Catholic country in Latin America with 62% of those surveyed in the Church fold.
Said Manuel Torrado, Spanish-born director of Datum International, one of the agencies responsible for the survey, “Latin America's Catholicism shows a significant degree of consistence, especially as regards religious convictions.”
The poll, he said, revealed “a still-strong Catholic approach to beliefs.”
One True Religion
Torrado saw particular importance in the level of conviction among Latin Americans that there is only one true religion. This statement was affirmed by 66% of those polled in Bolivia, 65% in Peru and the Dominican Republic, 57% in Mexico and 51% in Colombia.
Torrado said this was impressive when compared to the results of a worldwide Gallup poll that included the identical question. The statement was embraced by 35% of Eastern Europeans, 34% of Americans and Canadians, and only 15% of Western Europeans. In Africa, 46% believed there was one true religion.
The results of the recent survey also demonstrate slippage in Catholic identity. Probably more than 90% percent of Latin Americans in the 1940s would have called themselves Catholic.
Weekly Mass attendance has also been slowly but steadily falling in the last half-century: The population attending Mass one or more times a week is 58% in Mexico, 47% in Colombia, 42% in the Dominican Republic, 40% in Ecuador and Bolivia, and it can go as low as 27% in Argentina and 18% in traditionally secularized Uruguay.
Still, even secular analysts believe that the state of the Church at the end of a tumultuous century should satisfy Catholic leaders. “It is clear that not only the majority of the population, but the identity of Latin America is still Catholic, despite the dramatic social changes of the last decades,” said Torrado.
God Didn't Die
At the end of the 19th century, several Latin American intellectuals, including José Enrique Rodó in Uruguay, Mariano Cornejo in Peru and José Vasconcelos in Mexico — before he embraced the faith — predicted that the 20th century would be an era dominated by the “light” of knowledge, science and technical development, in which organized religion would be replaced by strong secular ethics of work and progress, and that this would be accomplished though literacy and higher levels of education. “Organized religion” could only mean the Catholic Church in the Latin context, they speculated.
This opinion continued to be held by the cultural elites through most of the century, and was manifest in anti-clerical movements in countries such as Uruguay, Ecuador, Venezuela and especially Mexico, where the blood of numerous martyrs was shed during the 1920s and '30s.
“Despite all this, Latinos generally never stopped celebrating countless religious feasts and traditions, deeply embedded in their culture,” said Torrado. “Even now, each town has its patron saint and, in many places, its feast is one of the most important yearly events. Very little has changed in the Catholic ‘flavor’of Latin American culture.”
His opinion is shared by Argentine anthropologist Harold Hernandez Lefranc. Aspecialist in religious anthropology, Hernandez was invited by Datum International to analyze and offer commentary to accompany the results of the survey.
“How distant seem the days in which intellectuals, ideologists and even politicians announced the disappearance of religion from the life of the human being,” Hernandez wrote. “This conviction was still very much present in several theories of secularization that became popular during the 1960s.”
In contrast, he continued, the recent survey confirms that “the ‘death of God’ never took place and today is even less likely that it will become true,” at least in Latin America.
No Easy Road Ahead
The anthropologist also believes that God's failure to “die” does not mean that organized religion, and Catholicism in particular, have an easy road ahead. “Historically, a certain gnosticism has followed the failure to change the world with pure secular politics,” he wrote.
This gnosticism, according to Hernandez, is translated into a tendency to find individualistic ways of “personal illumination,” which is seen in the rise of new, multiple forms of less organized cults.
For the anthropologist, the growth of evangelical Protestantism in Latin America is a response to the cultural disarray that follows secularization. The poll seems to support this opinion, finding that, in many countries, the number of nonbelievers or those believing in other, non-Christian religions are as numerous or even larger than the number of evangelicals. More than a “protestantization” of Latin America, the region has suffered from religious dispersion, he ventured.
In Chile, for example, evangelicals number 13% of the population while another 13% describe themselves as nonbelievers. In the Dominican Republic, the nonbelievers are 10%, compared to 9% evangelicals. And in Mexico, nonbelievers are at 4%, 1% more than the evangelicals.
Hernandez, himself a nonbeliever, thinks that the tendency to religious individualism and dispersion could create a sort of “hybrid” religion, similar to what he witnessed in the United States at the Episcopalian Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. “This new temple has Orthodox icons, a Shintoist temple and a Tibetan gong,” said Hernandez. “Ministers wear vestments in lively African colors and the rite is open to anyone, not only Christians.”
Chile's Pedro Morande, a Catholic sociologist and member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, said this scenario is not likely for Latin America, “where common, strong Catholic roots have clearly shaped the culture. Catholicism is expressed in multiple cultural manifestations which make that kind of secular syncretism not only unimaginable, but unnecessary.”
Nevertheless, Morande is convinced that secularism is, in fact, presenting a challenge to the Catholic Church. “Militant atheism has failed, but it is still to be seen how corrosive practical agnosticism can become, especially now that economic reforms are bringing new social organization,” he warned.
In his 1999 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America (The Church in America), Pope John Paul II said shoring up popular piety can be a good bulwark against secularization (No. 17). He also pointed to Protestant inroads being made in the Americas.
“The success of proselytism by sects and new religious groups in America cannot be ignored. It demands of the Church on the continent a thorough study, to be carried out in each nation and at the international level, to ascertain why many Catholics leave the Church. Pastoral policies will have to be revised, so that each particular Church can offer the faithful more personalized religious care, strengthen the structures of communion and mission, make the most of the evangelizing possibilities of a purified popular religiosity, and thus give new life to every Catholic's faith in Jesus Christ, through prayer and meditation upon the word of God, suitably explained. …
“To this end, it is more necessary than ever for all the faithful to move from a faith of habit, sustained perhaps by social context alone, to a faith which is conscious and personally lived. The renewal of faith will always be the best way to lead others to the Truth that is Christ” (No. 73).
Archbishop Estanislao Karlic, president of the Argentine Bishops' conference and one of the authors of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, told the Register that the Latin American cultural terrain is promising for just that kind of Catholic renewal.
“The difference is that, in the past, many Catholic leaders took Catholicism for granted. Now, we know that it is a treasure, a gift that we carry in earthen vessels. Now, the spiritual and pastoral renewal launched by Pope John Paul with his call to the new evangelization is creating a new apostolic era,” said Archbishop Karlic.
“And the polls show what we already knew — that despite losing some ground because of our faults, the soil is still excellent for the seed.”
Alejandro Bermudez writes from Lima, Peru.