Lessons for Catholics From Pentecostalism’s Rapid Growth in Amazonia

ANALYSIS: Will the Pan-Amazon Synod help the Church meet the challenge posed by the explosive growth of sects in the region — and learn from their Protestant brethren’s success?

A singer performs during a religious ceremony for young people at an evangelical church in Brasilia.
A singer performs during a religious ceremony for young people at an evangelical church in Brasilia. (photo: 2012 photo, Evaristo SA/AFP/GettyImages)

During a press briefing  at the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region, Bishop Carlo Verzeletti of Castanhal, Brazil, deplored the shortage of Catholic priests in the 1,000 villages he oversees near the mouth of the Amazon River.

Bishop Verzeletti spoke of “aging” priests, “running from one place to another,” with little time to offer the “presence and proximity, the support and comfort,” the faithful require.

This long-standing problem, he admitted, has put the local Church at a competitive disadvantage with Pentecostal Protestant sects that have rapidly established vibrant, tight-knit communities across South America.

“Popular piety cannot resist the impact,” said the bishop, noting the presence of 750 Pentecostal churches in his city alone, compared with only 50 Catholic churches.

This imbalance holds true in many towns and cities across the vast Amazon River Basin and helps explain the appeal of a key proposal floated at the synod: the ordination to the priesthood of viri probati (older married men “of proven virtue”) who can celebrate the sacraments and sustain a compelling Catholic presence in areas that may not see a priest for months at a time.

Bishop Verzeletti’s frank comments about the challenge posed by Pentecostal sects drew little attention from media outlets, which have focused on controversial matters at the synod that have more traction in Europe and the U.S.

But Church analysts and scholars who have studied this movement suggest that the  rapid growth of  Pentecostal communities, which study and proclaim the teachings of the Bible, conduct healing services and inculcate moral virtue, provides further context — and salutary lessons — for a Catholic Church “hemorrhaging” members across the continent.

“With the great exception of the evangelization efforts of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Catholic Church in South America lags far behind Pentecostals,” said Andrew Chesnut, who holds the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of World Studies.

Chesnut served as the lead academic consultant for a landmark 2014 Pew survey of the Latin American religious landscape. The study found that one in five Latin Americans across 18 countries and Puerto Rico are Protestants and most identify as Pentecostal.

Cradle Catholics said they had joined Pentecostal communities because they were seeking a more personal connection with God, a different style of worship and a church that offers practical help to its members.

The respondents noted that Pentecostals were more likely to share their faith than Catholics, and many said their new church offered clearer teachings on moral issues.


The Brazilian Context

Nowhere, said Chesnut, has this seismic shift “been more dramatic than in Brazil, home to the world’s largest Catholic population, which is no longer a Catholic-majority nation, with just 50% identifying as Catholic, and the Brazilian Amazon region now more Protestant (46%) than Catholic (45%), according to the latest survey by Datafolha of Brazil.”

“Pentecostals evangelize both at the grassroots via home visits and large-scale through televangelism and a very robust presence on social media,” he told the Register.

Likewise, Pentecostals are “very quick to train pastors to work in their native languages, so in … Amazonia there are far more indigenous Pentecostal pastors than Catholic priests.”

However, he emphasized that many Pentecostals who live in the region’s cities are not indigenous.

Pentecostalism can incorporate a range of teachings and practices, with individual pastors adopting their own approach in an autonomous church, and lay men and women stepping into leadership roles as healers and counselors.

“Latin Americans relate to religion [in a way] that tends to be more experiential, pragmatic and centered on charismatic figures than doctrinal, theoretical and organizational,” said Germán McKenzie, a Peruvian-Canadian sociologist who is an expert on religion in Peru at St. Mark’s College in Vancouver, Canada.

Dale Coulter, associate professor of historical theology for the school of divinity at Regent University, echoed this point. He described Pentecostal services that feature spontaneous folk-style preaching, the laying on of hands and testimonies that celebrate deliverance from demonic power by God.

“Pentecostalism embraces a view of the world as charged with the spiritual,” he said. “The demonic is real, which speaks to more indigenous religions.”


Strong Community Life

Teachings and practices focused on  spiritual empowerment make it possible for the poor to endure the suffering of daily life, Coulter said. But community life also helps members confront the unseen, but equally powerful, reality of spiritual warfare.

“Pentecostalism takes seriously the idea that there are demonic forces trying to destroy human persons in addition to the internal problem of sin,” Coulter continued.

This teaching resonates with indigenous belief systems. But Pentecostalism also challenges these beliefs by presenting God’s divine power as the true source of deliverance from the devil and sin.

“The combination of folk spirituality with spiritual power allows indigenous peoples to adapt Pentecostalism to their own cultural context,” Coulter said.

At a more practical level, religious teachings and counseling help members overcome the vices that have harmed their marriage or prevented them from holding a job, he said.

Women who join these churches are grateful for the palpable help they receive from a community that doesn’t tolerate adultery, and often rise to leadership positions as healers, explained John Burdick, an anthropologist at Syracuse University who has studied Pentecostalism in Brazil, told the Register.

Burdick, the author of The Color of Sound: Race, Religion, and Music in Brazil, said that Pentecostals deeply value the changes their new faith facilitated in their personal life. They are primarily focused on personal salvation and disinclined to embrace political movements advocating radical change.

Burdick added that the Pentecostal churches’ vigilant response to the threat posed by demonic powers was another selling point, especially for indigenous converts who distrusted or feared some native traditions. So, if the Catholic Church sought to adopt elements of indigenous culture in a new Amazonia rite — a proposal floated at the synod — it must be careful not to introduce practices that could produce a backlash and may be perceived as incompatible with Church teaching.

U.S.-backed Pentecostal outreach in the region began to gain traction in the 1950s, with the Protestant missionaries displaying a flexible, entrepreneurial approach to recruitment and evangelization.

They preached on city streets and made home visits in rural neighborhoods. Active laymen, with only limited religious formation, were appointed pastors, though modern televangelists and preachers in megachurches generally complete formal Bible studies

Coulter told the Register that it was important to “differentiate between historic Pentecostal churches like the Christian Congregation and the Assemblies of God that were formed in the early 1900s and neo-Pentecostal churches like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which was formed in 1977.”

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which owns the second-largest TV station in Brazil, “teaches a version of the prosperity gospel, which you would not find in the more historic (classical) Pentecostal churches,” he said.

But even as the prosperity gospel has attracted scores of followers, more political elements of this movement have begun to address the problem of climate change and related economic and political issues addressed at the Amazon synod.


The Catholic Response

Meanwhile, Latin America’s Catholic bishops have struggled to mount an effective response to the steady encroachment of Pentecostal sects.

“Catholic charismatics in Latin America are by far the most vital force for evangelization by the Church and have mostly followed the Pentecostal playbook in their efforts to reach out to lapsed Catholics,” said Chesnut.

But the Catholic Church continues to face criticism for being slow to “grasp the nature of this phenomenon, which went beyond converting uneducated poor people” and focused on helping them make changes that boosted their standard of living, said McKenzie.

In the 1970s, the rise of liberation theology, which often employed Marxist categories of class conflict to advocate for social change and offered a sweeping indictment of economic injustice and social inequality in the region, was heralded as a promising departure from the Church’s traditional posture, giving it added appeal, especially among the disenfranchised.

Liberation theology, rejected by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI for its “serious ideological deviations,” prompted a shift in priorities for some Catholic dioceses and parishes that gave more weight to political engagement and downplayed popular devotions to the Virgin Mary and the saints. But many argued that this new approach politicized the faith, sending Catholics to Protestant churches, where the focus was on the Gospel and personal change.

This critique “has found confirmation in some studies, particularly in the case of Brazil,” said McKenzie.

Citing the 2014 Pew study, he said it was telling that most Latin American respondents defined religiously based social-justice initiatives as the provision of practical help for congregants and the needy.

“This might mean that the religious question — getting in contact with the Transcendent — has a paramount importance in their lives, in a way that cannot be wholly translated in sociopolitical terms,” he suggested. That said, he noted  the strong link between religious belief and political change throughout the region — not only on the political left, but among more traditional evangelical Christians who now play a significant political role in Brazil, in particular.


Lessons to be Learned

Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing Christian denomination in the world. And as the Pew study confirmed, its beliefs and practices address a common hunger for a deeper relationship with God, Christian fellowship and the power to change one’s life for the better.

The movement has upended the Catholic Church’s dominance in much of South America. And now, as the Pan-Amazon Synod draws to a close, little has been said publicly about what the rise of Pentecostalism can teach the Church in the 21st century.

But scholars like Chesnut warn that if the  Church does not reckon with its failure to offer a compelling reason for staying Catholic, it is destined to repeat its mistakes.

Experts told the Register that the Church must revise its overly centralized model for evangelization and lay engagement and bring the Gospel to the people and inspire the laity to work alongside pastors.

Likewise, as the synod prompts the Church to more definitively embrace climate-change issues and join campaigns that defend the rights of the indigenous people in the Amazon Basin, the experience of the past half-century suggests bishops and pastors must be wary of displacing the Gospel and the sacraments with political projects. Indeed, even if Pope Francis approves the proposal to ordain married men to the priesthood, experts contacted by the Register made clear that the local Church has a great deal more work to do.

“The Church had no religious competition for over four centuries, so there was no need to implement effective evangelization strategies,” Chesnut observed.

The “Pentecostal boom, in which droves of Catholics ... started leaving the Church for this charismatic branch of Protestantism,” changed everything, he said.

“Ordination of permanent deacons could be part of a larger solution, but Pope Francis does not believe in aggressive Pentecostal-style evangelization, which is why he hasn’t paid much attention to the Catholic Charismatics as a dynamic force of evangelization.” 

“Without large-scale evangelization,” he concluded, “the Church will continue to hemorrhage members.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.

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