The De-Catholicization of Latin America

By Emanuel Pietrobon

In 2014, according to Pew Research Center, about 69% of Latin America’s population identified as Catholic, in comparison with 92% in 1969. During the same period, the share of Evangelicals grew from 4% to 19%, a growth rate three times larger than the world’s population growth. Within the last decade, Roman Catholicism’s influence has decreased and is no longer followed by the majority of the population in countries such as Guatemala, Chile, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Uruguay. This trend is due to the increase of new Christian denominations and irreligiosity, and is being recorded all over Latin America, which may no longer be a Catholic majority by 2030.

Several factors pushed people to abandon Catholicism and to embrace other denominations or atheism such as sexual and accounting scandals involving the clergy, involvement with military dictatorships during the 1970s and 1980s, the crisis of the Catholic welfare model based on supplying public goods and services to villages and slums, secularization processes, and the energetic campaign of proselytism through social and political activism of Evangelical Churches.

Particularly, the sexual scandals remain among the most important threats to survival of the Catholic Church, as shown by the recent events in Chile, where several bishops resigned over a child sex abuse scandal which is being followed directly by the Holy See. The scandal takes place during a very critical time for the Catholic faith in Chile; between 2013 and 2017 the percentage of self-declared Catholics decreased by 11%, from 56% to 45%, making Chile the second country of South America, after Uruguay, where Catholics no longer represent the majority of the population. The Holy See is slowly losing the country, scandal after scandal.

The rise of Evangelicalism has become a matter of interest in recent years due to its rapid growth, which would seem to have been partially backed by the United States since the Nixon administration as part of a geopolitical strategy aimed at regaining control over the continent.

In 1969, President Nixon gave the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, the task of preparing a report on the situation in Latin America in order to understand the reasons for the Alliance for Progress’ failure. The Alliance for Progress, launched by the Kennedy administration eight years before, was an initiative that aimed to establish economic cooperation between the U.S. and Latin America.

The resulting research – dubbed The Rockefeller Report on the Americas – highlighted the social, economic, political and religious environment in Latin America and provided some suggestions for American strategists involved in Latino studies and issues. According to the report, the United States should pay more attention to the Catholic Church, which had become “a force dedicated to change – revolutionary change if necessary,” open to compromise with Communist and Socialist forces to find a third way of development for Latin America after two important events: the Second Vatican Council (1926-65) and the Latin American Episcopal Conference of Medellin (1968).

Starting in the 1960s, Catholics and Communists engaged in a cultural and political war against mainstream political parties and landowner lobbies. Their goal was to spread revolutionary sentiments across Latin America to stop oppression, social chaos, and economic underdevelopment.

The Nixon and Reagan administrations were concerned about the possibility of a domino effect in South America triggered by the Cuban revolution, especially after the 1970 Chilean presidential elections brought Salvador Allende, leader of Unidad Popular (Popular Unity), to become the first openly-declared Marxist president to be democratically elected in Latin America. Ultimately, the growth of far-left terrorism in Latin America, accompanied by the emerging Liberation theology, convinced the US strategists of the urgent necessity to act in order to prevent its backyard from falling into the Communist bloc.

Liberation theology – a political-religious doctrine combining Catholic and leftist elements, teachings and world visions – emerged as the main result of the ideological ferment that upset the Western Christianity in the post-War era, and as a response to political and economic failures in the region.

For the first time in Catholic Church history, since the Decree against Communism by Pope Pius XII and the previous encyclicals Nostis et nobiscum, Quanta cura and Rerum novarum, Catholics and Communists formed an alliance. Priests and theologians gave legitimacy to concepts like class conflict, armed struggle, and classless society and proletarian revolution. Many started fighting in left-wing guerrilla movements despite the strong opposition coming from the Holy See, firmly on anti-Communist and Atlanticist positions during the Cold War due to the tacit alliance signed by John Paul II papacy with the Reagan administration.

The American strategy was based on double-play: the United States helped the Holy See to fund anti-Communist movements in Eastern Europe, especially Solidarność in Poland, the core of the Vatican geopolitics of faith. In exchange, the Pope struggled against liberation theology and supported the right-wing military juntas, which deposed legitimate governments across the region. Secretly, the United States kept funding the expansion of Evangelical churches in South America, seeing them as a way to “americanize” and turn the region away from Communism and  Catholicism while simultaneously promoting American national interest and worldview.

The Latin clergy and the masses saw the Vatican’s struggle against liberation theology as a betrayal, worsened by their ambiguous position towards brutal regimes like that of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. In response, many priests and churchgoers abandoned Catholicism in favor of Evangelicalism or atheism.

As re-democratization began in the 90s, de-catholicization initially focused on the countries returning to democracy – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador and Panama.

In Central America, the rise of Evangelicalism has been faster than elsewhere. In Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, Protestant denominations were followed by a very small percentage of the population until the 1980s. Today, these denominations represent the second largest religious group by size and the first in popularity due to the secularization of Catholic masses.

Guatemala was the first country in Latin America to elect an Evangelical president, Jorge Serrano Elías, in 1991, and since then the power of Protestant churches has increased in both society and politics. In 2000, about 22% of the population identified as Protestant while 84% was Catholic. In 2015, the number of Catholics decreased to 45% while Protestants composed 42% of the population, making Guatemala the most Protestant country in Latin America.

Brazil represents another emblematic case. Once known as the “world’s largest Catholic nation,” the nation is host to Christ the Redeemer and the birthplace of the first Christian-based communities. In addition, Brazil is the birthplace of several important liberation theologians, including  Leonardo Boff and Frei Betto. Today, however, the nation is facing a very fast process of de-catholicization. According to Datafolha, a renowned polling institute, between 1970 and 2016 the percentage of the population identifying as Catholic decreased from 90% to 50%, while those adhering to Protestantantism increased from 5% to 29%. Between 2014 and 2016, about 9 million people left the Catholic Church. Just like in Guatemala, Protestant churches increased their political power and social influence, as shown in the case of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), founded in 1977 in Rio de Janeiro. Today, UCKG is the most followed Evangelical denomination in Latin America with temples in 180 countries. In Brazil, the UCKG built a media empire by owning dozens of newspapers, record companies, publishing houses, radio stations, and television broadcasters in order to promote prosperity theology and political messages. Edir Macedo, the owner of the UCKG, is one of the richest men in Brazil and one the most influential in the political panorama. The UCKG  promotes social conservative reforms and world views. Macedo is also a prolific author, and in 2008 he published “Plano de poder,” describing his strategy to convert the UCKG into a means of establishing a theocracy in Brazil based on Evangelical teachings.

De-catholicization does not mean dechristianization but the rejection of Catholic beliefs and teachings such as hyperdulia, the veneration of saints or the papal primacy.¹ The most important Evangelical denominations are characterised by their strong support of Atlanticist² positions, particularly regarding the War on Terror and Zionism.³ Situated in this context of the acquisition of American social values and political views, Jimmy Morales, the president of Guatemala since 2016 and a practicing Evangelical, has followed the Trump administration in recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and, consequently, the relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Morales made the decision in response to the popular requests coming from the growing Evangelical national community and Zionist sympathies increasing in each country touched by the rise of Evangelical churches. Both Paraguay and Honduras have decided to follow Guatemala and the United States in moving the embassy and recognizing Jerusalem,  and both countries shared a large and growing Evangelical community.

The popes have been historically chosen due to both contingent events and forward looking visions. The 2013 election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first Latin American to be elected pope, is a sign that the de-catholicization of Latin America has finally become a issue to fix for the Holy See in order not to lose control over the region, which hosts the largest Catholic population in the world.

Papal primacy is the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, considered the successor of Saint Peter, the first Pope, over the whole of Christianity. 

Atlanticism, id, the ideology promoting the defense of Western values by means of cooperation between the United States, Canada and European Union on political, economic, cultural and defense issues.

Zionism is strongly supported by the so-called Christian Zionists, part of an important and growing movement within the Protestant and Evangelical world based on a Messianic Jewish ideological basis. Christian Zionists are a powerful group of pressure, especially in the United States, and act in order to promote pro-Israel positions in foreign policy.

Emanuel Pietrobon, an undergraduate student of Development and International Cooperation Sciences at University of Turin, is currently in Lodz (Poland) after winning a 6-month Erasmus scholarship in Information and Communication Sciences at the Academy of Humanities and Economics. Emanuel is interested in international relations, geopolitics, strategies for covered wars, the political and social role of christianity in the world, religion and politics, society, and scenario analysis.

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