The dwindling number of Catholics in Latin America

In America Latina, where a vast majority of the society identifies as Catholic, a deep religious change is taking place
Illustration by EL UNIVERSAL
03/09/2017
13:01
Renée de la Torre
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In America Latina, where a vast majority of the society identifies as Catholic, a deep religious change is taking place despite the differences in rhythm and intensity between countries. While Catholicism used to be an element of cultural unity and historical identity, now there is a religious reconfiguration that is challenging its monopoly on society.

Data from the Pew Research Center shows the population in America Latina is going through a huge cultural change, considering that up to 1960, 90% of the population identified as Catholic, but figures from 2014 have shown the percentage fall to 69%. This decrease is related to the increase in Evangelical population, which comprises 19% of the continent.

Pentecostalism is the main agent of change, and despite having its origins in North America, the religion has crossed borders and morphed into a Latin American Christianism, where solidarity and a sense of moral community have set it apart from the individualistic and liberal sense of classical Protestantism.

In today's globalized world, several Latin American churches can be considered similar to missionary enterprises in expansion, moving counterclockwise from the missionary Catholicism and Protestantism which brought religion from Europe to the colonies within the American continent.

To further understand the impact of this change in society and politics, we must first clarify that Pentecostalism isn't a monolithic religion. It's a religious movement with hundreds of independent organizations of different ideologies, sizes, and organizations. Nevertheless, it's precisely these internal differences which have spoken to the people and caused a public and political impact in Latin America.

Thus, Catholicism is no longer the religious monopoly in Latin America, although in many countries it still exercises the rights of a dominant religion. This is a sensitive issue for the Vatican, considering Latin America has the most concentration of Catholics in the world, even more so now that Europe is experiencing a dechristianization process and its society seems threatened by the increasing number of Muslims.

It's almost impossible to imagine that the figure of Pope Francis I, the first Latin American Pope, will manage to stop – or diminish – this shift in religious tendencies. Yet it's equally unlikely to envision the entire continent as Protestant within a few decades.

What we will most likely witness in the upcoming years will be a growth in several religious options fighting with the Catholic Church for members, seeking their visibility in the public life, where some of them will become part of the new agents in political discussions.

The challenge now is that diversity doesn't necessarily go hand-in-hand with a culture of plurality based on values which ensure respect and tolerance not only towards religious minorities but also towards racial, sexual and ethnic groups. Thus, this new religious reconfiguration in Latin America announces a cultural change of considerable magnitude that can also shift the balance to redefine the divisions between religion and politics and the separation of church and state.

Anthropologist and researcher at the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Western Social Anthropology

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