A Rising Protestant Tide in Latin America and Its Impact on the Catholic Church
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SAUL GONZALES: For centuries, faith in Latin America has largely been synonymous with Catholic rites and rituals like this traditional religious procession through the streets of Guatemala City on the eve of Lent.
Yet increasingly, the Catholic Church’s spiritual dominance in this part of the world is being challenged by other faiths, namely Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. In recent years, Evangelical Protestant churches have attracted millions of followers in Latin America and moved from the margins of religious life into the mainstream.
ARNULFO URLA (Translated): Over the last 20 years here, there has been a complete transformation in the country because of evangelism. It’s more than a religion; it’s a complete way of life.
SAUL GONZALES: Arnulfo Urla is pastor of the Church of Christ, a Pentecostal house of worship in Guatemala City.
ARNULFO URLA (Translated): This was a country that was Catholic, almost 100 percent Catholic, because that was the traditional faith. But then God awakened in people the need to spread evangelism, and now this just isn’t a Catholic country. Now, many Guatemalans are committed Christian evangelicals.
SAUL GONZALES: It’s estimated that between 25 to 40 percent of Guatemalans are now Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, making this the most Protestant country in the Spanish speaking world. In Latin America as a whole about one in five people now identify themselves as Protestants, this in a region where 50 years ago, 90 percent of the population was Catholic. Although the Catholic Church still remains a dominant force in Latin America’s religious life, many in the church are troubled by the advance of Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations in the region.
JAMES FREDERICKS: I think for a lot of Roman Catholics, traditional Roman Catholics in Latin America and also in Rome, I think the rise of Evangelical Protestantism in Latin America is perceived as a major threat.
SAUL GONZALES: Father Jim Fredericks, who teaches at Los Angeles’ Loyola Marymount University, is an expert on Roman Catholic doctrine and the church’s relationship to other faiths. He says in Latin America and other areas of the developing world, the Catholic Church is having trouble accepting a new age of spiritual competition.
JAMES FREDERICKS: The idea that you can simply presume that everybody in Latin America is Roman Catholic to one degree or another, that era is over. This is a huge challenge. This is an amazing demand that is being placed on an institution that is as old and whose symbols go as deep as the Catholic Church.
SAUL GONZALES: In Latin America, examples of Protestant Christianity’s growing influence are everywhere, from massive, televised religious services where celebrity evangelists claim to channel God’s power to heal the disabled, to the construction of American-style mega-churches which dominate city skylines, to the establishment of thousands of humble storefront churches like Pastor Urla’s, where worship services can resemble a raucous party.
Indeed, many people say they are attracted to the Protestant churches because of their strong emphasis on emotionally charged and ecstatic forms of worship, worship which congregants say give them a closer relationship to the divine.
AURIA SANDOVAL (Translated): I feel like my life changes completely when I am in this church. It feels like this fire is in your heart which completely changes you. You feel the presence of God, like he is right here with you.
RIGOBERTO GALVEZ (Translated): The attraction of the evangelical churches is their ability to give a sense of value and identity to people and to provide them with comfort and support in dealing with their suffering and pain.
SAUL GONZALES: Rigoberto Galvez is a theologian and pastor at Family of God, one of Guatemala’s largest Protestant churches. He credits Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity with giving Latin Americans a new sense of confidence in themselves and their place in the world.
RIGOBERTO GALVEZ (Translated): Our culture here in Latin America for centuries has been a culture of silence, a culture of timidity, a culture that is accustomed to thinking that everything that is foreign is good and what is our own is bad; what’s ours is ugly. But because of Evangelical Christianity, that is starting to change.
SAUL GONZALES: Aggressive use of the mass media is one reason why Protestant Christianity has prospered in the Spanish-speaking world. Many large evangelical and Pentecostal churches, like Pastor Galvez’s, now own their own television and radio stations, which broadcast religious programming to the most remote regions of Latin America.
Many Evangelical and Pentecostal leaders also credit the Catholic Church for Protestant successes in Latin America. The Evangelicals argue that the Catholic Church’s emphasis on traditional ceremonies and respect for hierarchy aren’t satisfying people’s spiritual cravings, thus causing them to leave the church and embrace Protestant denominations.
RIGOBERTO GALVEZ (Translated): We believe that the traditional Catholic Church is more about rituals, gestures and customs, which don’t really touch the heart of a human being. We believe that our relationship with God is freer and you can say that we have a more genuine and real relationship with God.
JAMES FREDERICKS: You have to give them credit. They apparently are meeting a religious need. So the Catholic Church has to make an adjustment.
SAUL GONZALES: Father Fredericks believes that if the Catholic Church is to remain strong and relevant in countries like Guatemala, it must be willing to reform its liturgy to more effectively connect with people in the pews.
JAMES FREDERICKS: Right now in Latin America that very well may mean that the liturgy needs to change in its character and feeling and change dramatically. The Catholic Church has a responsibility to do this. This is not something that’s negotiable.
SAUL GONZALES: In addition, says Father Fredericks, the Church must also recommit itself to championing the plight of the poor and dispossessed in Latin America, which he believes Evangelical and Pentecostal faiths, with their emphasis on personal salvation, often fail to do.
JAMES FREDERICKS: I don’t think the Catholic Church should lose its sense of social justice, the public presence of the church in calling governments, in calling society, Latin American society to task, that these societies in this new global — as they become more and more enveloped in this global economy — are not allowed, they are not allowed to forget the poorest and the weakest there in their societies.
SAUL GONZALES: Yet even as Evangelical Christians and Catholics vie for hearts, minds and souls in countries like Guatemala, this competition might just be the tip of a much larger religious phenomenon.
Many scholars say that the kind of changes happening here in Guatemala’s religious landscape, especially the rise of evangelical faiths, are part of a global transformation of Christianity, a transformation that promises to change the complexion and character of the Christian faith in the decades to come.
DENNIS SMITH: It’s probably the most important thing happening in not just Christian faith, but in religion.
SAUL GONZALES: Dennis Smith, who directs the Evangelical Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America, writes extensively about faith in the developing world. He echoes many religious scholars when he says there is a growing gulf between rich and poor nations in their attitudes toward religion.
DENNIS SMITH: Indeed, if you look at the overall shift of the Christian church throughout the world, there’s now a decided shift from the North to the South. That is, there is now more people practicing and confessing Christian faith in the countries of the South than there are in the countries of the North.
And that’s probably at least partially an indication of the daily experience of exclusion, economic, political, cultural and gender exclusion that most people in most countries are experiencing on a daily level.
SAUL GONZALES: As he plays his small role in this global transformation of religion, Pastor Urla believes, like other poor countries, Guatemala’s most powerful cultural export in the years ahead will be its faith.
ARNULFO ULRA (Translated): Guatemala will be a light to other nations. From Guatemala, so many missionaries have now gone abroad. I remember when foreign missionaries used to come to Guatemala to spread the word of Jesus Christ. But now, it’s Guatemala that sends missionaries to other countries.
SAUL GONZALES: Many experts describe Latin America, like other places in the developing world, as a growing marketplace of faiths and denominations; a marketplace where religious choices will continue to multiply as piety collides with the forces of globalism.