Read more of Kim Lawton's interview with John Allen of the NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER:
Q: How important is Latin America to the Catholic Church?
A: Latin America is extraordinarily important to the Catholic Church. It is where half of all Catholics in the world today live. There are something like 1.1 billion Roman Catholics in the world, about 550 million of whom live in Latin America. The country that Benedict XVI will be visiting, Brazil, is the largest Catholic country on earth -- 132 million Catholics there. So, if for no other reason, numerically Latin America is very important, but also, I think, it is the most Catholic region of the world. You have some countries where the Catholic majority is almost 95 percent, and therefore it is, in a sense, a kind of laboratory for the capacity of Roman Catholicism to shape culture. It also in some ways is where the youth movement in Catholicism today is. It's a fact that 42 percent of the people on Earth today are under 40 years of age, but 90 percent of them live in the south, a disproportionate number in Latin America. So it's a young church, it's a dynamic church, and it's a very important church. This, of course, will be Benedict XVI's first direct experience of it, his first introduction of himself to this church, and therefore I think the trip itself is quite important.
Q: How big a challenge is the growth of Protestant Christianity there, especially Pentecostalism?
A: Oh, I think the growth of Pentecostal Christianity in Latin America which, of course, has come largely at the expense of the Catholic Church, is going to be the towering issue of this gathering of the bishops from Latin American and the Caribbean in Brazil. Brazil itself is a country that just 25 years ago was almost 95 percent Catholic. Today, it is less than 70 percent Catholic and, again, that hemorrhage, so to speak, has been largely at the expense of Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity, and that pattern is replicated all up and down Latin America. You can see it most clearly today perhaps in Guatemala, a country that 25 years ago was 88 percent Catholic, today it is less than 50 percent Catholic. Guatemala has become the first majority Protestant, and that's mostly Pentecostal, nation in Latin America. Now, I don't think Benedict XVI or the Catholic Church is looking for a holy war against Pentecostalism. But I do think that these significant losses of their own people have raised some very deep questions about what's happening in the Catholic Church in Latin America and what the Church needs to do to stem the tide.
Q: What does the Church need to do? What can it do?
A: Part of the reality here is that overwhelmingly homogenous Catholic culture in Latin America probably was a historic anomaly. I mean, people are different, and therefore they are going to have different religious instincts, and the idea that you could have a culture where 97, 98, 99 percent of the people all subscribe to the same religion -- that was probably always destined to break down, and in some ways history is now catching up with the Catholic Church. But, on the other hand, there's also no question that part of the reason that people have been leaving is because they don't feel that their needs are being met in the Catholic Church. And by needs being met what I mean is very basic, retail-level, meat-and-potatoes pastoral care. When your spouse gets sick, is the pastor there to sit at your side and hold your hand? When you kid gets involved in a gang, is the pastor there to sit down and give the kid a talking to and turn him or her around? When a member of your family loses their job and all of the sudden you're in some really dire economic straits, is the church there to help you out, do something for you? The practical reality is that the Catholic Church has been, in significant ways, unable to deliver that kind of care, primarily because of a fairly extreme priest shortage in much of Latin America. We're accustomed to complaining about a priest shortage in the United States, but comparatively speaking we're in pretty good shape. The priest-to-person ratio in the Catholic Church in the States is 1 to 1,300. In Honduras, for example, it's 1 to 13,000, and in that kind of environment there simply aren't enough priests to go around to do that really basic pastoral care. I think everyone agrees what has to happen is the Catholic laity, ordinary men and women in the Catholic Church in Latin America, have to become much more active and see themselves much more as protagonists of the church's pastoral work. I think that's going to be another huge theme at this meeting in Brazil.
Q: Is that something the church leadership is willing to accept?
A: Well, you ask a good question because, you know, they don't want to go about deconstructing the priesthood, that is, they don't want to confuse anybody. A priest who is ordained is the only person, for example, who is able to say Mass, the only one who is able to hear confessions, and that ultimately it is the clergy in the church who have been empowered by God to govern, and so they don't want to monkey around with that. On the other hand, I'll tell you that I have not met a Latin American bishop in the last couple of years who is not crystal clear that unless they do a much better job of mobilizing and empowering their laity to work with them on delivering pastoral care, they are simply not going to be able to stand up to this Pentecostal challenge.
Q: Let's talk about liberation theology and its continuing influence in that region. We've been told that there has been a renaissance of liberation theology, especially in Brazil. Is that something the Catholic Church is concerned about?