RIO DE JANEIRO—Tatiana Aparecida de Jesus used to walk the city’s streets as a sex worker, high on crack cocaine. Last year, the mother of five joined a small Pentecostal congregation in downtown Rio called Sanctification in the Lord and left her old life behind.
“The pastor hugged me without asking anything,” said Ms. de Jesus, 41, who was raised a Catholic and is one of more than a million Brazilians who have joined an evangelical or Pentecostal church since the beginning of the pandemic, according to researchers. “When you are poor, it makes so much of a difference when someone just says ‘good morning’ to you, ‘good afternoon,’ or shakes your hand,” she said.
For centuries, to be Latin American was to be Catholic; the religion faced virtually no competition. Today, Catholicism has lost adherents to other faiths in the region, especially Pentecostalism, and more recently to the ranks of the unchurched. The shift has continued under the first Latin American pope.
Seven countries in the region—Uruguay, the Dominican Republic and five in Central America—had a majority of non-Catholics in 2018, according to a survey by Latinobarómetro, a Chilean-based pollster. In a symbolic milestone, Brazil, which has the most Catholics of any country in the world, is expected to become minority-Catholic as soon as this year, according to estimates by academics that track religious affiliation.
In Rio state, it has already happened. Catholics make up 46% of the population, according to the latest national census in 2010, and a little more than a third of some poverty-stricken favelas, or slums.
“The Vatican is losing the biggest Catholic country in the world—that’s a huge loss, an irreversible one,” said José Eustáquio Diniz Alves, a leading Brazilian demographer and former professor at the national statistics agency. At the current rate, he estimates Catholics will account for fewer than 50% of all Brazilians by early July.
The reasons for this shift are complex, including political changes that reduced the Catholic Church’s advantages over other religions, as well as growing secularization in much of the world. During the pandemic, evangelical churches have been especially effective at using social media to keep people engaged, said Mr. Diniz Alves.
Critics inside and outside the Catholic Church also point to its failures to satisfy the religious and social demands of many people, especially among the poor. Latin Americans often describe the Catholic Church as out of touch with the everyday struggles of its congregation.
The rise of liberation theology in the 1960s and ’70s, a time when the Catholic Church in Latin America increasingly stressed its mission as one of social justice, in some cases drawing on Marxist ideas, failed to counter the appeal of Protestant faiths. Or, in the words of a now-legendary quip, variously attributed to Catholic and Protestant sources: “The Catholic Church opted for the poor and the poor opted for the Pentecostals.”
The declining influence of Catholicism in Latin America has far-reaching social and political consequences. In countries such as Brazil, conversions to Pentecostal Christianity have boosted socially conservative views from the favelas to the halls of Congress, helping to propel right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro to power in 2018.
While President Bolsonaro still identifies as Catholic, he got himself baptized by a Pentecostal pastor in the River Jordan in 2016 in the lead-up to his presidential campaign. Pentecostals and evangelicals are prominently represented in his cabinet and make up a third of Brazil’s congress. His wife attends an evangelical church.
Pentecostalism is a tradition originating in the U.S. which emphasizes direct contact with the Holy Spirit through highly physical forms of worship such as speaking in tongues and faith healing. It is part of the larger evangelical Protestant movement, which stresses biblical authority, the experience of being “born again” and the mission to win converts. Mainline Protestant churches such as Anglicans and Lutherans have made relatively few inroads in Latin America.
In nations with growing numbers of people with no religious affiliation, more-liberal social practices are growing. Argentina, the pope’s native country, legalized abortion last year and Chile’s congress is taking the first steps on a bill to decriminalize the procedure. Even in Mexico, which still has a large Catholic majority, the church’s hold on society is weakening, as seen in the Supreme Court’s September vote to decriminalize abortion.
Latin America and the Caribbean is home to 41% of the world’s Catholics, according to the Vatican. Estimates of how many Latin Americans remain Catholic vary, but all sides agree the percentages are falling. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 69% of Latin Americans were Catholic in 2014, though 84% had been raised in the church. Nineteen percent of Latin Americans identified themselves as Protestants. Of those, 65% identified with Pentecostalism.
Under Pope Francis, who met with Pentecostal and evangelical leaders when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, the Vatican has sought to coexist peacefully with those of other beliefs rather than fight the rising tide of rival faiths.
Pope Francis has often inveighed against missionary efforts aimed at winning converts. At a 2019 Vatican synod on Latin America’s Amazon region, there was scarcely any discussion of the church’s losses of adherents, even though a recent report by a church agency showed that 46% of the Amazon region’s 34 million inhabitants weren’t Catholics. The gathering devoted more attention to the region’s environmental challenges, a signature cause of the current pontificate….
The above comes from a Dec. 11 story in the Wall Street Journal.