Vatican opted for the poor – the poor opted for Pentecostals
First Latin American pope watches Latin America turn non-Catholic

2022-01-12T16:11:15-08:00January 13th, 2022|World|

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.





  1. anonymous clergyman January 13, 2022 at 10:27 am - Reply

    Is it possible the poor actually, even if in a misguided way, opted for Jesus?
    Is it possible they never heard the fullness of the Christian life, found only in the Catholic Church? Might we, as a Church, have failed to preach the whole gospel of God? (See Acts 20:27, 2 Tim. 4:2.)
    Sometimes it’s very easy to judge those who have left (or were they only nominally Catholic to begin with?). Did they really, consciously reject the Catholic Faith or did they experience an encounter with the living Lord outside of the Church?
    It seems we need to ask ourselves some serious questions. As Saint John Paul said numerous times, the new evangelization begins with us, the baptized.

    • Michael L Faber January 14, 2022 at 9:20 am - Reply

      Which begs the question, “What are Catholics failing to do to help its members, especially the nominal ones who are probably the majority to have an encounter with the Living Lord outside of Church?”

  2. Curious January 13, 2022 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    Wasn’t “the Francis effect” supposed to bring more people into (or back to) the Church?
    It seems to be working about as well as private dialog with abortion-promoting Catholic public figures.

  3. fds January 13, 2022 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    She left the Church for Pentecostalism because somebody in the Pentecostal Church was nice to her.
    This is what we have found over and over in our region.
    Catholics are snobs.
    People go to a Evangelical Church and are treated like they matter.
    They care about people knowing the name of Jesus, accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
    They are really dedicated to Christ and to spreading the Gospel.
    Which is exactly what Pope Francis has been telling us to do-go out, be kind to people and teach them the Gospel.
    How many Catholics did it?
    Pentecostals are afraid of Catholics where I live but my interaction with them has all been positive (until they find out, then they avoid me)
    I had one lady tell me that her family would disown her if they found out she was talking to a Catholic.

    • Anne TE January 13, 2022 at 7:09 pm - Reply

      I disagree with you. Most of it is all about being able to contracept and remarry after divorce. I have seen Catholics switch religions over and over again. sometimes up to five “marriages”, many with children to be able to remarry after divorce. Most of it has nothing to do with being “loyal” to Christ. That is the case with many in the Orthodox community also.

      • Anne TE January 14, 2022 at 7:22 pm - Reply

        If you think some Catholics are snobs, try listening to the second wife complain about the first, then the third wife complain about the second. Then when the fourth wife comes along and thinks she is so much better than all the previous wives, it does become rather annoying and “snob inducing”, especially if the “husband” is still fooling around with his second “wife” while still “married” to the fourth. By that time you don’t want to hear any more of it. You might call it snobbery, I call it a “survival technique”.

        • fds January 14, 2022 at 10:49 pm - Reply

          I’m sorry I hit a nerve. I really am just referring to Catholics come late, leave early (not all) and don’t hang around for “fellowship.” I knew somebody who stood in the narthex after Mass just waiting for anyone to say something to them because they had been going to a friendly church and was interested in coming back to the Catholic Church and no one said a word to them.

          • Anne TE January 15, 2022 at 11:23 am - Reply

            I try to be friendly by helping people find things in the church that they need, such as bulletins, missals, prayer cards and the ways to the confessionals or restrooms. The only time I might not do that is if I am late and am in a hurry or super tired. I have also helped people find their way through new missals of their own if I know the pages being used. I have stayed after mass and talked to newcomers without delving too much into their personal lives.

            Newcomers should take initiative too. “Ask and you receive.”

  4. Your Fellow Catholic January 13, 2022 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    I saw this article earlier in the week in The Washington Post, and while it reports on a long term trend, I guess the 50% mark is a kind of threshold none of us thought we’d ever see.

    Beyond that, anonymous clergyman (who is not silent but legitimately chooses anonymity!), said it better than I ever could. Ditto all that he said.

  5. Bob One January 13, 2022 at 4:54 pm - Reply

    For many years I lived in an area with a large Hispanic population. During that time many many Catholic Hispanics left the Catholic church for the non-denominational (Baptist) church across town. The Pastor was beside himself: “those are our people.” They left for any number of reasons, but most had to do with being welcomed, programs for the kids, help with language, and any number of other things. They also said they wanted to be closer to Jesus. The Catholic church has about 2,000 members and one priest. The non-denominational has 2,000 at each of three services every Sunday and they have six full-time ordained Ministers, plus a staff of twenty or more, that includes graphic artists, webmasters, teachers, etc. There were over 150 adults in the Christmas pageant that I attended, not including the medium-size orchestra. There are three full-time social workers to help families, and the list goes on. They don’t have the Mass, but they have found Jesus.

    • name to bob1 January 13, 2022 at 5:43 pm - Reply

      So you are going to a non-Catholic Church?
      If they left Mass, they left Jesus. For an orchestra, kid programs, ESL classes, and now they don’t have to forgo birth control, they can eat meat on Fridays, they can interpret the Bible however they want, they don’t have to go on Holy Days.
      It is not OK. There may be reasons but there are not excuses.
      They are committing grave sin.

    • Anne TE January 13, 2022 at 7:16 pm - Reply

      And many of them have been divorced and remarried, sometimes more than once. Many have had children by several different partners. Most of it is about contraception and remarriage after one partner’s or both partner’s adultery.

  6. Paul Bergeron January 13, 2022 at 5:42 pm - Reply
    • BR January 15, 2022 at 1:01 am - Reply

      Paul Bergeron that article is from 1998.

      • Paul Bergeron January 15, 2022 at 10:25 am - Reply

        Jimmy Swaggart is still around too

        • rnr January 15, 2022 at 10:45 am - Reply

          So is his cousin who they tried to cancel. They were successful for a while.

  7. Families Today Need Support January 13, 2022 at 7:33 pm - Reply

    The Catholic home and family today, needs more support than ever, in today’s highly secularized world. The pre-Conciliar Catholic Church used to be very strong, with tons of support everywhere.

  8. Pentecostal Success January 13, 2022 at 7:47 pm - Reply

    I have never in my whole life, been to a Pentecostal church service, nor even talked to a Pentecostal church member. But it sounds to me, like they have a strong, energetic, very traditional, caring, male leadership. No wonder they are so successful. Our entire society needs that, as well as our Catholic Church.

    • Pentecostal Success January 13, 2022 at 10:30 pm - Reply

      Both my posts of Jan 13, at 7:33 and 7:47pn, were edited. I would like to then add something. In today’s world, filled with tons of Satanic corruptions, many Catholic families are struggling, with very poor moral and religious training, catechesis, and support, and too much modern “freedom,” without any discipline. You cannot trust what your children may get, in the local Catholic parish or parish school, Catholic high school, or Catholic college! It is very hard to make a good Catholic family life, with these problems, and raise good kids! That may be the reason why Latin American families are seeking the help of a Biblically-based, Pentecostal church, that is strong in instilling traditional Christian teachings.

  9. Drewelow January 13, 2022 at 11:28 pm - Reply

    Studies over the last ten years have noticed the brazil’s pentecostals place heavy emphasis on the prosperity gospel. Likewise in central america where well funded missionaries from the US create prosperity in the churches they foster, luring catholics to a more advantaged lifestyle. The role of the cross in chritianity is not a popular topic in many pentecostal circles

    • No Pentecostal Success Story At All, Then! January 14, 2022 at 9:12 am - Reply

      The Pentecostals are preaching the false, non-Biblical Prosperity Gospel in Latin America? Don’t Latinos see through it? What good will the Prosperity Gospel do, for Latin Americans and their families? It will not bring them closer to Jesus. It is a form of materialism applied to religion, for self-gain.

  10. "Christ the Protector" Statue January 14, 2022 at 9:25 am - Reply

    I read recently, all about the new statue of “Christ the Protector,” which will soon be installed, in a Brazilian city. It is even taller than the famous “Christ the Redeemer” statue, in Rio de Janeiro. It sounds beautiful and majestic. Is this new statue the inspiration of Catholics, or of the new Pentecostal religion?

    • Anne TE January 15, 2022 at 11:48 am - Reply

      I do not know who build that statue in Brazil, but it does look almost exactly like the “Christ of the Ozarks” here in the United States that was built by Gerald A.K. Smith, a friend of Huey Long. You can look up the history of the new Brazilian one online.

  11. Michael L Faber January 14, 2022 at 9:32 am - Reply

    I converted from Pentecostal/Baptist tradition to Catholic. I now head up our parish RCIA. I think all of the above comments have some validity. Most people have many reasons for conversion, not just one. We are more complex than labels. But all people have some reasons for conversion, some legit, some not so legit. If the sole reasons for conversion are attraction to prosperity gospel or freedom to sin or interpret bible on their own, there is not much we can do about that. On the other hand, for those conversions brought about by people receiving love and attention in a pentecostal church or being treated with respect, that is something we should worry about and change. As for the personal relationship with Christ aspect, here is where we also can change by encouraging nominal Catholics to join Catholic bible studies, Cursillo movement, Catholic Prayer groups (Charismatic and otherwise). The key is plugging people in, and the priests need to empower the lay people to head up these types of ministries and constantly encourage engagement.
    Most people coming into the Catholic Church from Protestantism were not very engaged (myself excluded), most leaving the Catholic faith are not engaged. If the Catholic Church wants to stop bleeding its members in Latin America and elsewhere it needs to engage its laity. (and stop discouraging evangelism).

    • me January 14, 2022 at 2:15 pm - Reply

      Thank you for writing your comment. Thank you for your commitment to RCIA. Glad to have you in the Church. Pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

  12. Lori Harris January 14, 2022 at 9:41 am - Reply

    As a Catholic convert, I know why I came: The Eucharist. I am sick of Catholic social programs that do not preach Jesus. I am sick of priests who can’t preach the uncompromising word of God. I hate church politics and the unconverted Catholics who are so proud that they are “catholic” but for what? I believe that Jesus would rather them know Him intimately and hear his voice constantly. As a Charismatic, I am as pentecostals as I ever was. I now have the Eucharist: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. If the people of the Church lived like the Pentecostals we would be a Church to be reckoned with.

  13. Michael Dremel January 14, 2022 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    A complex issue for sure, doubly so because some will react with a mild rage, pointing out that good Catholics don’t convert or how sinful they are for daring to leave the Mother Church,and those who discuss how churches attract and keep their people. Challenging someone to “buy American” when purchasing a car for the sake of patriotism did not stop consumers from buying better-mileaged, cheaper imports. in like manner, shaming someone into staying Catholic is ineffective, and breeds sometimes a resentment that lends itself to leaving. So the church is worried in a sense about losing a majority of voting blocks (potentially diminishing its influence in pro-life and other issues), or losing its sometimes vainglorious “Obey the Church” doctrine that does not allow for intellectual discussion on Church topics unless one literally has supported the bottom lie. For many decades it seemed that the church emphasized feilty not to Jesus, but rather to Rome. The church should mimic the Pentecostals by bringing in programs that interest the people, which means hiring or finding volunteers to provide the divergence of programs that will be needed.

    • me January 14, 2022 at 2:28 pm - Reply

      I feel like you do not view the Catholic Church as the Mystical Body of Christ with Jesus as its Head.

  14. Pentecostals January 14, 2022 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    Oh, so Pentecostals are like the Charismatics? Like SCOTUS Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Catholic and a Charismatic? Now I get it! And there are different branches of their Pentecostal religion, like the ones who follow the “Prosperity Gospel.” Well, so be it. Sounds like the Charismatic Pentecostals (we called them “Holy Rollers”) who came to Notre Dame in the late 1960s, and introduced the Charismatic form of worship to Catholics. I had forgotten all about that. I had previously thought that the Latin American Pentecostals were like the Southetn Baptists.

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