The Economist: Religion in Latin America: Lighting on new faiths or none
In his first Latin American visit, Pope Benedict XVI will find a less divided church facing stronger rivals.
Benedict's choice of Aparecida for the conference suggests a desire to guide Latin America's Catholics back to traditional spirituality after decades of strife between progressive and conservative wings of the church. “Our great mission is to reach people who belong to the church but have lost a sense of living in accordance with the faith,” says Raymundo Damasceno Assis, the archbishop of Aparecida.
Belief in God is as widespread in Brazil as in the United States, says Antônio Flávio Pierucci, a sociologist at the University of São Paulo, but religious practice is close to Europe's wan levels. The numbers saying they are of no religion is small but growing. Some in the Catholic church fear that it is losing its grip over public morality. Local governments in Buenos Aires and Mexico City have recently legalised gay unions; the latter legalised abortion last month. Brazil's health minister has called for a plebiscite on the issue.
The more familiar threat to Catholic hegemony in Latin America comes from Pentecostal Protestantism. Born in the United States, this began to spread south a century ago but it has taken off since the restoration of democracy in the 1980s. According to the World Christian Database, a statistical service based in Massachusetts, more than 80% of Latin Americans are still Catholic. But that figure has been falling swiftly.
In Brazil, the world's largest Catholic country, the church has lost adherents at a rate of 1% a year since 1991, mainly to Pentecostal churches. Fewer than three-quarters of Brazilians are now Catholics while 15% are Protestants (known locally as “evangelicals”). In Mexico, 7.3% were Protestants according to the 2000 census; the figure may be almost 20% today. In Guatemala, some 30% are Protestant.
Traditional varieties of Pentecostalism emphasise a strict moral code of personal behaviour, including teetotalism and marital fidelity. Newer groups have added a gospel of self-enrichment. They offer a customer-friendly faith, telling the poor and uprooted that Christ can improve their lives and that He can be approached through ecstasy rather than ritual....