Within the next two decades Brazil may no longer be a Catholic-majority nation

The Christian landscape that Pope Francis is encountering this week in Brazil is marked by three great interrelated trends: Catholic decline, Pentecostal growth and pentecostalisation. After almost four centuries of enjoying a de jure monopoly on religion and a de facto one in many countries until the 1950s, the Church in Brazil and most of Latin America has been in sharp decline since the middle of the 20th century. As recently as the 1940s, 99 per cent of Brazilians were Catholic. Today that figure has plummeted to 63 per cent.

The situation is even more critical among the country’s youth. A Data Popular survey released last Sunday found that only 44 per cent of Brazilian young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are Catholic, while 38 per cent are Protestant. Barring a major reversal of trends, Brazil, home to the world’s largest Catholic population, faces the prospect of no longer being a Catholic-majority nation within the next two decades or so. Here we have a fascinating mirror image of the United States, which is no longer a Protestant-majority country and appears to give Brazil a glimpse of its robustly pluralised future religious landscape.

And so it is within this context of precipitous decline that the cardinals chose a Latin American confrere as Pope. Having written off a major attempt to revitalise the Church in Europe and having realised the dynamism of the faith in Africa and Asia, Church leaders strategically opted to focus on the region that with 42 per cent of the world’s Catholic population holds the key to future growth. Thus, in addition to Brazil figuring as the paramount country for the global Church, competition from Pentecostalism is the most compelling religious factor that has shifted the Vatican’s focus to Brazil and Latin America.

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The great majority of the Church’s losses have been to burgeoning Pentecostalism. Since the 1950s tens of millions of mostly impoverished Latin Americans have converted to Pentecostal denominations such as the Assembly of God and the Brazil-based God is Love (Deus é Amor). The astronomical growth rate is captured in the inverse of the aforementioned numbers on Catholic decline in Brazil. From the 1940s the Protestant percentage of the Brazilian population skyrocketed from one to 22 per cent, of which approximately three quarters are Pentecostal.

Pentecostalism with its Spirit-centred worship has become so popular in Brazil and most of Latin America that even 10 years ago I wrote of a pentecostalised Christianity in my book, Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy. What this means specifically is that Pentecostal-style theology, complete with faith healing, exorcism and the health and wealth gospel, has become hegemonic.

Pentecostalism’s emphasis on solutions to poverty-related afflictions such as drug abuse and family discord appeals to millions who haven’t been able to solve their problems in other quarters, both secular and sacred. Not only does Pentecostalism claim at least 70 per cent of all Latin American Protestants, but it also exerts great influence on many “renewed” mainline Protestant denominations, such as Presbyterians and Methodists, who have had to adopt pneuma-centric practices in order to remain relevant.

Over in the Catholic camp, the Church’s own version of Pentecostalism, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR), has quickly become the most vibrant movement within the Brazilian Church and many others in Latin America. Like Pentecostalism, the CCR is an import from the US, arriving in the region in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And while contemporaneous Liberation Theology failed to appeal to the Brazilian and Latin American Catholic masses in any significant numbers, the CCR packs football stadiums for its evangelical crusades and even conducts Pentecostal and Mormon-style door-to-door proselytising in many countries.

Telegenic CCR superstar Fr Marcelo Rossi is one of the most recognised media personalities in the country. His CDs of spirited sacred music and his inspirational books are instant best-sellers. Testament to the astronomical growth of the CCR in Brazil is a recent Pew Foundation survey that found more than 60 per cent of Catholics there (and in Guatemala as well) identifying as Charismatic. During their early years Protestant influence led members of the CCR to downplay the importance of the Virgin and saints. But a combination of pressure from the bishops and smart strategy transformed the CCR over the years into fervently Marian. Their enthusiastic presence will be felt throughout Pope Francis’s visit to Brazil but especially at the Basilica of Brazil’s patroness, the Virgin of Aparecida.

If the Vatican’s new evangelisation campaign is to have any chance at revitalising the faith in Brazil and Latin America it must harness the spirited dynamism of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which is especially popular among young people. And it was exactly Catholic youth whom the Argentine Pontiff put front and centre in his first speech on Brazilian soil. Twice in his opening remarks he called on them to “go and make disciples of all nations”. Francis has already revealed his affinity for charismatic practice with his recent informal exorcism of a Mexican parishioner who claimed to be possessed by evil spirits related to the legalisation of abortion in Mexico City, home to the largest Catholic population of any metropolis on earth. Thus Brazil will make a fascinating stage upon which Francis will be challenged to combine the Latin American preference for the Spirit with his option for the poor.

R Andrew Chesnut is Bishop Walter F Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University

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