Latin Americans have been defecting to Protestantism for decades. Now many are rejecting organised religion altogether

One of the major reasons why a Latin American was elected the first pope from the New World almost five years ago is the long-term decline of the flock in the most Catholic region on earth.

Just five decades ago, in 1970, Latin America was 92 per cent Catholic. Mexicans, Argentines and Brazilians, for example, were born into the Church and lived out their lives as Catholics, although most of them were not regular churchgoers. However, after a half-century of precipitous decline, Latin America, home to 39 per cent of the world’s 1.3 billion faithful, will no longer be majority Catholic by 2030.

A new survey by the respected Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro finds Latin America now to be only 59 per cent Catholic, down from 80 per cent in 1995. The landmark 2014 Pew survey of the Latin American religious landscape, for which I was the lead academic consultant, reported that the region was 69 per cent Catholic.

It’s in this context that cardinals elected one of their confrères from Latin America with the hope that, if Europe is lost, there still might be time to halt or even reverse ecclesial haemorrhaging in the New World.

The Latinobarómetro poll is the first to reveal that, almost five years into his papacy, the Argentine Pontiff has been unable to stanch the bleeding. In 2013, the year he became Pope, 67 per cent of Latin Americans told Chilean pollsters they were Catholic. Thus, the percentage of Latin Americans who are Catholic has dropped by eight points since Francis was elected.

Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t contain detailed data on each country polled. In the one nation for which is there is more detail, Chile, the decline is even more dramatic. During Francis’s tenure, Chile has become a nation in which Catholics no longer constitute the majority of the population. In 2013, the region’s most prosperous country was 56 per cent Catholic, and in the span of just four short years the figure has dropped to 45 per cent, giving Chile the distinction of being the second South American nation, after Uruguay, to lose its Catholic majority.

While updated comparative national figures are lacking at this point, there’s a very good chance that Chile’s 11-point decline over the past four years ranks among the sharpest in the region. If we go back to 1995, the benchmark year of the Latinobarómetro survey, Chile’s decline from 75 per cent Catholic to 45 per cent ranks as the fourth greatest drop in Latin America. Honduras leads the region, plummeting from 76 per cent Catholic to 37 per cent in the 22-year span. In fact, the violence-plagued Central American nation is the first country in the region in which Protestants now outnumber Catholics (39 per cent to 37 per cent of the Honduran population).

Returning to Chile, which the Pope has just toured along with Peru, the new poll reveals that the greatly accelerated decline commences with the sexual abuse scandal of Fr Fernando Karadima, who made headlines in 2010 with revelations of his chronic and serial molesting of minors. In what has been the most intractable issue of his papacy, Francis antagonised Chileans by appointing a protégé of Karadima, Juan Barros, as bishop of a southern diocese, despite vehement opposition from locals alleging that Barros, as part of Karadima’s inner circle, had conspired to cover up the crimes.

By the end of the Pope’s visit to Chile it appeared that he had made great strides in repairing the damage caused by the Karadima-Barros affair. He had not only offered a heartfelt apology to victims during his speech to President Bachelet and government officials, but also held an impromptu meeting with abuse survivors in which he shed tears of sorrow for their victimisation at the hands of clergy.

However, on the last day of his visit he managed to erase most, if not all, the goodwill he had created by energetically defending the embattled bishop when a Chilean reporter inquired about him. “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak,” the Pope declared, adding: “There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”

One can imagine that his vigorous defence of a much-reviled bishop on the last day of his tour will be the image that many Chileans are left with. This is likely to contribute to the continued erosion of the flock.

Beyond Chile, the Latinobarómetro poll reveals that six other countries in the region are also no longer majority Catholic. Uruguay, the most secularised nation in Latin America, figures as the other South American country at 38 per cent Catholic, while Guatemala (43 per cent), El Salvador (40 per cent), Honduras (37 per cent) and Nicaragua (40 per cent) make for a Central American region that is no longer Catholic-majority.

Over in the Caribbean, Cuba, after six decades of socialist dictatorship, is home to Latin America’s smallest Catholic population but was not included in the Chilean poll. Nearby Dominican Republic is the sole Caribbean country surveyed that is no longer majority Catholic, at 48 per cent.

Returning to South America, Brazil, which is home to the largest Catholic population on earth (and also the largest Pentecostal community and second-largest Protestant population), remains majority Catholic at 54 per cent. But not for much longer. As a Brazil specialist, I had predicted that it would lose its Catholic majority by 2030. However, in light of the new data, I am moving that date forward to 2025. For Latin America overall, it’s quite likely that the region will no longer be majority Catholic by 2030.

Until the past decade or so the primary beneficiary of Catholic loss was Pentecostalism, as evidenced by Brazil now having a larger Pentecostal population than that of the US, where the dynamic branch of Charismatic Protestantism was born a century ago. After five decades of impressive growth, Pentecostalism has been able to claim some 70 per cent of all Latin American Protestants, and its influence and competition for religious market share has resulted in the Charismatic Renewal becoming the largest and most dynamic Catholic lay movement across the region and throughout the Global South. In both Brazil and Guatemala, where Pentecostalism has found especially fertile soil, more than 60 per cent of Catholics identify as Charismatic, according to Pew.

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While Pentecostalism has continued to expand over the past decade, albeit it at a slower pace, the most significant new development on the Latin American religious landscape is the meteoric rise of the “religious nones”: those who don’t have any specific religious affiliation or identity. The 2014 Pew survey reported a Latin American population of 8 per cent nones. In just three years that figure has more than doubled to 17 per cent, according to Latinobarómetro.

In comparison, Pew reports the percentage of nones in the US at 22 per cent, which is slightly larger than the American Catholic population at 21 per cent. The Pope’s contrasting reception in Peru and Chile is partly due to the huge difference in the number of nones in each country. While Chile’s none population, at 38 per cent, is the second largest in Latin America, behind Uruguay’s, Peru’s ranks among the smallest (at 8 per cent), behind the Catholic bulwark of Paraguay.

In short, for the first time we have solid evidence of continuing Catholic decline in the region that is home to 39 per cent of the world’s faithful under the first pontiff from the region. While Francis’s visit to Peru seems to have energised the base in the Andean nation, the rapidly shifting Latin American religious landscape, in which Catholicism is transitioning from a majority to plurality religion, appears to be a trend that is so strong that not even a charismatic native son can reverse its course.

This article first appeared in the January 26 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here