Latin America may be going Protestant faster than anyone realized. A new Pew survey on the area’s religious affiliations found that 69 percent of respondents identified as Catholics, down from 90 percent through the end of the 20th century. More dramatically, 84 percent of respondents said they were raised Catholic, so the results represent a 15 percent drop in Catholic affiliation in just one generation. Here’s where former Catholics are going and why, via the NYT:
Latin America remains home to an estimated 40 percent of the planet’s Catholic population. But the survey finds that 19 percent of Latin Americans now describe themselves as Protestants. And Protestant churches in Latin America are filled with former Catholics — in Colombia, 84 percent of Protestants say they were baptized as Catholics.
Latin Americans who converted from Catholicism to Protestantism most often said they did so because they were seeking a more personal connection with God.
In Catholic Europe or among white Americans, the Catholic Church often loses people to secularism, either over outrage with the clergy (viz. the sexual abuse crisis) or over disagreement with the Church’s teachings on sex and gender. Pope Benedict was deeply mindful of this trend during his papacy. He quite explicitly saw himself as attempting to recall his region of Europe to its Christian and Catholic roots, away from an anti-clerical yet relativistic secularism.
For South American Catholics the trend appears to be quite different. Their most appealing alternative to the Church seems not to be progressive secularism, but a faith that provides the direct contact with God that they believe they cannot find in Catholicism. Unlike those who embrace secularism, they probably do not disagree with the Church’s conservative stance on sexuality—leaders of the burgeoning evangelical community in Brazil have condemned abortion and gay marriage—but rather are dissatisfied with formal ritual mediated by a priest.
Addressing that challenge looks very different from Benedict’s European project, and it’s possible to read much of Francis’s papacy so far as an attempt to appeal to Catholics and former Catholics in his home region. The friendly, personable style of communication, his closeness with evangelical leaders both before and after his election as Pope (Argentine evangelicals said Francis was “an answer to our prayers” upon his election), his forthright attitude towards the Devil, even his lukewarm or perhaps hostile attitude to Pope Benedict’s liturgical reforms—all of this is consistent with an attempt to stem a growing defection to Protestant churches.