The surprising announcement by Benedict XVI that he will retire from the papacy in a few weeks’ time has naturally led to a flurry of media attention on the challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church (for once, mercifully, with a broader focus than the scandal of pedophile priests and their protective superiors). On February 15, 2013, the New York Times carried a story filed by Simon Romero from Rio de Janeiro, entitled “A Laboratory for Revitalizing Catholicism: In Brazil, Countering Evangelicalism and Secularism with Livelier Worship”. It is a very good, lively story, and Romero has all his facts right. I would like to suggest a somewhat broader interpretation of these facts.
The basic facts are very clear: Despite the huge statue of Christ with outstretched arms overlooking the panorama of Rio (in my opinion, the most beautifully located city on earth), Brazil is no longer the Catholic country it once was (and as which many people still think of it today). There has been a very powerful upsurge of Evangelical Protestantism, almost all of it of the Pentecostal variety. There has also been a growing number of people who, without converting to another faith, no longer publicly identify themselves as Catholics. In 1970 over 90% claimed to be Catholics; in 2010 that number had shrunk to about 65%. Brazil is still the one country with most Catholics; it probably is the country with most Pentecostals who now number about 20% of the Brazilian population. Sao Paulo has been called the “Pentecostal capital of the world”. Also in 2010, 15% of Brazilians said that they had no religious affiliation. One has to be a little careful in looking at these numbers. It is still the practice of the Roman Catholic Church to count as members all those originally baptized as Catholics (even if in the meantime they have become militant atheists or Buddhist monks). While the Brazilian census does have a question about religion, the answers are by self-identification, which is particularly iffy in the case of Catholicism, which is still a kind of “default religious identity” for many Brazilians. For a very long time, many Brazilians were ardent devotees of Condomble, an elaborate religious tradition of African origin, while at the same time retaining a very loose relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. As to the 15% of “nones” (as they are now called by religious demographers in America), that response covers a lot of different positions, which are not easily subsumed under the category of “secularism”. It certainly does mean that these are people not, or no longer, attracted by either the Roman Mass or the “gifts of the Spirit” offered by Pentecostals.
The Times article, as its subtitle indicates, focuses on Catholic countermeasures against its new Pentecostal competitors. It mentions a particularly successful priest, Marcelo Rossi, who is a writer of popular music (his songs have sold more than 12 million CDs) and who performs in rock-style festivals, at which Mass is celebrated with some 25,000 attendees in a new Catholic mega-church in Sao Paulo. Less spectacular priests also officiate with cowboy hats and allow country music at Mass. I think that these extravagant stratagems are rather marginal. More important (also mentioned in the article) are Pentecostal-like inroads within sizable segments of Brazilian Catholicism. Glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”), spiritual healing miracles and exorcisms are allowed by some bishops (I imagine with some reluctance) in the context of Catholic worship. This is not a phenomenon limited to Brazil, but is part of a worldwide movement of so-called “Catholic charismatic renewal”. Throughout Latin America, in Africa and in the Philippines it is also an attempt to counteract charismatic Evangelicalism; ironically, it has been called “Pentecostalization” by outside observers. In Africa it has a peculiar component with ancestor worship, which naturally makes the hierarchy even more relutant.
We are dealing here with millions of people, and I would think that there are some Pentecostals with Catholic nostalgias who are re-converted to their original faith by priests imitating Protestant televangelists. I doubt whether this is going to work as an overall strategy to gain back the huge number of ex-Catholic Pentecostals. Rome can make accommodations in its religious practices up to a point. It has always done so, ever since it permitted pagan deities to resurface as Christian saints and pagan holidays as feast days in the Christian calendar. Despite the aforementioned acceptance of some non-Catholic practices, the latter are only part of what may be called the “Pentecostal package” (the attractiveness of which they go far to explain). However, other crucial features of this package are the very Protestant notions of direct access to God, without the mediation of any institution with a sacramental apparatus, and the emphatically non-hierarchical character of the Christian community. These features are in fundamental opposition to Catholic core beliefs in the authority of the ecclesial institution, supposedly initiated by Jesus, and of that institution’s (the Magisterium). Rome can be enormously flexible, but not in that. If it were, it would give up its innermost nature and indeed its raison d’etre (at that point, it could as well apply for membership in the Lutheran World Federation.)
Is Brazil a laboratory for Catholic revitalization? With regard to Pentecostalism, probably only in a very limited way. But what about secularism, the other rival faith in the article’s subtitle? Benedict’s call for a “new evangelism” has emphasized secularism as an important target. That too is rather problematic. Secularism as an aggressive creed, a late offspring of the French Enlightenment, is still a reality in Europe and in some late disciples elsewhere (such as Kemalists in Turkey, conservatives in the Chinese Communist Party, and some quasi-Kemalist intellectuals in America). But as the term is usually employed (as when it is used to describe the “nones”), it is not a faith but rather the lack of a faith—notably a lack of faith in the theological and moral teachings of the churches. I am sure that there are some people, mostly intellectuals, who adhere to secularism as a faith. For reasons I don’t know, the philosophy of Auguste Comte, a secularist philosopher if there ever was one, became very influential in Brazil in the nineteenth century (an argument for the proposition that mediocre thinkers can become historically very important). His motto “Order and Progress”, in Portuguese translation, is still emblazoned on the Brazilian flag. But I would assume that most in the 15% of Brazilians who disclaim any religious affiliation have much less ideological reasons for this position. In any case, they are very unlikely to be drawn, or drawn back, to Catholicism by priests strumming electric guitars or being offered the opportunity to speak in tongues during Mass. Thus there is something a bit Eurocentric in Benedict’s marching orders against secularism: It makes good sense in Europe, much less so elsewhere.
Simon Romero, in his Times article, cites Evangelicalism and secularism as two challenges to the Roman Catholic Church. Fair enough. As I suggested, secularism is a more important challenge in Europe, where Evangelicals are thin on the ground. In Brazil, on the other hand, the Evangelical challenge is massive. However, whatever part of the world we look at, I would propose that these two are manifestations of the same underlying challenge: the challenge of modern pluralism.
This topic is very much on my mind right now. I am writing a book about it, and our research center at Boston University is currently engaged in a project about it. Thus, if I let myself go, this post would go on for one hundred pages at least. Instead, I will only make some general observations about the topic, and then go back to the Roman Catholic situation.
Ever since the Enlightenment, it was widely thought that secularization, in the sense of a decline of religion, is a necessary consequence of modernity. The history of religion since the beginning of the twentieth century (just when Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God) has greatly weakened this idea. In most of the world religion flourishes luxuriously, in some regions more than ever. Modernity does indeed produce secularization in some places, much less so or not at all in other places. What it necessarily produces is pluralism—the proliferation of different worldviews, moralities and lifestyles co-existing in the same society (including some form of secularism). Regimes can seek to suppress pluralism, but such projects are difficult and very costly. The pluralistic revolution is a root fact of the present age. It creates a basic challenge to religion, but it is a different challenge than secularity.
The nature of the challenge is that the pluralistic revolution undermines the taken-for-granted character of any religious tradition. There is nothing mysterious about this. Our notions of reality are originally created in interaction with others, when we are children undergoing what psychologists call “primary socialization”. Later, in adulthood, these notions are sustained, modified or given up in interaction with other people we care about. This has a simple but hugely important consequence: When our social environment is unified and stable, our view of the world is held with a great sense of certainty. When that environment is heterogeneous and unstable, we become uncertain. We realize that there are different ways of perceiving reality. In the early years of the modern age, Pascal observed that what is true on one side of the Pyrenees is error on the other. Modern people, surrounded by plurality, have metaphorical mountain chains running right across their mind. The individual is forced to choose between different options available in his situation, a difficult assignment. This is why many modern people are so nervous.
This post is about to degenerate into an academic lecture, so let me give a concrete example of what I just wrote. Take a Spanish village on that “other side of the Pyrenees”, say, two hundred years ago. Everyone in that village was Catholic to all appearances (there had been a Jewish family, but it was expelled long ago, and more recently there was a man suspected of heresy, but he disappeared in the dungeons of the Inquisition). If I grew up in that village in the early years of the nineteenth century, my Catholicism would be taken for granted—in my behavior, but, if I had been properly socialized as a child, in my mind as well. I never travelled any distance from the village, and I knew very little about the outside world (I was probably illiterate, and there were no books around anyway). Today the social environment could not be more different. Already in my childhood the area was flooded by tourists every summer; now most of the new houses are owned by wealthy Germans (many of whom are Protestants). The socialist mayor of the village is a vocal atheist, and the priest sometimes sounds like one. I finished secondary school, am not only literate but actually like to read about different parts of the world. I make constant use of the Internet and I am on Twitter. I have been trained as a repairman for mobile telephones and commute to my job in the nearby city. I have traveled to several European countries. I am engaged to a woman from the Philippines who came to Spain as a nanny. Am I still a Catholic? Well, the census lists me as one. But I give little thought to religion, and I ignore most Catholic moral teachings in my behavior. Catholicism is certainly not taken for granted. It is conceivable that I might become more Catholic in the future (perhaps after I have children, and perhaps after the dubiously pious priest has been succeeded by one who is close to Opus Dei). But my Catholicism will be the result of a deliberate decision on my part.
Is Brazil really a credible “laboratory” for the revitalization of the Roman Catholic Church? No and yes. No: it is very unlikely that Catholicism will ever regain the hegemonic position it once held. It will certainly not disappear, will probably still be the preferred faith for a majority of Brazilians, and thus will retain a significant niche in the pluralistic religious marketplace. So will Pentecostalism. Other niches may yet open up. There will be some noisy atheists (as there are in America), but many more individuals will remain outside the various religious communities without making a faith out of the non-affiliation. But yes: Brazil is a clear case of the pluralistic challenge to the Roman Catholic Church. The case will help to test the efficacy of the “new evangelism” advocated by Benedict XVI.
It is useful to recognize that the Church has already made substantial adjustments to pluralism, especially in its affirmation of religious freedom. The long pontificate of Pius IX (from 1846 to 1878) is commonly perceived as a period of determined resistance to modernity, with highpoints the publication of the Syllabus of Errors (1864), with its long list of condemned heresies, and the First Vatican Council (convened in 1869), which solemnly proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility (defiantly, as the troops of the nascent Italian state were about to occupy Rome and put an end to the worldly power of the pope). Probably the best-known heresy condemned in the Syllabus is error # 80 – that “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization”. It also rejected the separation of church and state, as well as the freedom of the individual to choose his religion. This feisty claim to exclusive and coercive truth persisted into the twentieth century. Its last political realization was probably the support by the Church of the Franco regime’s project to make Spain an “integrally Catholic” nation. In other words, during this long period, pluralism was an enemy to be resisted. The period came to a dramatic end with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965, spanning the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI), which provided a theological justification of religious freedom. A Protestant theologian was asked at the opening of the Council what he thought would be its first action. He replied, “They will decide not to read the minutes of the last meeting”. Since then the Roman Catholic Church has been actively involved in the promotion of religious freedom, other human rights and democracy, and in fostering dialogue rather than polemic in relations with other faith communities. This change did not come easily. No monopoly likes competition, especially if the CEO in charge of the ex-monopoly is understood to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. Some Catholic bishops in Brazil have sought a dialogue with the Pentecostals, but others still regard the latter as “sects” to be denounced and resisted. Coming to terms with the pluralistic revolution will be the principal challenge to Rome for many years to come.
As to the contestation between Catholicism and Pentecostalism, I find myself in the position of a neutral observer. I am not tempted either to “swim in the Tiber”, or to be baptized by the Spirit. However, as a sociologist of religion committed to “value freeness” in my work, I will point to a weakness in the Catholic strategy to compete with Pentecostalism. There is a school of sociological thought that uses economic categories in analyzing religion. As a general approach to religion, I think this is misleading. For example, an individual contemplating conversion to Pentecostalism is not a “rational actor” engaged in a cost/benefit calculation to guide the decision. But pluralism, especially under conditions of religious freedom, does indeed lead to a market of religious offers. In this particular situation, it makes sense to apply some categories derived from market economics. If your brand of religion is challenged by a rival brand, there will be the temptation to adopt some of the features of the latter. This may be a good move, or it might be a mistake. In the situation at issue, some people might indeed find your synthesis of the two brands attractive. You might also find that some of those, who have liked your brand as it has long been, will be turned off. You might actually lose your demographic base. Market research (also known as empirical social science) may help Brazilian bishops to decide the respective numbers of those who would come in because of rock music at Mass and those who would leave for precisely that reason. To the extent that bishops are not only entrepreneurs in the religious marketplace, one would assume (or hope) that their decision will finally be made for reasons of faith.