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Institutional churches are on the run in Latin America


By Phillip Berryman
Orbis Books, 210 pages, $18.00 paper


That an explosion of charismatic and other forms of Pentecostal Protestantism is taking place in Latin America is by now widely recognized. But both Catholics and the small but important group of Latin American Protestants belonging to the historic churches who trace their origins to the Reformation have difficulty in understanding and responding to this upheaval.

By focusing on two of the enormous conglomerations that today characterize the human ecology of Latin America -- Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Caracas, Venezuela -- Phillip Berryman offers important insights and suggestions as to how to live with this new reality.

Human ecology is a major factor in the change. In 1900 Latin America had 63 million inhabitants, a number that doubled by 1950, and doubled again by 1990. It will reach about 500 million by the year 2000. Meanwhile, from being 75 percent rural as recently as 1940, the population is now 75 percent urban.

The migrants to the periphery of the sprawling megacities were overwhelmingly illiterate. Centuries-old customs and traditions, in which the secular and the religious were intertwined, dictated their lifestyles, the way they planted and reaped, the way they celebrated the mysteries of life in festivals that combined Christian and pre-Christian beliefs. These solid structures that sustained them from the cradle to the grave were rooted in the earth. They were not transplantable to the city.

Migrations to the city, in consequence, produced what social scientists call anomie, a condition of social instability resulting from a breakdown in standards and values. Into this vacuum rushed the Pentecostal churches with a surge of hope and an offer of neighborly support. The pastors were themselves poor and usually had little formal education, and the congregations small -- as few as 50 or 60 worshipers, seldom more than 200 or 300.

These churches prosper and multiply because they fill a need. Already, in terms of regular churchgoers, Protestantism is on a level with Roman Catholicism, though there is still a vast number not reached meaningfully by either church who, if asked, would identify themselves as Catholic.

The question now being asked is whether Latin America is a Catholic continent or indeed if it ever was. Certainly, it was never Catholic in the sense that the United States a century ago was a Protestant country, in which nearly everyone was organically and immediately connected to a church and a way of life, and in which to be a Catholic -- except in a few Eastern cities -- was to be an outsider.

In Latin America, Catholicism had been imposed by more or less open force, frequently adding no more than a few Christian beliefs and practices to a pre-existing religious structure. Bishops and priests were often foreign, and even the native clergy had become "intellectuals" and separated from their people through their formation processes. Their numbers were minimal, one to every 50,000 or 100,000 church members, as contrasted with one to a thousand in Europe.

Still, this question of Latin Americans' Catholicity, while being asked, is far from settled. As popular religiosity is more systematically studied, the sense is emerging that beneath practices and beliefs very different from those of conventional Catholicism, there exists a solid substratum of faith. It is noteworthy that the Pentecostal churches do not flourish where vigorous Christian base communities are found. The institutional church, however, generally refuses to support the base communities. Where it has done so, as in El Salvador under Archbishop Oscar Romero, it was the base communities and not the Pentecostal churches that proliferated.

It follows that mass migration and resulting anomie do not necessarily result in a change of religion. This was demonstrated in New York when a million Puerto Ricans flooded the city in the late 1950s. At first, there was a flowering of storefront churches, offering the same simple gospel of salvation and the same social support as the Pentecostal churches do today in Latin America. But, thanks largely to the creative initiatives of Ivan Illich, the New York church introduced radically different structures, including appropriate training of the clergy, that soon stanched the hemorrhage. Given the vast numbers involved and the scarcity of material and human resources in the institutional church in Latin America, this solution is purely conceptual. Perhaps it would be more realistic to downgrade the claim or projection that Latin America will soon hold half the world's Catholics.

A final interesting datum from Berryman's book points to the political impact of the growth of Protestantism. In 1990, Jorge Serrano, a professing evangelical, was elected president of Guatemala. Evangelicals were a major factor in Alberto Fujimori's victory in Peru. They were more successful in support of Fujimori, a Catholic, than were the bishops who backed Mario Vargas Llosa, a professed unbeliever.

Similarly in Brazil, Protestants now constitute a major caucus in the national congress. These victories have had the same legitimizing effect for Protestantism as Kennedy's 1960 victory did for U.S. Catholics.

Gary MacEoin lives in San Antonio.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 1997