Shifting Religion in South America

Cardinal Bergoglio
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 2008 – Creative Commons (Aibdescalzo)

When I blogged earlier this year about the election of Jorge Bergoglio as a “pope of firsts,” the first such groundbreaking I explored was Pope Francis as the “First Latin American Pope.” I noted that some observers speculated that the election was meant, in part, to address the decline of Catholicism in regions like Francis’ native South America:

…the choice of a Latin American could also be read as recognition that Catholicism’s strength in that region is actually quite shaky. Like many historically Catholic nations, Bergoglio’s Argentina has a declining number of regular mass-attenders. Moreover, 15% of the population does not identify as Christian at all, and Bergoglio’s own battles with Argentine president Christina Kirchner over same-sex marriage suggest that church influence is not what it once was….

And Bergoglio’s election is being read as an attempt to reinforce Hispanic Catholicism in the face of the rising popularity of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. Take Brazil: the single largest Catholic nation, home to nearly one in eight members of that communion. In 1940 less than 3% of its population was Protestant, now that number is over 20%. Most of those are Pentecostals, and, according to an earlier Pew study, the majority of Brazilian Catholics identify with the charismatic movement….

As Pope Francis arrives today in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day — “a triennial gathering of the world’s Catholic youth,” writes Vatican reporter Allesandro Speciale, “that is sometimes dubbed a ‘Catholic Woodstock’ where papal star power takes center stage” — all that comes back to mind.

Speciale observes that “Brazil will encounter a pope unlike any in the church’s modern history,” one already renowned for a “simple, no-nonsense style that has won widespread support from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.” But at the same time, “Francis will find a church in crisis in the world’s most populous Catholic nation.”

For evidence of the crisis, look to the report published last week by the Pew Form on Religion & Public Life. While Brazil does have more Roman Catholics than any other country in the world, that number (123 million) dropped by two million from 2000 to 2010. More significantly, as Brazil’s population more than doubled from 1970 to 2010, the Catholic share of that population fell from 92% to 65%.

What has caused this decline? The Pew Report points to other trends that seem relevant:

Christian Congregation of Brazil church in São Paulo
Mother church of the 2.5 million-member Christian Congregation of Brazil, in São Paulo – Wikimedia

First, in 1970 only 5% of Brazilians were Protestant. That figure is now 22%. The growth in Pentecostalism has been especially pronounced: from 6% in the 1991 national census to more than twice that percentage twelve years later in the Pew survey. Write the Pew authors:

The rapid growth of Pentecostals and other Protestants in Brazil cannot be explained fully by demographic factors, such as fertility rates or immigration. Brazilian census data from 2000 indicate that total fertility rates for Protestants are about the same as for Catholics. In addition, less than 1% of Brazil’s population is foreign born – too small a percentage for immigration to make a significant difference in the religious composition of the country as a whole

Rather, the main factor in the growth of Protestantism in Brazil appears to be religious switching, or movement from one religious group to another. The country’s decennial census does not ask Brazilians whether they have switched religions. But a 2006 Pew Research survey of Brazilian Pentecostals found that nearly half (45%) had converted from Catholicism.

Second, from 2000 to 2010 there has also been some growth in the shares of non-Christian religions (from 4% to 5%) and of the religiously unaffiliated (from 7% to 8%).

Noting particular decline in Catholicism (and growth in Protestantism) among city-dwellers and young people, Speciale added another cause of the “crisis” that will greet Francis when he arrives in Brazil:

Disaffection with the church seems to reflect the wider discontentment in Brazilian society that erupted in unprecedented unrest that has shaken the country in recent weeks.

June 2013 protests in Natal, Brazil
Protests in late June, in the Brazilian city of Natal – Creative Commons (Isaac Ribeiro)

Protesting against widespread corruption and lavish government spending, hundreds of thousands of young Brazilians took to the streets in late June. The protests rocked the center-left government of President Dilma Rousseff just as Brazil prepares to showcase its newfound global power in hosting World Youth Day, soccer’s World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.

Brazil’s defense ministry has deployed nearly 3,000 extra soldiers for the pope’s visit, and the Vatican is watching the situation closely. Lombardi said he is confident that “everyone will understand that the pope’s message is a message of solidarity with the whole society, calling for a peaceful life and adequate development for everyone.”

Even if it pales in comparison with the estimated $13 billion the government is spending on the World Cup, the papal visit’s $150 million price tag — a third of it covered by Brazil — probably won’t make things easier. Responding to critics, Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Sao Paulo countered that the price is for World Youth Day should be considered an “investment in the young people.”


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