MEXICO CITY –– Increasing numbers of Catholics in Latin America are abandoning the church in favor of evangelical congregations or nonreligious life, according to a new survey, making Pope Francis’ calls for renewed evangelization efforts in the region ever more urgent.
The Pew Research Center survey of 30,000 residents of 18 countries and Puerto Rico showed 69 percent of respondents confirming they were Catholic, even though 84 percent of people said they had been raised in the church.
The Catholic population has slipped sharply over the past century, when their numbers topped 90 percent. Evangelicals have pulled people away from parishes and into their church pews often by promoting what those converting would consider more attractive ways of worshipping the Lord, an emphasis on morality and solutions for their earthly afflictions — mostly poverty related, said Andrew Chesnut, religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Some Central American countries and Uruguay now have almost as many Protestants or religiously unaffiliated people as Catholics in their populations. If the trend continues, “even Brazil, home to the largest Catholic population on earth, will no longer have a Catholic majority by 2030,” said Chesnut, author of a book on evangelicals in Brazil.
The survey underscores the urgency of the pope’s pleas for action in Latin America, where Catholicism has been intimately associated with culture, governance and history for more than 500 years.
Pope Francis has called for Catholics to adopt a more missionary mindset and take their faith to people on the periphery of society — places where Protestants often find converts.
The Pew survey found evangelicals showing more enthusiasm for their faith, expressed by attending church services and praying more frequently, adherence to moral teachings and the level to which religion is important in their daily lives.
The level of enthusiasm “often is more demanding in terms of personal commitment,” said Chesnut, an academic consultant to the Pew survey.
Protestants now make up 19 percent of the Latin American population, while another 8 percent now profess no religious affiliation — a figure reaching 37 percent in Uruguay. Roughly half these people did not grow up in their current congregations or in nonreligious homes, according to the survey.
Some 65 percent of Protestants in Latin America belong to evangelical congregations.
“Christianity in Latin America is thoroughly ‘Pentecostalized,’ with 70 percent of Protestants and 40 percent of Catholics identifying as charismatic,” Chesnut said. “If it weren’t for Charismatic Renewal, Catholic decline probably would have been even greater.”
Some 81 percent of respondents cited “seeking a personal connection with God” as their main reason for switching to a Protestant church. Another 69 percent said they “enjoy (the) style of worship” at their new church and 60 percent “wanted greater emphasis on morality.”
In Brazil, where 60 percent of the population is Catholic, evangelical pastor Jay Bauman said the style of worship attracts people to Protestant congregations — along with the promotion of “prosperity Gospel” teachings by Pentecostals.
“You go in and there are services for healing and liberation, all sorts of things and even a message that basically is that Jesus Christ can renew your life, can change you,” said Bauman, director of Restore Brazil ministries in Rio de Janeiro.
“But what they add on to it … is: (God’s) going to make you rich or he’s going to make you prosperous,” he added.
Chesnut said services at World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro showed more of a charismatic style, and it is being adopted by Latin American Catholics in increasing numbers.
The 2013 election of Pope Francis, the first in Latin American to assume the papacy, was interpreted as a sign of the importance of the region to the Catholic Church and concern over its seeming loss of stature.
Pope Francis has proved popular among Catholics in Latin America, “but former Catholics are more skeptical,” with only majorities of ex-Catholics in Argentina and Uruguay expressing approval of the pontiff, according to the survey.
Even with Pope Francis being popular among Catholics, “that hasn’t necessarily resulted in a ‘Francis effect’ in terms of greater attendance at Mass and participation in church life,” Chesnut said.