Pope John Paul II travels through a shower of confetti in his popemobile during a 1980 visit to Brazil. Photo: RNS
April 19, 2007
Updated: May 9, 2007
by Luis Lugo, Director, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
When Pope Benedict XVI landed in São Paulo's Guarulhos International Airport on May 9, he entered a religious landscape very different from the one that confronted his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, on his first visit to Brazil nearly three decades ago, in 1980.
Brazil is still the world's most Catholic country, at least in raw demographic terms, but it is also fast becoming one of the world's most pentecostal countries - with a rapidly growing number of seculars as well. Not surprisingly, as the pope kicks off the fifth general conference of the Latin American bishops on May 13, near São Paolo at Aparecida, the influence of secular values and the dramatic growth of pentecostal 'sects" will be high on the agenda.
Brazil is the most populous country in Latin America and the fifth most populous overall, with about 180 million people. Moreover, it boasts a Roman Catholic population of about 130 million, according to the latest national census in 2000, making Brazil the largest Catholic country in the world. However, a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that Catholic dominance is steadily eroding. Unlike in Europe, where the majority of former Catholics have simply become secular, in Brazil, many are turning to pentecostalism.
The national census paints a stark picture. As late as 1980, the same year that 1.5 million people greeted Pope John Paul II in São Paulo during his two-week visit to Brazil, the overwhelming number of Brazilians, 89%, still self-identified as Catholic. By the time of the 2000 census, however, the Catholic share of the population had dropped by more than 15 percentage points, to 74%. In Brazil's rapidly growing urban areas, where three-quarters of Brazilians now live, the Forum's recent survey found that the decline is even more precipitous. Less than 60% of the urban population now claims a Catholic affiliation, according to the survey, which was released in October 2006.
The Forum survey also shows that many of these former Catholics are becoming Protestants, more specifically, pentecostals. The 2000 Brazilian census puts the share of the Protestant population at slightly more than 15% - three times what it was when the first Latin American bishops conference convened in 1955, also in Brazil. Our survey reveals that the vast majority of these Protestants, roughly three-in-four, are in fact pentecostals. A majority (62%) of the respondents in the survey who said they are pentecostal also indicated they were converts, and of these, nearly three-in-four said they had once been Catholic. At the same time, a growing number of Brazilians seem to be abandoning formal religion altogether; the number of religiously nonaffiliated jumped from 1.6% in 1980 to 7.4% in 2000.
The impact of the pentecostal movement in Brazil extends beyond its burgeoning demographic numbers. In fact, it's not far-fetched to say that Christianity in Brazil and other Latin American countries is well on its way to becoming "pentecostalized." Pentecostal beliefs and practices also are changing the way many of Brazil's remaining Catholics practice their faith. The Forum survey found, for example, that more than half of Brazilian Catholics have embraced important elements of spirit-filled or renewalist Christianity, including a highly animated worship style and such practices as speaking in tongues and divine healing. In short, pentecostalism no longer is something confined outside the Roman Catholic Church; it is now firmly within it in the form of various charismatic tendencies and movements.
The rapid growth of pentecostal and related renewalist movements has not been lost on the pope nor on the Latin American bishops. In a February address to the papal representatives to Latin America, for instance, the pope listed the problem of proselytism from sects as among the major challenges facing the Catholic Church in that region. The Latin American bishops also are placing a high priority on this issue. Accordingly, the director of the press office of the Latin American bishops, Father David Gutiérrez, explained in a Vatican interview in January that the re-evangelizing of Catholics is the overriding concern of the May 13-31 summit. "The conference will initiate an evangelizing dynamic of renewal of Catholics in Latin America," according to Gutiérrez. "It is the novelty of this 5th conference."
There appears to be a change in tone in the run-up to the Aparecida meeting with respect to the church's approach to the challenge of the "sects." In his opening address to the fourth general conference of Latin American bishops, which was held in the Dominican Republic in 1992, the normally ecumenical Pope John Paul II condemned pentecostal and other sects as "rapacious wolves" who are devouring Latin American Catholics and "causing division and discord in our communities."
This time the official emphasis appears to have shifted to self-criticism and internal reform, with an eye to drawing former Catholics back into the fold. "[S]ects are not the problem - our believers are the problem," Gutiérrez declared in January. "Why is there weakness? Why don't they remain firm in the faith in the face of any proposal?" It remains to be seen whether this change in tone will result in a fundamental change in strategy. As Gutiérrez himself acknowledged, "It is not clear how this mission will unfold."
The growth in pentecostal ranks is attracting high-level attention not only from Catholic officials but from politicians as well. In the last presidential election in Brazil, for example, left-of-center President Lula da Silva strongly courted the pentecostal vote. And in the last Brazilian Congress, some 10% of the 600 delegates were evangelicals, mostly pentecostals. This pattern of increased political participation is one that is being repeated throughout Latin America.
Politicians are paying attention not only because of the growth of pentecostalism across the region but also because of pentecostals' growing political involvement. Indeed, one of the most significant findings of the Forum's 10-country survey of pentecostals was the extent to which pentecostals had turned political in their orientation - which surprised those who still retain an older image of a largely apolitical movement. The survey found that in most countries, including Brazil, pentecostals are at least as likely as other Christians to support religious involvement in politics and public life.
Pentecostalism's expansion and growing political influence have important implications for the religious and political dynamics of countries such as Brazil. One concern is the issue of interreligious tension. Despite holding many of the same conservative views on a wide variety of moral and social issues, there continues to be deep suspicion between Catholic and pentecostal communities, with each frequently criticizing the other.
This suspicion sometimes breaks out into open hostility, as in a 1995 incident in which a minister of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the country's largest indigenous pentecostal denomination, kicked a statue of Our Lady of Aparecida (considered among the most sacred icons by Brazilian Catholics) on a nationally broadcast television program. In addition to being the venue for the upcoming Latin American bishops conference, Aparecida is the site of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, which attracts some 8 million pilgrims a year.
Some called the storm of protest that followed a small "holy war," with formal legal complaints filed against the minister in question for disrespecting religious freedom. Reflecting the tensions associated with this and other incidents, the Forum survey found that more than 60% of Brazilian pentecostals and Catholics describe conflict between religious groups as a very big problem in their country. A similar number said they can trust people from other religions only a little or not at all.
Some features of the pentecostal movement may help explain some of the friction with the established religious order. To put it simply, pentecostals are nothing if not aggressive when it comes to evangelism. The Forum survey shows, for example, that pentecostals are much more likely than other Christian groups to believe that they have a duty to convert others (the figure for pentecostals is 72%, compared with only 29% for Catholics). This sense of duty is reinforced by a strong confidence born of their belief that God intervenes supernaturally in the day-to-day lives of believers, including such powerful ways as through divine healings and direct revelations. They also believe very strongly in the second coming of Christ, which only reinforces their sense of urgency.
The Brazil that Pope John Paul II visited in 1980 presented the Catholic Church with a host of challenges, including an authoritarian military regime that the Catholic hierarchy had long opposed. Regardless of the challenges, however, the Catholic Church was assured that it confronted them from a secure position as the country's dominant religious authority. Unquestionably, however, the political, religious and economic changes that have occurred in Brazil since 1980 have helped weaken the church's once unquestioned dominance.
The challenge facing Pope Benedict XVI and the Latin American bishops as they gather in Aparecida will be to ensure that the Catholic Church remains a vital part of the Brazilian social and political scene, even in the midst of a more competitive and fractious religious environment. It may well be that coming to terms with the growth of 'sects," especially pentecostalism, will enable the Catholic Church to become a more effective religious competitor in the future.