Gary MacEoin reports from America on the growth of Protestant sects in Central and South America
WHEN announcing "a new evangelisation" to mark the fifth century of the proclamation of the Christian message in the Americas, Pope John Paul insists that the first evangelisation made Catholicism an indivisible element of Latin American culture, It is a viewpoint not universally shared. On the contrary, many historians and sociologists today suggest that the hemisphere is turning Protestant.
Reliable statistical information is scant. There is, nevertheless, fairly broad agreement that one Latin American in ten is Protestant. It is an impressive figure if compared with total church attendance. Fewer than ten per cent of Latin American Catholics regularly go to church.
Even more impressive is the rate of growth, a phenomenon on which all agree. Such traditional Protestant churches as Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists are relatively static, the growth benefitting mostly pentecostal sects that stress personal salvation, engage in ecstatic forms of worship, and reject involvement in social or political issues.
The Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade, a reputable organisation but one that obviously has an interest in maximising its figures, reports a growth of 77 per cent in Brazil between 1960 and 1970, and of 155 per cent in the following decade.
By general agreement, however, Central America has seen the most spectacular growth since 1960, a tripling in Nicaragua, quintupling in El Salvador and Costa Rica, and even higher rates in Honduras and Guatemala. Some estimates claim that half of all Guatemalans are Protestant. Rather curiously, Mexico is relatively unaffected, with Protestants estimated at between two and five per cent, most of them near the US border in the north or the Guatemalan border in the south.
Massive input of missionaries and money from the United States is undoubtedly a factor in this rapid change. But it is only one of many factors. Much US money comes from the conservative right and not all of it goes to Protestant missions.
Thus, the Ciudad de Dios in Managua, a subsidiary of the US-based Sword of the Spirit, is a charismatic group that worked closely with Cardinal Obando y Bravo and La Prensa newspaper against the Sandinistas while Cardinal Obando
they were in power. About half the members of Sword of the Spirit in the United States are Catholics, and many Ciudad de Dios members are also Catholics. They include Humberto Belli, long identified as recipient of CIA funds and recently named vice-minister of education by President Violeta Chamorro. At least seven other Ciudad de Dios members have high posts in her government.
Probably the most significant factor in the growth of Protestantism is the transformation of Latin American society through demographic growth with a parallel decline in the auicultural labour force because of mechanisation. The population which was 63 million in 1900, is expected to reach 500 million by the year 2000. Surplus labour has flooded into city slums, where the social conventions of the stable countryside no longer prevail.
In this strange and often hostile environment,people try to create protective structures, and one of the most useful is often the tiny pentecostal church which offers an identity to the newcomer.
The Christian base community does indeed provide this shelter for many people within a Catholic context. There is growing sociological evidence, however, to show that in many circumstances these base communities may be stepping stones on the way to changing one's religious affiliation.
There are two quite different ways in which this can occur. One offers an explanation of what happened in parts of the Guatemalan highlands. Peasants who had their consciousness raised in base communities became the sea in which the guerrillas could swim. The Guatemalan army responded by waging a war of extermination against villages in which base communities had been organised. With a tradition of centuries of survival by keeping a low profile, peasants quickly recognised the wisdom of joining a sect known for its political conformism.
The scenario in Riobamba, Ecuador, was very different. Leonidas Proano, its bishop, had taken the second Vatican Council seriously. He handed over diocesan lands to the peasants who worked them. He developed an extraordinary network of more than 1.300 pastoral agents, many of them Quechua Indians.
But his efforts to train'
Indians for the priesthood were constantly blocked by the canonical requirements, including celibacy. After 30 years, all of his priests were still outsiders to the Quechua, this at a lime when Protestant leadership had become largely indigenous. The result was a constant leakage of Quechua church workers to Protestant missions that previously had very few adherents. By 1985, when Proano retired, the Catholic authorities acknowledged that 30 per cent of the population was Protestant.
The Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity called last May. for a more systematic and scientific study of the spread of sects. The Riobamba experience indicates one area in which our existing clerical system is seriously dysfunctional.