A tale of two churches: battling for the soul of Latin American Catholicism.
Christian sects (Membership)
Christian sects (Forecasts and trends)
Priests (Public participation)
Priests (Religious aspects)
Clarke, Killian
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Name: Harvard International Review Publisher: Harvard International Relations Council, Inc. Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Economics; Law; Political science Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 Harvard International Relations Council, Inc. ISSN: 0739-1854
Date: Spring, 2006 Source Volume: 28 Source Issue: 1
Event Code: 010 Forecasts, trends, outlooks; 290 Public affairs Computer Subject: Market trend/market analysis
Organization: Catholic Church; Catholic Church
Named Person: Fuentes, Lourdes; Fuentes, Lourdes
Geographic Scope: South America Geographic Code: 30SOU South America

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The hillside shantytown of La Carapita lies on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela. Its houses, which often hold up to ten people, are constructed mostly of thin cardboard and tin. Their religious leader is a spunky, 31-year-old nun known as Lourdes Fuentes. In her flip-flops and jeans she conducts a mass that calls upon the members of her congregation to interpret the Bible for themselves and asks them to share publicly their personal opinions regarding Jesus and the Scriptures.


The priest who is formally assigned to this town, Juan Solorzano, rarely visits the congregation of La Carapita. He finds the town to be too dangerous and prefers to remain safely in his upper-middle class neighborhood in Caracas. When he does visit, however, he offers an austere service with no participation, which stands in stark contrast to the services of Lourdes Fuentes. Whereas Fuentes believes in a God who encourages the poor to empower themselves, Solorzano instructs the villagers to embrace their poverty and hunger so as to bring them closer to God. Solorzano also warns against the use of condoms, which he says are ineffective, and abortion, which he labels a sin.

He and other members of the Church hierarchy have scolded Fuentes on many occasions for her progressive, participatory services, as well as her encouragement of condom use and abortion, both of which disregard many of the long-held teachings of the Catholic Church. However, Fuentes remains unfazed by the reprimands of her superiors and promises to continue her work in the village for as long as possible. "We do not want to see 12-year-old girls having babies or 19-year-old boys dying of AIDS. But in many churches the nuns are too afraid to do the same" she says.

A War of Ideologies

Small-scale grassroots progressives such as Fuentes are by no means anomalies in Catholic Latin America. Over the last half century, this region, which has become the most dynamic part of the world for Roman Catholicism, housing 447.1 million of its adherents, has witnessed the rise of a progressive movement aimed specifically at serving the needs of the masses. But priests and bishops with traditional Catholic profiles similar to Solorzano's are no less common. In fact, the conflict between the two religious leaders in La Carapita is simply one example of the thousands of battles being waged throughout Latin America in an ideological war between conservative Catholic elites and local grass-roots progressives.

Similar conflicts have manifested themselves in almost every Latin American country. Progressive priests and nuns, in an effort to tailor Catholicism to the social and economic needs of the common people, tend to preach a form of Catholicism that is much more forgiving on issues such as poverty, contraception, abortion, and AIDS. In contrast, the goals of the more traditional senior members of the Church hierarchy, and of the Vatican itself, have generally been to enforce adherence to the long-established precepts of the Catholic Church. For decades there has been a constant flow of reprimands and criticisms from the Vatican, accusing local priests of violating Church doctrine and basic Catholic tenets.

While some progressive leaders continue undaunted, preaching a Catholicism similar to that of Lourdes Fuentes, other priests and nuns are beginning to feel increasingly disillusioned with the official positions of their superiors. Some progressive leaders have been sanctioned or officially reprimanded, and others have been expelled from the Church entirely. In addition, with the April 2005 election of Pope Benedict XVI, an ideological conservative with traditional views on a number of social issues, many are losing heart in what is increasingly becoming an uphill battle against the Church authorities. As a result, the ratio of priests to Catholics in Latin America, according to the Associated Press, is now one of the lowest in the world, with one priest to every 6,364 Catholics.

Due to these and other factors, membership in the Catholic Church is waning in Latin America. Faced with competition from other evangelical sects that are more forgiving on issues such as abortion and contraception, the Church has noted a significant decline in membership. According to a report from the University of Notre Dame, 50 years ago 90 percent of the Latin American region was affiliated with the Catholic Church, compared to 70 percent today. As a result, the Catholic Church must soon make a choice: either alter its policies to take into account the social and economic needs of its Latin American members or continue to witness a steady decline in membership as individuals either align themselves with other Christian sects or abandon their faith entirely.


A Theology of Liberation

The presence of small-scale, grassroots progressives is by no means a recent phenomenon in Latin America. In fact, for nearly four decades there has been an official movement known as liberation theology aimed at catering to the needs and desires of the Latin American people. This movement originally adopted a different tone from the one that exists today, but its original goal of empowering the common people has remained fundamentally the same.

Liberation theology officially began at the 1968 assembly of the Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, when the group of participating bishops endorsed a "preferential option for the poor" that granted priests the ability to become more involved in the daily lives of their parishioners. Their goals were to create a fundamental shift in the allegiances of the Church from the wealthy ruling elite of Latin America to its poor majority, and to help overturn the existing widespread inequality through small, localized actions.

Initially, liberation theologians tended to ally themselves with left-wing political movements, and their rhetoric contained distinctly socialist overtones. These positions earned them few friends among members of the ruling authority in Rome, who strongly criticized and handicapped the movement. Many priests were stripped of their power or expelled from the priesthood, and a number of theological schools that preached progressive approaches to Catholicism were shut down. In addition, Pope John Paul II's appointment of a large number of conservative bishops during his reign severely undermined the efforts of liberation theologians. Then, in the 1980s, with the fall of communism in the East and the decline of socialist movements in Latin America, the movement lost further momentum as its ideas and rhetoric began to sound increasingly outdated.

This did not mark the end of liberation theology. Instead, liberation theology reinvented itself, adopting more social and economic rather than political goals. Now, instead of advocating for class struggle and against military dictatorships, liberation theologians have increasingly turned their attention to AIDS, poverty, the environment, racial justice, religious pluralism, and women's rights. This redefinition has saved the dying movement and has led to a new wave of localized grassroots initiatives throughout Latin America.

However, this new version of liberation theology has still been unable to reconcile its policies with those of the central authority in the Vatican. Because modern-day liberation theologians generally adopt a liberal stance on issues of abortion, poverty, and contraception, conservative Catholics continue to view them as a threat. This clash of ideals has driven the Vatican to continue pursuing its conservative agenda throughout Latin America in an effort to undermine the efforts of these "new-age" liberation theologians.

A Region-Wide Conflict

While the conflict between such liberation theologians and conservative elites is present throughout the Latin American region, it has a tendency to manifest itself in different ways from one nation to another. In some countries the progressives seem to hold more sway over the people while in other countries conservative church leaders appear to dominate.

For example, Brazil, the most populous Catholic nation in the world, with 150 million followers, has a fairly liberal Catholic society. Condoms are distributed on a routine basis at events such as festivals and street parties, and 70 percent of Brazilian women use artificial contraception. These activities have been highly effective in the prevention of AIDS, which has historically been a serious problem in Brazil. In 1990, the World Bank estimated that the country would have 1.2 million cases of HIV/AIDS by 2000. Today it has only about half of that number. This success in AIDS prevention is due, in no small part, to the Brazilian church's lack of opposition to condom use, which many Catholics have construed as tacit support.

However, such liberalism is not the norm in all Latin American countries. Chile has a far more conservative Church establishment, which has been a major obstacle in campaigns to curb the spread of AIDS. Colombia is also very strict. It is one of the few countries in the world that continues to ban abortion entirely, even when the mother's health is at risk. And yet, according to The Economist, an estimated 400,000 women still opt for illegal abortions, which are often unsafe and/or costly. A large portion of the opposition to changes in the abortion laws comes from the upper echelons of the Colombian church and powerful Catholics such as the Colombian president himself.

In other countries, there is not an obvious victor in the war between local progressives and powerful conservatives. In Peru, where liberation theology first took hold in the 1970s, grassroots movements have been relatively successful, largely due to the country's fairly liberal culture. Four years ago, however, the Vatican elevated a conservative bishop from the far-right religious sect Opus Dei to the position of Cardinal of Lima. Such Vatican support has often been a deciding factor in battles over social issues. In El Salvador the Vatican successfully lobbied to have every pack of condoms marked with a warning that they are useless. It is this kind of power and influence that progressives often find hard to fight.

Unfortunately for these priests and nuns, strong opposition from Rome is not likely to subside in the future. With the election of the conservative German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the Papal throne, it quickly became apparent that the Church was unlikely to alter any of its conservative policies. During the 1980s, Ratzinger served as the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the ideological disciplinary arm of the Catholic Church. In this position he called liberation theology a "fundamental threat to Catholicism" and was responsible for silencing a number of priests and nuns. In light of this history, there seems to be little hope in the near future for any sort of alliance between progressives and the Vatican.

Religious Rivals

Until recently, Catholics who felt disillusioned with the conservative doctrines of the Church had few religious alternatives. But the past decade has witnessed the rise of new Christian sects, which are beginning to challenge the Catholic Church's centuries-old religious monopoly. Evangelical Christian groups have begun to expand their proselytizing efforts and have turned their attention to Latin America. Pentecostals have been particularly successful in attracting new members, using missionary-style tactics to cater to the economic and social needs of the Latin American masses.

The resulting decline in membership in the Catholic Church has occurred at a striking rate. Several years ago, the Latin American Catholic Bishops Conference estimated that 8,000 Latin Americans convert to Evangelical Christianity every day, making it the fastest growing religion in the region. Such growth has significantly altered the religious makeup of Latin America. According to a report from the University of Notre Dame, 20 percent of the region is now Protestant. Brazil and Argentina have seen particularly high evangelical growth rates, eight percent annually in the former and ten percent annually in the latter. In many areas, the only thing keeping more Catholics from defecting to evangelical sects is the presence of progressive local leaders who continue to tailor their sermons and services to the needs of their congregations.

Two Paths

In light of these developments, there is little doubt that the Catholic Church will soon be facing some very significant decisions. As the world rushes into the 21st century, the choice between adherence to strict, traditional precepts and modernization in accordance with the needs of the Catholic masses is becoming increasingly important. The implications of this decision will undoubtedly affect the future of the Catholic Church in the region. Based on the success of evangelical sects, the already existing decline in Church membership seems likely to continue should the Church maintain its current policies.


However, the more important implication for the region is the effect that this decision can and will have on the lives of the over four hundred million Catholics who live in Latin America. Despite the conservative policies of the ruling Church elites, the presence of Catholicism has been and continues to be an incredible agent for positive change in Latin America. Through the work of small-scale progressives, intent on alleviating the suffering of their local congregations, people have been better able to cope with issues such as poverty, hunger, and disease and have been able to advocate for change in areas of women's rights and social inequality. Grassroots priests and nuns such as Lourdes Fuentes still exist in vast numbers throughout the region. Their leadership in local communities continues to lift people, both spiritually and physically, out of their suffering.

The problem is that they are pursuing their initiatives in constant opposition to the priests and bishops who oversee them, which limits their success. As long as this continues to be the case, the Church will never be as effective an agent for positive change as it could be. With a constituency that comprises 70 percent of the entire region, the Catholic Church has the potential to exert a powerful positive influence on the lives of the Catholic masses. The mechanisms are all in place, waiting to be put into full use. But it remains to be seen whether the Catholic Church will have the insight to adjust to the 21st century and modernize its policies in accordance with its members' social and economic needs. Failure to do so will leave the region exactly where it is, and could even exacerbate some of the major problems it faces, such as disease, poverty, and hunger. However, a successful modernization process would allow the Catholic Church to make full use of its power, influence, and resources to promote widespread positive change and alleviate the suffering of millions of its impoverished members.

associate editor



Despite the fact that nearly half the world's Catholic population resides in Latin America, the region has seen substantial growth in evangelical adherence over the past decade. With a policy that is often opposed to the welfare of its followers, the Church must reform if it hopes to regain ground.


University of Notre Dame
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.