And so it is within this context of precipitous decline that the cardinals chose a Latin American confrere as Pope. Having written off a major attempt to revitalise the Church in Europe and having realised the dynamism of the faith in Africa and Asia, Church leaders strategically opted to focus on the region that with 42 per cent of the world’s Catholic population holds the key to future growth. Thus, in addition to Brazil figuring as the paramount country for the global Church, competition from Pentecostalism is the most compelling religious factor that has shifted the Vatican’s focus to Brazil and Latin America.
The great majority of the Church’s losses have been to burgeoning Pentecostalism. Since the 1950s tens of millions of mostly impoverished Latin Americans have converted to Pentecostal denominations such as the Assembly of God and the Brazil-based God is Love (Deus é Amor). The astronomical growth rate is captured in the inverse of the aforementioned numbers on Catholic decline in Brazil. From the 1940s the Protestant percentage of the Brazilian population skyrocketed from one to 22 per cent, of which approximately three quarters are Pentecostal.
Pentecostalism with its Spirit-centred worship has become so popular in Brazil and most of Latin America that even 10 years ago I wrote of a pentecostalised Christianity in my book, Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy. What this means specifically is that Pentecostal-style theology, complete with faith healing, exorcism and the health and wealth gospel, has become hegemonic….
Over in the Catholic camp, the Church’s own version of Pentecostalism, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR), has quickly become the most vibrant movement within the Brazilian Church and many others in Latin America. Like Pentecostalism, the CCR is an import from the US, arriving in the region in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And while contemporaneous Liberation Theology failed to appeal to the Brazilian and Latin American Catholic masses in any significant numbers, the CCR packs football stadiums for its evangelical crusades and even conducts Pentecostal and Mormon-style door-to-door proselytising in many countries….
If the Vatican’s new evangelisation campaign is to have any chance at revitalising the faith in Brazil and Latin America it must harness the spirited dynamism of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which is especially popular among young people. And it was exactly Catholic youth whom the Argentine Pontiff put front and centre in his first speech on Brazilian soil. Twice in his opening remarks he called on them to “go and make disciples of all nations”. Francis has already revealed his affinity for charismatic practice with his recent informal exorcism of a Mexican parishioner who claimed to be possessed by evil spirits related to the legalisation of abortion in Mexico City, home to the largest Catholic population of any metropolis on earth. Thus Brazil will make a fascinating stage upon which Francis will be challenged to combine the Latin American preference for the Spirit with his option for the poor.
R Andrew Chesnut is Bishop Walter F Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.