WHY ARE ROMAN CATHOLICS LEAVING THEIR CHURCH
TO JOIN EVANGELICAL CHURCHES IN LATIN AMERICA?
Compiled by Dr. Clifton L. Holland
Director of PROLADES
5 September 2002
COMMON REASONS GIVEN SINCE 1970: 1. Many Roman Catholic apologists claim that the problem of desertion among Catholics in Latin America is because of a lack of pastoral care for parishioners due to population growth and the Church’s inability to train enough priests to meet the pastoral needs of all the parishes. 2. Also, they accuse the Evangelicals, mainly the Pentecostals, of “proselitizing” (or stealing their sheep) by unethical means (falsely denouncing the Catholic Church as apostate and corrupt) and preaching against the worship of the Virgin Mary and the saints, while attacking other Catholic doctrines (the authority of Church traditions, the infallibility of the Pope, apostolic succession, celibacy, the Mass, the use of religious images, purgatory, etc.). 3. The high rate of population growth in nearly every country (+ 3.5% annually), coupled with a decline in the number of Roman Catholic priests (diocesan and religious), has produced the present situation where the priest-to-population ratio is very low and declining (e.g., 1:50,000, for example). 4. There has been a decline in the number of priests and nuns in many countries, especially of foreign religious workers, as well as a decline in the number of students who are entering the seminaries to prepare for the ministry. 5. Today, there are more Evangelical pastors in most Latin American countries than Roman Catholic priests. The growth rate of Evangelical membership in Latin America is reported to be 10% annually for the period 1960-1995, and the number of local Evangelical churches is multiplying rapidly in many countries. 6. In countries where the Roman Catholic Church is dominant, it is very intolerant of the presence of Evangelical groups, Christian sects, and non-Christian religions, which it denounces as “an invasion of sects” with financial backing of the U.S. government and U.S. business interests (see Stoll, page 34: “Protestantism is the arm of conservative capitalism”—religious imperialism). In countries where the Roman Catholic Church is a minority, it has stressed the importance of “tolerance,” “diversity” and “dialogue” among religious leaders and the defence of human and civil rights—freedom of thought, speech and worship. 7. In some countries, Roman Catholic bishops have been very intolerant of the presence and growth of the Catholic Charismatic Movement with its Pentecostal influences, which has caused a serious crisis of faith among those Roman Catholics whose spirituality has been revitalized by the gifts, presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, some Catholic Charismatics have abandoned their Church and joined Pentecostal groups (this was especially true during the 1970s in Costa Rica). 8. Overall, since the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church has been very divided internally by numerous competing ideologies and movements: conservatives vs. liberals, the rise of Liberation Theology one the one hand and the Catholic Charismatic Movement on the other hand, and the reforms instituted by the II Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medell�n, Colombia (1968), and later in Puebla, Mexico (1979). 9. Since Puebla, the Catholic Church in many counties has emphasized the doctrine of the worship of Mary as the watershed issue that divides Catholics and Protestants in Latin America; the Pope has made numerous visits to sites where apparitions of the Virgin Mary have supposedly occurred in an effort to convince Catholics that it is the One, True Church of Jesus Christ, apart from which “there is no salvation.” 10. Roman Catholic authorities have also sought to divide Protestants by creating some measure of dialogue with Mainline Protestant groups (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed Churches, United Church of Christ, the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ and other Liberal denominations associated with the World Council of Churches and the Latin American Council of Churches, CLAI, in Latin America) while refusing to dialogue with Evangelical and Pentecostal groups, which it considers to be “sectas.” 11. According to recent public opinion polls in many countries, the Roman Catholic Church has suffered a loss of credibility among a growing number of those who were born Catholics, because of its medieval theology and liturgy, its dogmatism and authoritarianism, its clericalism and bureaucracy, its lack of sensitivity to the masses, its loss of moral authority due to scandals in the Church (financial misconduct, abuse of authority, sexual abuse of children and youth, etc.), and its distance from the lay people over issues of birth control, divorce and remarriage, the role of women in the Church, the requirement of celibacy for priests, artificial insemination, en vitro fertilization, etc. 12. An older public opinion poll (Hoge 1981) in the USA regarding Catholic dropouts discovered the following: 13. Based on a 1978 Gallup Poll in the USA, the reasons given for dropping out of Catholic and Protestant churches were as follows:
*Table ranked by Catholic Responses 14. A comparison of religious affiliation in Colombia, between the nation’s total population and the university student population of Medell�n, reveals the impact that secularisation, a shift in political ideology from right to left and adoption of universal “higher values” is having on university students; they are deserting the Catholic Church and becoming atheists, agnostics or religiously indifferent in greater numbers than are members of the general population. According to a 1999 study by professor Carlos Arboleda Mora, et al (La Religiosidad de los Universitarios de Medell�n), 14.8% of university students in Medell�n stated they had “no religion” compared to only 4.5% of the nation’s general population, even though the size of the Protestant population and those of other religions was reported to be about the same for both groups in the two samples (see table below): 15. A recent public opinion poll in Costa Rica (November 2001), conducted by Demoscop�a, revealed that 17.6% of Costa Ricans (all religions) had abandoned their churches for a variety of reasons during the past generation (14.7% were Catholics and 2.9% were Evangelicals):
16. The frequency of Catholic church attendance in Costa Rica in November 2001, according to the Demoscop�a, was as follows:
- Deception (43%)
- Try something new (11.7%)
- To follow the Truth (11.2%)
- Because they experienced the Holy Spirit in their lives (8.9%)
- Learned to study the Bible (3.3%)
- Their previous religion was corrupt (3.3%)
- Attracted to a new form of worship (2.8%)
- For convenience (1.9%)
- The old religion was too strict (1.9%)
- The old religion was too materialistic (0.9%).
NOTE: those who attended weekly or monthly can be considered “active” Catholics (57%), and those who attended “a few times a year or hardly ever” can be considered “nominal” Catholics (36.1%), whereas those who “never attend” can be considered religiously “indifferent” (6.8%). 17. According to a 1991 public opinion poll in Peru, conducted by Lic. Jos� Luis P�rez Guadalupe (�Por qu� se van los Cat�licos?) of the Center of Theological Investigation of the Facultad de Teolog�a Pontif�cia y Civil de Lima among 2,500 ex-Catholics, the following reasons were given for joining Evangelical churches:
- Several times a week (6.9%)
- Once a week (42.1%)
- Several times a month (8.0%)
- A few times a year or hardly ever (36.1%)
- Never (6.8%)
- I had an encounter with Christ (33.6%)
- They preach and teach the Truth (22.9%)
- I was attracted by the testimony of the group (17.1%)
- They provided me with a sense of community or fellowship (14.3%)
- They provided me with help (12.1%)
18. Professor P�rez Guadalupe states (page 27) that his own personal opinion regarding the basic reason for Catholic desertion is: “The fundamental cause…is that these Catholics are finding in Evangelical groups an intense and profound religious experience that they never experienced in their own archaic Catholic Church.”
19. Also, professor P�rez Guadalupe reports that 75% of those who disserted the Catholic Church had a low level of identification with the Church; that is, they were “nominal” Catholics who seldom or never attended Mass. This points to the fact that many Peruvians, who are born Catholic, live in a “religious vacuum” where the institutionalised Roman Catholic Church is not touching their lives at the local level; the Church is distant, impersonal, mechanical and artificial, whereas the Evangelical churches are offering people a personal encounter with a living Christ and a new sense of “community”—small, personal, fraternal and organic groups. 20. Rather than denouncing the Evangelical groups as being “sects” and teaching “false doctrine,” professor P�rez Guadalupe stated that Catholic leaders needs to look at their own organizational and ministerial deficiencies:
21. In terms of practical solutions, professor P�rez Guadalupe suggest that Catholic leaders do the following:
- Insufficient bishops and diocesan priests to attend to the pastoral needs of the people.
- Insufficient religious priests and nuns to attend to the pastoral needs of the people.
- An uneducated and immature laity that lacks knowledge of basic Catholic doctrine and that has a low level of commitment with the Church.
- Low levels of regular weekly attendance at Mass.
- Our pastoral structure is “priest-centered”—we monopolize all of the ministerial functions and the people expect us to do everything.
22. Professor David Stoll (1990) believes that a true religious reformation is taking place in Latin America led by Evangelicals, particularly by Pentecostals, but that it remains to be seen if this “reformation” will lead to social transformation for the poor and oppressed through personal morality and self-improvement rather than through social revolution as advocated by Liberation Theology. Sources: David Caplovitz and Fred Sherrow, The Religious Drop-outs: Apostasy among College Graduates. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1977.
- Admit that the basic problem is our own lack of pastoral care of the people.
- Admit that the problem of desertion among Catholics is symptomatic of a generalized crisis WITHIN the Church that we must face and deal with as pastors.
- Rather than “satanizing” the Evangelicals and other religious groups and warning Catholics not to associate with them, what we need to do is “reevangelize those who are already baptized” (kerigma) and “disciple our own people” (cataquisis) so that they have a more solid doctrinal foundation and a stronger personal and spiritual commitment to the Catholic faith, and so that they will not be so easily impressed by other forms of worship, doctrine and organizational structure.
- What we need to do is teach our people the basics of the Catholic faith, using sound pedagogical principles by well-trained teachers who are knowledgeable in the Bible and Catholic Theology.
- We need to organize our people into small groups (base communities) for fellowship, instruction and service in the community.
Dean R. Hoge, Converts, Dropouts and Returnees: A Study of Religious Change Among Catholics. New York, NY: The Pilgrim Press, 1981. Richard Rodr�guez, “Continental Shift: Latin Americans Convert from Catholicism to a More Private Protestant Belief,” in the Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1989; Part V, pages 1,6. Profesor Carlos Arboleda Mora, et al, La Religiosidad de los Universitarios de Medell�n. Medell�n, Colombia: Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana de Medell�n, 1999. Demoscop�a, Encuesta de Fe y Creencias del Costarricense. San Jos�, Costa Rica: Demoscop�a, 2001. Lic. Jos� Luis P�rez Guadalupe, �Por qu� se van los Cat�licos? Lima, Per�: Conferencia Episcopal Peruana, 1992. David Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990.