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RELIGION-BRAZIL: Pope to Come Looking for Lost Sheep

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 2 2007 (IPS) - On his upcoming visit to Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI will find that the Roman Catholic Church, which used to be absolutely predominant in this country, has been losing members rapidly since the 1980s to the growing evangelical Pentecostal groups. And even more former Catholics now profess no religion at all.

“Christianity in Brazil is diversifying, but the main social phenomenon to be noted is the growth in numbers of people without a faith at all, which for the first time is assuming mass proportions,” priest and theologian José Oscar Beozzo, executive secretary of the Ecumenical Centre Services for Evangelisation and Popular Education (CESEP) and for many years head of the Church History in Latin America Study Centre (CEHILA), told IPS.

The segment of the population that has stopped going to church and left off following any religion, but without necessarily becoming atheist, rose from 0.8 percent of the population of Brazil in 1970 to 7.4 percent in 2000, according to the state Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), which means the proportion increased almost tenfold in 30 years.

This process is unevenly distributed across the country. In the poor northeastern state of Piauí, less than one percent have abandoned all formal religion, compared to 28 percent in the poor Rio de Janeiro suburb of Queimados, Beozzo noted.

The Brazilian Catholic Church has experienced the loss of adherents at other times in its history, but generally in smaller numbers. For example, intellectuals left the church in the late 19th century, and anarchist or communist workers left it in the 20th. “But now it’s the poor, who have traditionally held fast to religion, that are leaving it in droves,” he said.

“This is because of the economic crisis of the past 25 years, and the deep sense of disillusion and utter neglect felt by poor people in the shantytowns ringing the big cities, who no longer expect anything from the state, the Church, or God,” the historian said.

Catholicism is also losing many members to Protestant churches. In 1970, 5.2 percent of Brazilians attended Protestant churches, a proportion that climbed to 15.4 percent by 2000, while the portion of the population that identified as Catholic in the census declined from 91.8 to 73.6 percent over the same period.

Three weeks ago, the Vatican reported that there were 155.6 million Catholics in Brazil in 2005, or 84.5 percent of the country’s population of 184 million. The data were based on Catholic baptism registers. However, it is a widespread custom in this country to baptise newborn infants, who do not necessarily become committed Catholics.

The growth in the number of evangelical Pentecostal churches, and of charismatic movements within Catholicism and traditional Protestant churches, such as the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, is another recent phenomenon in Brazil. “The traditional churches are also becoming ‘pentecostalised,'” Beozzo said.

The spread of Pentecostalism in Brazil is associated with rapid urbanisation and internal migration. People have flocked to the slums ringing the cities, as well as to the Amazon jungle region. Rondonia, in the southwestern Amazon jungle, is the state with the greatest religious diversity, and its population is largely made up of Brazilians from other regions who have arrived in the last three decades.

“Pentecostals are more agile, more mobile, and freer to preach in small churches which could be homes, garages or similar simple locales. A pastor can be trained in just two years,” said Beozzo, who pointed out that in the Catholic Church, it takes eight years to ordain a priest.

In his opinion, the new Pentecostal forms of religion are growing because of three factors. The exacerbated individualism of capitalist society has broken down the religious traditions of families. “A family with four different religions within the same household used to be unthinkable. But now religion is an individual question, and membership is personal,” Beozzo said.

Also, the new religious movements offer healing, and the desperately hopeless reality of poor people is such that their illnesses may be physical, or caused by “fear and insecurity,” which can be overcome by a welcoming church community.

Exorcism, too, by identifying a demon to be expelled, is another practice that can attract poor people who suffer from a string of misfortunes, like losing their job or their family, or having children who are addicted to drugs, and other problems of unclear origin that “seem inexplicable,” he said.

“The diversification of religious options in recent decades has given people the sense that they have freedom of choice,” which explains the decline of Catholicism in Brazil, said Silvia Fernandes, a consultant with the Centre for Religious Statistics and Social Concern (CERIS) and a professor at the Federal Rural University in Rio de Janeiro.

But changing one’s church affiliation “is more frequent among Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals than among Catholics,” she told IPS. A CERIS study found that in 2004 only four percent of Catholics had adopted another denomination, while 85 percent of Pentecostals said they had changed churches, which suggests there is a considerable amount of “intra-evangelical circulation,” she said.

“Historically, Brazil has never had a single ‘pure’ Catholicism, but multiple versions, so that Catholic identity is very fluid and culturally influenced,” said Fernandes, who downplayed Catholic Church losses, arguing that “many elements of Catholicism have been maintained, in spite of the denominational changes, and the Christian universe is still the religious matrix of Brazil.”

The shrinking proportion of Catholics in Brazil was not arrested by Pope John Paul II’s (1978-2005) three visits to the country. The trend influenced Pope Benedict’s decision to visit Brazil May 9-13, and to celebrate the 5th General Episcopal Conference for Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida, 167 kilometres from the southern city of Sao Paulo.

For the last 28 years, Brazil has been excluded from the presidency of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) and other organs and mechanisms of institutional decision-making because of a policy followed by the Vatican during John Paul’s papacy, Beozzo said.

The appointment last year of Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, former archbishop of Sao Paulo, as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican, restored a communication channel that may have been a determining factor in the decision to hold the episcopal conference in Brazil.

“The (Vatican’s) policy was not good for Brazil, nor for the Catholic Church. Now there is a change from previous policy,” Beozzo concluded.

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