Increasing numbers of Catholics in Latin America are abandoning the Catholic Church in favour of Evangelical congregations or non-religious life, according to a new survey, making Pope Francis' calls for renewed evangelisation efforts in the region ever more urgent.
The Washington CD-based Pew Research Center survey of 30,000 residents of 18 countries and Puerto Rico showed 69 per cent of respondents confirming they were Catholic, even though 84 per cent of people said they had been raised in the Church.
The Catholic population has slipped sharply over the past century, when their numbers topped 90 per cent. Evangelicals have attracted Mass-goers often by promoting what those converting would consider more attractive ways of worshipping the Lord, an emphasis on morality and solutions for their earthly afflictions – mostly poverty-related, said Andrew Chesnut, religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Some Central American countries and Uruguay now have almost as many Protestants or religiously unaffiliated people as Catholics in their populations. If the trend continues, "even Brazil, home to the largest Catholic population on earth, will no longer have a Catholic majority by 2030," said Dr Chesnut, author of a book on Evangelicals in Brazil.
The survey underlines the urgency of the Pope's pleas for action in Latin America, where Catholicism has been intimately associated with culture, governance and history for more than 500 years.
Pope Francis has called for Catholics to adopt a more missionary mindset and take their faith to people on the periphery of society – places where Protestants often find converts.
The Pew survey found Evangelicals showing more enthusiasm for their faith, expressed by attending church services and praying more frequently, adherence to moral teachings and the level to which religion is important in their daily lives.
The level of enthusiasm "often is more demanding in terms of personal commitment," said Dr Chesnut, an academic consultant to the Pew survey.
Protestants now make up 19 per cent of the Latin American population, while another 8 per cent now profess no religious affiliation – a figure reaching 37 per cent in Uruguay. Roughly half these people did not grow up in their current congregations or in non-religious homes, according to the survey.
Some 65 per cent of Protestants in Latin America belong to Evangelical congregations.
"Christianity in Latin America is thoroughly 'Pentecostalised,' with 70 per cent of Protestants and 40 per cent of Catholics identifying as charismatic," Dr Chesnut said. "If it weren't for Charismatic Renewal, Catholic decline probably would have been even greater."
In Brazil, where 60 percent of the population is Catholic, evangelical pastor Jay Bauman said the style of worship attracts people to Protestant congregations – along with the promotion of "prosperity Gospel" teachings by some Pentecostals.
Dr Chesnut said services at World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro showed more of a charismatic style, and it is being adopted by Latin American Catholics in increasing numbers.
Francis has proved popular among Catholics in Latin America, "but former Catholics are more sceptical," with only majorities of ex-Catholics in Argentina and Uruguay expressing approval of the first Latin American pope, according to the survey.
A table from a survey published last week by the Pew Research Centre graphically illustrates the decline of Roman Catholicism in Latin America. Most dramatic is the finding that most of Central America is now only “half Catholic”, with Honduras “Less than half Catholic”. Pope Francis’ homeland Argentina just scrapes into the “Predominantly Catholic” category, whereas Brazil is on its way to becoming only “Half Catholic”. Uruguay, the least Catholic country in the region, has a secularist tradition going back to 1861. Overall, over 425 million Latin Americans identify as Catholic, or 69 per cent of the continent’s population and almost 40 per cent of the world’s Catholics. That means the number of Latin American Protestants – known as evangélicos – stands at around 117 million.
Top: Pilgrims at last year's World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, where some services were Pentecostal in style. Above: Poverty, as experienced by this Honduran family, is identified as one reason Latin American Catholics have been attracted to Evangelical congregations; Christ the Redeemer gazes over on Rio. Photos: CNS