Exodus in Latin America

RNS recently reported that the Catholic Church has been badly hemorrhaging in Latin America (here):

“Since the 1970s, Latin America has witnessed such meteoric evangelical growth that several countries are no longer Catholic-majority. Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Uruguay lead the pack of nations in which there are now far more active evangelicals than Mass-attending Catholics. (Brazil, though still home to the world’s largest Catholic population, now boasts the second largest number of Protestants, behind the U.S., and leads the world in Pentecostals.)”


This is a very big deal. Forty percent of all the world’s Catholics live in Latin America. But RNS provides few details about the massive exodus from the Church, focusing instead on political implications.


In 2014, following the election of Pope Francis, the Pew Forum conducted a series of surveys in Latin America (here). These surveys not only quantified the Church’s loss, but provided a great deal of additional information.

Prior to 1970, over 90% of Latin Americans belonged to the Catholic Church. By 2014, this plummeted to less than 70%. (There is no data for intermediate years.) This is a massive loss. For centuries, Protestant missionaries made great efforts to proselytize Central and South America, with only marginal gains. But suddenly they more than tripled their share. Something happened. But Pew says almost nothing about it.

Pew did ask former Catholics why they left the Church:


Pew emphasized the top 2 responses – “seeking a personal connection with God” and style of worship. They made no attempt to explain why 60% of converts sought improved morality and a more helpful church. Pew did note that there were no demographic difference between those who left the Catholic Church and those who remained in it. Part II of this article provides more detail.

It seems that the Cardinals elected Cardinal Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, because he was a South American (I suspect his Italian ancestry helped). Belatedly, they hoped to stop the hemorrhaging, and perhaps recapture some share. Pew asked about this:

Most people who remained Catholics had a favorable opinion of Pope Francis, and thought he represented a “major change.” (Pew made no attempt to explain why a major change was necessary.) However, relatively few people who left the Catholic Church were impressed by Pope Francis; at best they took a wait-and-see attitude. Based on prior experience, once someone leaves the Church, they are unlikely to return.

Even before electing Pope Francis, the Church attempted to increase its appeal. Pew asked about the gospel of prosperity:

The striking thing is that a large majority of Latin American Catholics believe in the prosperity gospel – almost as many as Protestants. While the authors present no historical data, this is almost certainly a relatively recent phenomenon – well after 1970. These numbers are far too large to reflect idiosyncratic changes. Catholics were taught the prosperity gospel. Bishops and their superiors knew this, and probably instructed priests to do it.

This was not the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church in Latin America. When the Spanish conquistadors and its priestly associates took over Latin America, no one preached the gospel of prosperity. Converts were taught to expect great things in the afterlife, but to humbly obey their new overlords in this life. The Spanish stole the land and its wealth. They sent many new converts to work the gold mines, but neither priest nor lord promised them any of the gold.

This is true for most of Church history. The laity were taught to embrace poverty, and prize asceticism. Jesus repeatedly damned the wealthy, e.g., saying a rich man has as much chance of entering heaven as a camel does passing through the eye of a needle. This was the official position of the Catholic Church. It still is. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The tenth commandment forbids avarice arising from a passion for riches and their attendant power” (2552) --- exactly what the new Catholic Church is promising their Latin (and African) flock. Similarly, the Catechism documents the “deadly” or “capital” sins – “pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth” (1866). The Catholic Church is now encouraging “avarice” in the name of Jesus Christ.


Soul Brothers

pope high fives copland2

Pope Francis gave his warmest embrace to the dean of Prosperity preachers, Ken Copeland (above). Pope Francis would later proclaim, “The meeting is the message.” The message is that he and Ken Copeland are effectively soul mates.

For those unfamiliar with Ken Copeland, John Oliver did an excellent piece on him and other televangelists (here, on YouTube). Mr. Copeland tells his audience that if they send him donations, God will enrich them. The larger the donation, the greater God’s gift. Copeland exhorts his flock to go into debt and max out their credit cards to make these donations. Watch it! He is a loathsome charlatan.

Months after embracing Copeland, Pope Francis publicly condemned the prosperity gospel. (However, he didn’t forbid his Latin American or African clergy from preaching it – that would hurt business.)

Part II has more on the history of the Catholic Church in Latin America, and how that led to its losses.

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