Pope Benedict’s five-day trip to Brazil in May—his first to Latin America as pope—inaugurated the fifth general conference of Latin American and Caribbean bishops (CELAM). The nineteen-day assembly got to work after the pope returned to Rome, taking up the region’s pressing social needs and the challenges facing the church as it tries to reenergize its evangelization efforts.
It is no secret that the church in Latin America is losing followers and influence, partly because of inroads made by Pentecostal sects and secularization. Brazil remains the most populous Catholic country in the world, with an estimated 140 million baptized Catholics. At the same time, Brazil now claims the largest number of Pentecostals in the world (around 24 million), outstripping even the United States. While noting the “aggressive proselytizing of the sects,” the pope also acknowledged the church’s own evangelical and catechetical failures.
In a masterly series on the appeal of storefront Pentecostal churches in New York’s Harlem (“House Afire,” New York Times, January 14–16), reporter David Gonzalez described how and why such congregations appeal to urban newcomers, many of them baptized Catholics. With their egalitarian structures, familial ambiance, emotionally evocative worship services, and theology of self-help entrepreneurship, they seem to offer both material and spiritual rewards here and hereafter. Historically, especially in the United States, Catholicism provided similar structures and support for impoverished groups without proposing a dubious “gospel of prosperity.” In Brazil, the pope declared that no effort to reconnect with fallen-away Catholics should be spared, but it remains the job of local bishops to devise plans to do so.
Not all the obstacles to reaching these fallen-away Catholics come from outside the church, however. The pope’s own unwillingness to discuss needed institutional reforms may be another impediment. Consider: In Brazil, a country almost the size of the United States, there are fifty thousand parishes but only thirteen thousand priests. This staggering disparity was on the mind of São Paulo’s seventy-two-year-old Cardinal Cláudio Hummes last fall when he raised the possibility of admitting married men to the priesthood. He told journalists that clerical celibacy was not a dogma and therefore the policy might one day be changed in response to the priest shortage. Shortly after making those statements, Hummes arrived at the Vatican to head the Congregation for the Clergy and quickly offered the equivalent of a public retraction. As if to underscore that reversal, the pope told the bishops in Brazil that he was personally saddened when those within the church questioned the value of priestly commitment and apostolic celibacy. Of course, Hummes had done nothing of the sort.
In Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (1990), sociologist David Martin observed that once individuals embrace Pentecostalism, they become deeply suspicious of hierarchical organizations and authority. Obviously, this poses a daunting challenge to the church’s efforts to reverse its losses in Latin America. Hierarchy, however, can be just as inclusive and supportive as more egalitarian Protestantism. Furthermore, there is no reason Catholics should not be more ecumenical in their outreach. While the pope met with a number of religious leaders in Brazil, including mainline Protestants, Muslims, and Jews, he avoided representatives of the Pentecostals. Only in one limited area did he hint at possible cooperation, suggesting that a united defense of biblical moral values was the best way for both groups to resist the cultural dangers of consumerism and relativism.
Benedict’s statements about the other social and political trends in Latin America seemed broader in scope. While he offered bracing criticism of Marxism, unfettered capitalism, and the rise of authoritarian governments in the region, he noted that Christians must not retreat from the political arena. Political structures are in constant need of democratic reform, he said, but these very structures are a prerequisite for creating a just social order. In this regard, he even acknowledged the role of a “healthy secularity” and the need for a “pluralism of political opinions.”
Especially welcome was Benedict’s encouragement of the laity. He told CELAM there was a “notable degree of maturity in faith” in the church’s lay ecclesial movements; claimed that “the preferential option for the poor is implicit in the Christological faith in the God who became poor for us”; and elsewhere praised El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero. At the same time, he managed to offend some groups he hoped to reach out to, specifically Brazil’s Native peoples.
In the main, Benedict’s manner and message were in keeping with the theological and pastoral themes of his encyclical Deus caritas est. If the CELAM conference deepens that spirit, it will prove to be something to celebrate.
May 22, 2007
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