The resilience of religion in public life in the early 21st century has surprised many secular observers who once confidently assumed that the overall thrust of history was toward secularization. The world, they expected, would follow the trajectory of post-Enlightenment Europe, which experienced steep declines in church attendance and the development of a decidedly lay public sphere. Much of the world, however, stubbornly refuses to fit that narrative. This applies certainly to the Islamic world, but even to the United States, where church attendance is one of the strongest predictors of voting behavior. Rather than fit different societies into a one-size-fits-all secularization narrative, we have to pay attention to the particularities.

The Catholic Church in Latin America is a case in point. Today it is relatively quiescent. The Economist barely mentioned the church in a recent special insert on religious conflicts. Contrast that with the 1980s in El Salvador, which were bracketed by the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1980) and the murder of the Jesuits (1989). During that same period priests served in the Sandinista government while the Vatican made the Archbishop Obando of Managua a cardinal to support him in his opposition to the Sandinistas.

Earlier this year the Latin American Catholic bishops met for over two weeks in Aparecida, Brazil to assess the situation of their continent. The Aparecida meeting attracted very little media attention, even in Latin America. Only the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to launch the enterprise – and his remarks about possible excommunication for Catholic politicians who voted against church teaching, presumably meaning on abortion, gay marriage, or divorce — drew press coverage. Nevertheless, the conclusions of the bishops, which were the fruit of over a year of consultations and input from all over the continent, offer an opportunity to consider the situation of religion in Latin American public life today.

Readings of Aparecida

Observers have generally assessed the Aparecida meeting on its stance toward liberation theology and the “option for the poor” that the bishops called for in similar such meetings in Medellin, Colombia (1968) and Puebla, Mexico (1979). In fact, critics of neoliberalism can certain find ammunition in some strands of the Aparecida document. In their analysis of Latin American societies the bishops do reaffirm the “preferential option for the poor.” They speak eloquently of the “faces of those who suffer” and mention the indigenous and Afro Latin Americans, denounce human trafficking, and express sympathy with people suffering from HIV-AIDS, and even for the incarcerated. They raise questions about free trade agreements imposed under pressure and critique copyright regimes that allow for patenting of life and the use of genetically modified organisms. They further condemn corruption in governments and question high concentration of wealth, noting that their own continent, the one with the largest number of Catholics, is also the most unequal.

However, they also take a slap at “neopopulist” regimes, meaning no doubt Venezuela, where the bishops have publicly opposed President Hugo Chavez, and perhaps Bolivia, under President Evo Morales.

Other positions they take would disconcert progressives. At one point they speak of an “ideology of gender” which they understand to mean that “everyone can choose his or her sexual orientation, without taking into account the differences given by human nature.” They relate this ideology to “legal changes that gravely injure the dignity of marriage, respect for the right to life, and the identity of the family.” They seem to be referring to legislatures have allowed for divorce (which became legal in Chile only in 2004), abortion, and even gay marriage (for instance, in Mexico City).

In the tenor of their language in this and similar pronouncements, the bishops seem to be not only taking a public stance on measures or ideas, but claiming that certain topics should not be even open for discussion, as though they were the arbiters of public discourse. That attitude is perhaps understandable in societies that have been assumed to be Roman Catholic for five centuries.

But to what extent is that still true?

Changing Face of Latin America

It is now generally recognized that evangelical Protestants, primarily Pentecostals, have been growing rapidly to the point where they are 15% or more of the population in Brazil, Guatemala, and elsewhere. Since Catholic Church attendance is quite low (typically 5% or less attend mass on a given weekend), the number of practicing Protestants has been a par with Catholics for 15 or 20 years. The Charismatic Renewal within Catholicism, whose worship style resembles Pentecostalism, could be seen as an attempt to respond, but its adherents and leadership are heavily middle-class, whereas Pentecostal churches succeed among the poor.

A small but significant proportion of Latin Americans, particularly among the intelligentsia, are non-believers. When the bishops speak of a “new religious pluralism in our continent,” they recognize these facts implicitly, even if they seem reluctant to draw the full consequences.

Since the time of the conquest — when monumental stone churches and cathedrals were among the first buildings constructed in Mexico City, Lima, and elsewhere, sometimes over the ruins of temples of the preexisting civilizations– Catholicism has been part of the warp and woof of Latin American society. However, the apparent strength of the church hid significant weaknesses. The Catholicism of ordinary people centered on devotions to the Virgin and the saints was different from that of the priests, which was focused on mass attendance and obeying church laws and rules. This religion of the poor, reflected their situation. In a world where one is powerless against the forces of nature and society, one seeks heavenly patrons to send rain for crops or to heal a sick child.

Moreover the Catholic Church has been institutionally weak, particularly after the independence struggles and battles with liberal governments in the mid-to-late 19th century weakened clerical power. One sign of Catholicism’s weakness is that today very often a single priest serves a parish with 30,000 or more Catholics, while the same territory hosts dozens of Pentecostal churches, whose smaller congregations are served by pastors who themselves are poor and hence close to their flocks.

These weaknesses may not have been so apparent during the three decades from the Cuban revolution (1959) to the end of the Cold War (1989-91), when priests, sisters, and lay people were actively involved in struggles for justice. Church pastoral work in the countryside and urban barrios was instrumental in helping millions of poor people articulate their needs and bring pressure to bear for economic and political change.

During the wave of military dictatorships, when congresses, labor unions, the press, and other institutes were closed or muzzled after coups in Brazil (1964) Chile (1973), and elsewhere, the Catholic Church was the one institution in society that could serve as a place of resistance. In Chile the church documented human rights violations and helped poor people organize soup kitchens and survival projects. In Brazil, bishops cited the God of Exodus — “I have heard the cry of my people” — to denounce the military government’s economic model. In El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero was a champion of the poor and their right to organize to advocate for their rights, until he was assassinated in 1980. In 1998 Guatemalan bishop Juan Gerardi was bludgeoned to death two days after the church’s human rights commission that he had chaired formally presented its documentation of decades of killing of civilians by the Guatemalan military.

In all these instances, the bishops acted as though they were addressing a Catholic country: they were not simply a church but the Church. That was also true of the liberation theologians who used biblical motifs in articulating a theological rationale for church involvement on the side of the poor.

A Changing Flock

That may help explain why Latin American theologians, regarded as “progressive” on economic and political issues, generally avoided the kinds of topics such as abortion and homosexuality sometimes addressed by liberal theologians in North America and Europe. Although they generally endorsed the struggle for women’s equality, they steered clear of what might be called “bourgeois” feminism, as did most other Latin American male intellectuals, on the grounds that these were issues of the “First World” and not of concern to Latin America.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain such a position, however. For instance, the very presence of gays in most Latin American countries used to be a well-kept secret. But that situation has been changing. Gay characters now appear regularly on telenovelas and in films, and, at least in the larger countries, gays and lesbians are increasingly “out” and visible to the public. As much as they might like to, the Catholic bishops can no longer act as arbiters determining the parameters of public discussion on such matters.

These hierarchical blind spots are perhaps most obvious on women’s issues. In a number of places, the Aparecida conclusions denounce abuses and urge respect for women. A closer reading reveals, however, that the bishops tend to see women rather passively, as needing protection. They seem oblivious to the fact that for years now the number of women in universities has been roughly on a par with men. Women executives are increasingly prominent in Latino American companies and in cabinet-level positions in governments. Argentines recently elected Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner president, as Chileans did Michelle Bachelet in 2006.

Bachelet is a single mother and an agnostic. By the implicit logic of the bishops she is perhaps not “Latin American.” But her credentials include having been imprisoned and tortured by the Pinochet dictatorship (in whose hands her father died), and heading the ministries of defense and of health. The bishops seem to be reluctant to admit the Latin America represented by Michelle Bachelet and millions of women and men like her.

End of the Heroic Age

Early in their document the bishops say that “reality … has become more opaque and complex” than it seemed in the not so distant past. Here they seem to be chiding the generation who, in the wake of the Cuban revolution, thought history was moving toward a socialist future.

That heroic period has passed. Broadly speaking, a consensus is emerging that neither statist models nor imposed neoliberal recipes will bring adequate development. Progress must be made on a number of fronts: moving away from economies based on natural resources toward higher value-added products and services; development of human capital, especially through expanded and higher quality education; a climate of innovation; sustainability in agriculture and use of resources; accountability in government; rule of law; reduction of corruption; control of crime and criminal networks; effective local government, and so forth. Many of these issues are not neatly “left” or “right” but call for pragmatism and professional competence.

In this changing landscape, Catholicism will continue to play a public role. One indication is the current presidential race in Paraguay where Fernando Lugo, a bishop who resigned his post, is running as the candidate of a left-wing coalition and is ahead in the polls, to the displeasure of his former episcopal colleagues.

The overarching theme of the Aparecida conclusions is that the church must be one of “disciples” and “missionaries.” The latter term and a call for outreach efforts, even going door to door, reflect a recognition that the Catholic Church is in a situation of pluralism and competition. Can a church used to taking its monopoly for granted make such a shift? What does the “preferential option or the poor” mean in a time when directions are not as stark as they seemed in the era of military dictatorships? Can the bishops relinquish their pretension to being the sole arbiters of truth and morality in their societies? While it provides direction for the road ahead, the Aparecida document also prompts further questions.

Phillip Berryman, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (, is a translator and writer who worked as a priest in a Panama City barrio (1965-73) and for the American Friends Service Committee in Central America (1976-80). His books include Religion in the Megacity: Catholic and Protestant Portraits from Latin America (Orbis Books, 1996).

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