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Franz Weber {*}

Soul Catching, Competition or Dialogue?

Pentecostalism and Catholic Church in Brazil

 

From the periodical of the Catholic Academy Bavaria
'zur debatte', 5/2007 P. 1-4
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

"Evangelicals. Challenges for the churches." - That they are undoubtedly. And that applies - with differences from country to country - especially to the countries of the South. Hence the issue is at present of worldwide relevance and - thank God - unpolemically and properly formulated in the title of this conference. I sincerely hope that in our lectures and discussions all those are respected and treated justly whose Christian faith we name with the collective term "Evangelical". My concern would be to inform from the viewpoint of a Catholic theologian and missionary on the one hand as concrete and close to the grass-root [basisnah] as possible about Pentecostalism in Brazil and thus to render a contribution to a differentiated view of a very complex reality, which here according to my impression is often presented in a predominantly negative or at least simplistic, one-sided way. On the other hand I am above all concerned about a plea for a pastoral practice of a new attitude of ecumenical openness to all who confess their faith in Jesus Christ in this or that form in Evangelical churches or groups. How much just the Catholic Church in Latin America - because of its historically caused dominance - not only what concerns its relationship to the Pentecostals but in general needs a conversion to a new ecumenical brotherliness and a turning away from its claim to supremacy should have become clear again in connection with the Pope's recent visit to Brazil and the just ended Fifth General Assembly of the Bishops' Conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida, and the reporting about it. It will probably surprise when I can present pastoral guidelines of the Brazilian Bishops' Conference and the Assembly of Aparecida relating to this matter which let recognize in the Catholic Church in Latin America a learning process and a changed attitude - also towards the Evangelicals.

 


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But why then this talk of "soul-catching" and "competition" in the title with which I've headed my lecture? I have taken the two catch-phrases from a contribution in the weekly newspaper "Die Zeit" (12 April 2006), where in an article about Benedict XVI among other things the question is asked whether this "arch-Occidental theologian" was able to lead a world church "the growth and combat zones of which are often far away from Rome, in Latin America, Africa and Asia", and whether "he was also a Pope for the poor, for the missionaries, for the competition with the aggressive Protestant Free Churches catching souls in the favelas of Rio." It was Pastor Dr. Klaus Schaefer, the director of the North-Elbian Centre for World Mission and Church World Service (NMZ), who took up this question last year at the international Mission Congress in Freising. In his remarkable lecture "Mission in the Context of Pentecostal and charismatic movements" Schäfer called the Pentecostal movement a religious movement "that is extremely vital in missionary work and should be taken quite seriously by the Catholic and Protestant Mission". I endorse Schäfer's conviction that it is worth it to talk with the Pentecostal movement, even that there is in mission-theological and pastoral-theological respect no alternative to this dialogue - not only in Latin America but also elsewhere. As much as Pentecostalism is worldwide felt by Catholics and Protestants on the spot as competitor, so deliberately I want to refrain from talking of religious "battle zones" or of "soul catching of aggressive Protestant Free Churches". In future we are to strive worldwide - just for the sake of people and above all of the poor who in their often desperate situation find support and a home in many different 'figures of hope' [Hoffnungsgestalt] of religion and Christian community - to be together and not against each other Christians and people who are addressed by God. This does not exclude an also critical theological debate on the Christianity of the respective other denomination but requires it - for the sake of man, his freedom and human dignity.

 

Basic Experiences with "Evangelicals in Brazil

Before I give a survey of the various forms of Pentecostalism in Brazil I'll first tell about some observations and personal experiences that I gained as missionary in the north-east and in the outskirts of Sao Paulo and later in the context of my research on church base communities.

I was first disappointed when my collaborators in the parish that I took over in 1983 in the interior of the State of Maranhao told me that with the so-called "Crentes", as one calls all the "Protestants", ecumenism was impossible. I was very pleased that we then very soon could show our faithful by examples that in this whole question of "Protestants" at least distinctions were appropriate. For with the small Lutheran congregation we had not only a very cordial relationship but effective cooperation in some areas of pastoral social action, as this has been the case in many regions of Brazil for decades. But with the real "Crentes" actually hardly anything was possible, and on the part of the Catholics we have made no special efforts for it. There was a lot of aggression and mutual rejection in the air, which was here and there also loudly expressed. For example, at that time one of the local Pentecostal churches set up their loudspeakers at the cemetery wall for a "counter-worship" every year on All Souls' Day, on which always a mass for all deceased was said at the general cemetery. Already then one couldn't imagine the Sunday picture of the small town and its poor districts without the "Crentes", when they - nicely dressed - with the entire family and the Bible under their arm went to the church service. There were in our region some Pentecostal churches that, even if not spectacularly but nevertheless were growing. As painful we especially felt it, when leading people from our small base communities suddenly converted to a Pentecostal church or wavered between Catholic and Pentecostal because their Catholic kinship or the village did not allow them the free space for a deliberate decision.

On the outskirts of Sao Paulo I then experienced the Pentecostal churches to a much greater extent omnipresent than in the country. There they were really, you could say almost everywhere present and competed with each other - often quite loudly. Besides the older and large Pentecostal churches, which above all in the poorer districts and in the favelas already had their chapels with relatively stable congregations, I noted also in the centre of the city groupings of neo-Pentecostalism which bought up former supermarkets and factory sheds and tried to fill the huge buildings with new believers. We learned by experience that in this urban environment contact or even this or that cooperation in social fields of action was possible above all with the traditional and already established Pentecostal churches.

Especially at the meetings of base communities of all Brazil it positively struck me that there over the years not only the representatives of Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, with which in any case already on the spot in many places a very constructive cooperation existed, were invited but also bishops and pastors of Pentecostal churches, whom the Catholic base communities knew at close range. It has always been a permanent part of those great delegates' meetings that on the penultimate day the "Protestants" in their religious diversity celebrated a service with all congress participants, which usually ended with a special message to the - Catholic - base communities throughout Brazil. Within the socially engaged and liberation-theologically moulded sectors of the Brazilian Catholicism thus certainly signals were given and signs were set that removed prejudices in the base communities on the spot and brought about changes of awareness without thus at once causing storms of ecumenical enthusiasm. For this the religious and church landscape in Brazil and in Latin America was and is still too traditional and too much moulded by old and new denominational conflicts - also among Pentecostal groups themselves.

I still tell two more stories from my last research stay in Brazil, in order to illustrate the subsequent portrayal of the rapid changes in the religious landscape of this country and to bring it to life. In 2005 I was, immediately before the last major base community meeting took place in Ipatinga in the federal state Minas Gerais, a guest in the home of a Brazilian friend who teaches sociology of religion in Belo Horizonte. There I got into conversation with the domestic servant that corrected some of my prejudices and helped me to get a more differentiated view of the complexity of Pentecostalism. The middle-aged woman, who formerly was a Catholic, had after severe family strokes of fate found home and support in the "Assembléia de Deus", the largest of the Brazilian Pentecostal churches. For years she there has now been committing herself in different areas of the congregation's life. With a carefree openness the woman answered my questions about the inner structure of the community, about to the nature of its missionary activity and the form of its worship. According to my previous information I had always assumed that in the Brazilian Pentecostal communities, as in most of the Evangelical Free Churches, the Communion service at best played a minor or no part at all. Here I was told now about a specific congregation's regular Communion practice. The woman also made no secret of the difficulties and conflicts in her church. But for me it was especially noticeable that this woman in her way and in her church authentically lived her Christian faith.

Two weeks later, when I was guest of a family in the Amazon region it became clear to me that this way of Christian faith can be of vital importance also for adolescents. At the invitation of a Brazilian nun with whom I had worked for a long time I visited her old mother who had taken in her 15-year-old granddaughter because of difficult social circumstances. I knew the girl from childhood and was of course somewhat surprised that Atila now for some time had belonged to the "Assembléia de Deus", although her aunt was a Catholic nun who had sought to help a lot with the schooling of her niece. In the poor district where the old woman lived and tried to keep her and her granddaughter's head above water by selling self-planted vegetables and by her small pension for miles around was no trace of a Catholic church. But the "Crentes" were nearby - and in one of their chapels Atila sang now in the Children's and Youth Choir.

 


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She and her friend of the same age found in this Pentecostal community - in a difficult stage of life and in a precarious social situation - security and support. I could well understand the girls, and I have also learned a little better to understand why the Catholic Church is losing ground and members. It often is simply not present where people really need it for surviving.

 

The Traditional Churches Lose, the Pentecostals Win - Changes in Brazil's Religious-denominational Landscape

To get a somewhat objective picture of the growing importance of Pentecostalism in Brazil first a sober look at the statistical data is needed, which let us become aware of the massive, even landslide-like changes in the denominational landscape of Brazil. I refer here to the details of the "Atlas of Religion Affiliation" (César Romero Jacob and others), in which the results of the 2000 census have been summarized and evaluated.

Up to the seventies of the last century Brazil was regarded as the most Catholic country in the world. The General Assembly of the Latin American bishops in Puebla (1979) had in the final document several times spoken about a "fundamental Catholic substrate" on the Latin American continent, what however - historically seen - would still have to be once more considered in a more differentiated way. In any case, already the census of 1980 showed only a proportion of Catholics of slightly less than 90 percent. In 1991 it was 83.3 percent and in the census of 2000 only 73.9 percent. In the pastoral guidelines of the Brazilian Bishops' Conference for the triennium from 2003 to 2006, in which the situation of the Catholic Church is soberly analyzed, these numbers were taken over into the pastoral analysis. In this document was also recorded that the number of Catholics in the last decade of the last century - in absolute terms - had grown from 122 million in 1991 to 125 million in 2000. I cannot prove whether the recently also repeatedly given number of only 67 percent of Catholics is true. But you can at least say that the Catholic Church and also the churches of the historical Protestantism in the last decades lost a lot of their members. I would like to mention in this context also the membership of the churches of the so-called "immigration Protestantism" and the so-called "mission Protestantism." The relationship of those forms of Protestantism to the Catholic Church is almost universally moulded by a good ecumenical cooperation. In 2000 there were, according to the official census in Brazil, a little more than 1.062.000 Christians of the Lutheran denomination, about 3.162.000 Baptists, 981.000 Presbyterians and 340.000 Methodists. It is worth mentioning in this context also the strong group of Adventists, which in the year 2000 in Brazil counted more than 1.200.000 members. According to my information the traditional Protestant churches lost many members in the eighties and nineties but could up to the year 2000 make up ground (from three per cent in 1991 to five per cent in 2000). The analyses also show that within the historical Protestantism partly apparently the same kind of "Pentecostalization" happened as in the Catholic Church, in which the Catholic Charismatic movement significantly won in influence - often by the deliberate promotion by some bishops.

But in the context of the themes of this conference we are especially interested in all the churches and groups of Pentecostalism, about which I'd like to give a - very general - overview that even in this very summary form lets recognize with what we are concerned here: a colourful and manifold universe that is also characterized by opposites and contradictions. The mere mention of the various factions of the Brazilian Pentecostalism shows that you cannot lump them all together and simply label them with the cliché "Pentecostals", "Evangelicals" or even only with the incriminating term "sects".

The by now scarcely manageable sociological and theological literature often speaks of three waves in the formation of the Pentecostal churches in Brazil. The "Assembléia de Deus", which with more than eight million believers is the largest Pentecostal church in Brazil, is numbered among a first wave. It was founded already in 1911 in Belem in the state of Pará by Swedish missionaries who came from the United States, and is characterized by small communities among the lower classes. In the south of Brazil (Sao Paulo and Parana) at the same time the "Congregação crista do Brasil" was founded. Its founder was an Italian immigrant who had also come from the United States. This Pentecostal church, that according to the 2000 census has about 2.5 million believers, is in contrast to the Assembléia in teaching and congregation discipline quite centralistically organized.

This first wave of Pentecostalism at the beginning of the 20th century was only after the Second World War in a second wave followed by the formation of three other major Pentecostal churches, which first spread in the large urban centres and later among the emigrants in the Amazon region. Here are to mention the "Igreja do Evangelho Quandrangular" (1.3 million), the "Igreja Deus é Amor" (0.7 million) and the "Brasil para Cristo (175,000).

A third wave of Pentecostalism, which is generally called "neo-Pentecostalism", begins in 1977 with the foundation of the "Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus" by Bishop Edir Macedo in Rio de Janeiro. This church, provided that you can theologically call it somehow or other 'church' at all, works like a strictly centralistically led enterprise. This grouping, which in Brazil owns one of the largest television stations, has scarcely any longer anything to do with the classic Pentecostalism and even less with Protestantism. Here expressions of the traditional folk piety are just as much integrated as Afro-Brazilian cult elements.

There are still a number of other groups, such as "Maranata", "Casa da Benção", or "Nova Vida" and others, which however all the same mostly have about 100.000 or just below 100.000 members.

 

Approach and Meeting instead of Proselytizing - Catholic Approaches and Intentions for a New Relationship with Pentecostalism

From the view of sociology of religion and pastoral theology a lot could be said why currently in Latin America and particularly in Brazil so many people move from the Catholic church over to the Pentecostal churches and why on the other hand also the historical Protestantism, especially in the lower classes, could not gain a proper foothold. As theologian you can, should and must also ask legitimate questions to individual aspects of the theology and spirituality of some forms of the Evangelical movements. I consider e.g. individual groups of the Brazilian neo-Pentecostalism to be not only theologically hollow and questionable but socially irresponsible or even dangerous. But now in this final part I'd like on principle to stand up again for a differentiated view of the Pentecostal movements and a basic attitude of rapprochement and dialogue. Here I deliberately do not pass on only a private theological opinion or my personal conviction but keep to official doctrinal statements of Latin American Bishops' Conferences, and distinguish the new practice towards the Evangelicals urged by those documents from the previous attitudes in the Catholic Church.

In his speech at the opening of the Fifth General Assembly of the Latin American Bishops' Conferences on 13 May 2007 in Aparecida Pope Benedict XVI set no ecumenical accents. But as far as our theme is concerned, he in his analysis of the church's situation in Latin American spoke of a "weakening of Christian life in the society as a whole and of the participation in the life of the Catholic Church in particular. As one of the reasons for it the Pope named the "proselytism of many sects, animistic religions and new pseudo-religious modes of expression" ("L'Osservatore Romano", German weekend edition 18 May 2007). Undoubtedly one would have wished to get here a more differentiated statement.

But at least that until recently in the Catholic Church usual polemic is avoided here. Pope John Paul II for instance had still in 1992 before the Council of the Latin American Bishops warned against the "raging wolves' and said "the Evangelicals spread like oil-slick over the region and threatened to destroy the faith structures in many countries". A Roman nuncio had even let himself be carried away into stating, "These sects are like flies that must be killed with a newspaper". I quote those statements in order better to recognize against the background of such statements the importance of this change of attitude that is developing in the Catholic Church.

 


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Any undifferentiated and derogatory qualification of Evangelicals is to be rejected. The Catholic Church has to give up its - explicit or subtle - claim to be the sole legitimate representative of Latin America and to open for dialogue with other Christian churches - and especially with the Evangelical movements.

And it is about to recognize that and to put it into effect. The final document of the recent Episcopal Assembly of Aparecida acknowledges among other things the initiatives of ecumenical cooperation on the Latin American continent, but also notes with regret that the ecumenical and interreligious dialogue had not in all local churches developed in the same intensity. The bishops also express their concern about the fact that "a significant number of Catholics abandoned the Church and joined other religious groups." For our topic it is important that the document of Aparecida talks quite unpolemically and properly about a new religious pluralism on the Latin American continent and demands a distinction between "those faithful who belong to other churches and church communities" and "the great diversity of Christian (and pseudo-Christian) groups". "It is not appropriate", it literally says in the text, to call all those groups "sects". Besides it is also soberly admitted that the ecumenical dialogue with Christian groups constantly attacking the Catholic Church "is often not easy".

In a long section of this final document of Aparecida the indispensability of the ecumenical dialogue is emphasized and the participation of Catholics in joint actions of the other Christian churches is demanded. "Where one is in the habit of dialogue proselytism decreases; where the knowledge of each other and respect for each other grow, also possibilities open for a common testimony." The bishops expressly speak in this context about the meeting with leaders from Pentecostalism, about mutual respect and common prayer and study.

In their pastoral Three-Year Plan (2003-2006) the Brazilian bishops had already some years before the bishops' assembly in Aparecida quite resolutely emphasized the necessity of ecumenical dialogue. "The Catholics", it literally says there, "are always to show sincere respect to others. In view of proselytism and sectarianism any polemics is fruitless and counterproductive".

You can only wish the Catholic Church in Brazil that it also succeeds at the base in putting into effect these pathbreaking pastoral guidelines and in realizing in its parishes on the spot and in its new spiritual movements a "dialogue of life" with all Christian churches and religious groups - in the context of an extremely multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-denominational society. It would thus do a much-needed service to people's living together and above all in the spirit of the Gospel oppose the existing potential violence in society. It would thus also take the wind out of fundamentalism's and fanaticism's sails, which is latently existing or openly held within the Catholic Church and the other churches and religious groups.

 

    {*} Dr. Franz Weber is professor of intercultural pastoral theology and missiology at the University of Innsbruck

 

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