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Still the Catholic Continent?

Social and Religious Transformation Processes in Latin America

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 4/2011, P. 210-214
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    In many Latin American countries far-reaching economic, socio-cultural and religious processes of change take place. A symposium on the occasion of 50th anniversary of the Episcopal Action Adveniat examined these processes of change with a view to its own task to support the pastoral work in the Latin American Churches.

 

In 1961 the first collection of German Catholics for the Church in Latin America was held. In August the German bishops had decided to collect at Christmas money for the pastoral work of the church on the "Catholic continent," as Latin America at that time and during the next decades was still unquestionably apostrophized. What was initially planned as a one-time action became the birth of the Episcopal Action Adveniat. This year it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

According to its information Adveniat has supported over the years the Latin American church with 2.3 billion euros. About 3,000 projects in the local Churches of the subcontinent are annually decided and accompanied by the experts of the work.

Of course, in the last 50 years the work of Adveniat has changed, as also the religious landscape, the Church and the societies in Latin America have changed. Above all, today one can speak only with restrictions of the "Catholic Continent". As e.g. the so-called "Religion Monitor 2008" of the Bertelsmann Foundation shows, the religious landscape is undergoing a major change - in concrete terms, the example of Guatemala and Brazil, where these transformation processes can be proved particularly well according to the data of sociologists of religion (Gütersloh 2007).

Christianity in Latin America admittedly maintains its unchallenged monopoly, but massive shifts take place in it. In Guatemala, Protestantism in total particularly increased, in Brazil especially the so-called Pentecostal movement. The authors of the Religion Monitor summarize, "Anyway, for a long time neither in Guatemala nor in Brazil Catholicism alone has an influence on the political fortunes of the countries."

In Brazil's Marian shrine four years ago the Fifth General Assembly of the Latin American Bishops' Conferences (CELAM) had not only dealt with the massive shifts within Christianity but also with the pluralization of the religious landscape in general and with many other socio-cultural transformation processes, and on that occasion one admitted more or less self-critically that one had not yet found the necessary answers to this new situation (see HK, July and September 2007, 343ff and 450ff, and August 2008, 417ff).

 


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In the concluding document it says, "In Latin America and the Caribbean, at a time when many of our peoples are preparing to celebrate the bicentenary of their independence, we find ourselves facing the challenge of revitalizing our way of being Catholic and our personal options for the Lord, so that Christian faith may become more deeply rooted in the heart of Latin American individuals and peoples as founding event and living encounter with Christ (No. 13)." Thus the bishops complain with regard to the Church's situation that her percentage growth does not keep up with the population growth and the number of clerics, and above all of nuns is getting smaller and smaller. There were efforts to return to a certain type of ecclesiology and spirituality contrary to the Vatican II renewal and some reductionist interpretations and applications of the conciliar renewal. The option for the poor remains weak.

Lay people are only seldom accompanied in their tasks of service to society. Evangelization happens only with little ardor. It does not use new methods of expressions and is still speaking languages that mean little to contemporary culture. "In recent decades we are concerned to see that on the one hand, many people are losing the transcendent sense of their lives and are giving up religious practices, and on the other hand, significant numbers of Catholics are abandoning the Church and going over to other religious groups." (No. 100)

Since the Fourth General Assembly of CELAM in Santo Domingo in 1992, the bishops gathered in Aparecida stated also many changes in society. The concluding document describes, among other things, the mass media that permeate all areas of society and present daily to their viewers a world where no longer a place for the Christian tradition exists. In these urban and suburban cultures, the problems of identity and belonging, relationship, living space and home are increasingly complex (No. 58). The dominance of a purely economic globalization with its absoluteness of the market exacerbates inequality and injustice and excludes those who do not have enough information and education.

The inequality of opportunity that already dominates our continent and keeps large numbers of people in poverty will still increase. Financial institutions and transnational companies are becoming stronger to the point that local economies are subordinated, especially weakening the local States, which seem ever more powerless to carry out development projects at the service of their populations. Preserving nature is very often subordinated to economic development (No. 66).

Not least, the bishops complained that indigenous and Afro peoples are threatened in their physical, cultural, and spiritual existence; in their ways of life, their identities, and their diversity; in their lands and projects (no. 90). However, they are now taking their place in the Church. "This is a kairos for deepening the Church’s encounter with these sectors of society" (No. 91).

From this analysis of the situation the Latin American bishops developed their vision of a "Great Continental Mission". In the final message of Aparecida it says that it will be a new Pentecost "that impels us to go, in a special way, in search of the fallen away Catholics, and of those who know little or nothing about Jesus Christ" (Message No. 5)

 

The Option for the Poor is Confirmed

Adveniat for its part tries to take the changes in the "Catholic continent" into account. Thus, in 2009 one has formulated new guidelines for project funding, which in the summer of last year were adopted by the Commission 'Universal Church' of the German Bishops' Conference and give the employees of the Latin America aid agency decision criteria for acceptance or rejection of the proposed projects of the Latin American partners.

Two issues are the focal points of these guidelines. First, the growing gap between rich and poor, although in many countries of Latin America economy is continuously growing, and e.g. Brazil has long since reached the status of an "emerging country". The option for the poor, confirmed in the concluding document of Aparecida, is accordingly one of the pivotal project criteria for Adveniat. Second, all projects supported by Adveniat must be supported by the base of the church.

In these principles, too, the profound processes of change are once again described, by which the Catholic Church is affected. In addition to the Base Ecclesial Communities spiritual communities have become more important. Non-Catholic religious groups and movements and the process of secularization are increasing. At the same time the Catholic Church is losing more and more political influence. Conversely, the vitality of the church becomes apparent in the popular religiosity. It is increasingly esteemed in church activities and in the sometimes controversial theological reflection. And not at least it says in the introduction to the new guidelines that in some countries internal church conflicts exist that impair the credibility of the church in her commitment to the people.

Accordingly, also at the beginning of its anniversary year, Adveniat devoted an international symposion to the social, cultural and religious transformation processes on the "Catholic continent."

 


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Besides experts from Brazil, Colombia and Mexico as well as professionals from a variety of churchly fields of work - ranging from pastoral care for indigenous people up to the director of the largest Catholic television channel in Brazil - also the Vice President of CELAM, Baltazar Enrique Porras took part in the meeting. The Archbishop of Wrida in Venezuela spoke thus from a personal background, which is clearly described in the Concluding Document of Aparecida. It seems that a certain democratization process on the continent, which has been proven in various elections, can be ascertained. But we also observe with concern that different forms of authoritarian regression are spreading faster through democratic means, so that also "regimes with a neo-populist character" emerge.

In a statement released earlier this year on occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of Venezuela, the Bishops' Conference of the country once again sharply criticized President Hugo Chávez in this regard. The bishops accuse Chávez of pursuing the "establishment of a socialist totalitarian state" excluding all those who do not share the socialist ideology (see HK, June 2007, 294ff., and January 2009, 43 ff.)

 

Pastoral Care that Goes to the People

Archbishop Porras emphasized at the Adveniat meeting once again the basic idea of the "Great Continental Mission". The church must go to those places from where people do no longer come to her, where they are poor and marginalized and are no longer religious. On that occasion the Church must in any case break new ground. There will be no quick answers to the profound changes. But he expressly reaffirmed the necessary participation of all people in the church, laity, priests and bishops. And at the same time he warned that the Church must not be occupied with herself and always have in mind her service to society.

As expected, the experts who had been invited by Adveniat in cooperation with the Academy of the Diocese of Essen "The Wolfsburg" portrayed a very nuanced picture of the religious, socio-cultural transformation processes on the once Catholic sub-continent. They warned against simple comparisons that put things in crude black-and-white terms; they described interactions and processes that mutually reinforce or debilitate each other, and they urged in particular to become aware of the often very different situations between and within the individual countries of Latin America.

What also remained undecided was the discussion about the question to what extent the Catholic Church is driving her members to the Pentecostal Churches, e.g. by authoritarian behaviour and an ivory-towered teaching and preaching that is hostile to life, and therefore how much she is to blame for her own decline. The sharpest criticism of the Catholic hierarchy in this context was formulated by Jean-Pierre Bastian, sociologist of religion at the University of Strasbourg. He e.g. pointed to the partially most aggressive actions of some Latin American bishops against the base communities.

The Bielefeld sociologist of religion Heinrich Schäfer described in detail the relation between the socio-economic transformation processes and the spread of the Pentecostal Churches. On that occasion he showed especially the great differences in doctrine, liturgy, political commitment, governance and financial management and also in the social status between the followers of the "classical" and neo-Pentecostal churches.

Especially with regard to the very different safeguarding of political interests, you have exactly to distinguish to which social class the followers belong. According to this information, the idea of a homogeneous Pentecostalism that is politically conservative, anti-ecumenical, and theologically unreflective oriented towards the world to come is outdated for some years. Pentecostal congregations are found in the different social classes; some of them can apparently be described as politically left-wing and theologically progressive. In view of the diversity of the Pentecostal churches, the speakers of the Adveniat meeting urged time and again to pay attention also to the increasing pluralism within the Catholic Church (see HK, June 2005, 300ff.).

The answer to the question of the opportunities of or obstacles to a Catholic-Pentecostal cooperation or ecumenism was accordingly differentiated. The Colombian sociologist Ana Mercedes Pereira Souza urgently described with the "national ecumenical network of Women for Peace" a good example of the "ecumenism from below" - outlined by the sociologist of religion Schäfer. It is an ecumenical cooperation against the background of certain situations in life, existential needs and problems. On the basis of detailed studies among Colombian women, Pereira then described a hardly flattering picture of the church leadership in her country. In their existential needs - they are the commonest and often repeatedly burdened victims of the unimaginable violence in Colombia - the majority of women feel evidently often left alone by the official church and excluded from a real participation, in the sense of a co-decision.

The sociologist Silvia Regina Alves Fernandes who teaches at the Universidade Federal Rural in Rio de Janeiro portrayed also a multifarious picture of the modernization process within the Brazilian society (ies).

 


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Then she warned not to confuse this process with the European Modernism. The Brazilian society, which is modernized mainly by a rapid pluralization of lifestyles, does above all not show an equally pronounced individualization or secularization, and also not the for the modern Europe natural separation of state, politics and religion. In comparision precisely with the Catholic Church, she, too, sees in the ample scope of experience and happenings in worship and preaching the reason for the great attractiveness of the Pentecostal Churches in the different milieus of the Brazilian society.

But also the Mainz expert on Christian social ethics Gerhard Kruip warned against jumping to conclusions with regard to the question of which interactions exist between religious, social and economic processes of change - as e.g. in the sense that an increasing "Protestantization" accelerates the economic success, or vice versa promotes e.g. a further loss of solidarity and the de-politicization of the Latin American society. Above all here, the discussing Latin American experts saw still a clear research gap.

Where the contributors wanted at all to make up their mind and to offer advice to the Catholic Church, as to how she could survive in an increasingly pluralistic religious market, the same keywords were always repeated: closeness to the issues of life, everyday needs and concerns of the people, and offering spiritual experiences and events. But they likewise warned against confining oneself or allowing to be confined to "emotionality", and as a poor competitor to neglect thus her political and prophetic task and mission.

 

Sensitive to the Different Religious Cultures

The Brazilian pastoral theologian Agenor Brighenti of the Pontifical University of Paraná emphatically described the conclusions which the church in Brazil should draw for her pastoral actions. What matters is to understand the with the transformation process associated crisis of all religious institutions not as an impasse but as a crossroads and an opportunity. He warned likewise against restorative efforts, which see the solution only in backward-looking strategies.

 


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Under the heading of "inculturated evangelization" Brighenti described his vision of a missionary church, which becomes anew aware of her mission via recourse to the biblical sources. But this mission does not aim at recruiting church members; and the missionaries must constantly remain aware of the fact that they, too, have received the gospel.

Since the majority of the population (70 percent) lives in the Latin American megacities, the bishops assembled in Aparecida had explicitly dealt with the phenomenon of urbanization in Latin America and thus with the great importance of the pastoral care in cities. Above all the outskirts and poverty districts with their high proportion of internal migrants require special attention (see HK, October 2007, 533ff.).

Quasi as reification of the by Brighenti required "pastoral care that goes to the people", the Mexican theologian and parish priest Benjamin Bravo at the symposium presented a very successful new pastoral approach in Mexico City, namely the "house churches". Some aspects of this pastoral approach remind of the so-called "Small Christian Communities". Their setup and spread has been accelerated by some local churches in Asia and southern Africa for several years. Also the "house churches" in Mexico City are neighborly oriented.

This offer shall above all approach people who are not on close terms with the church, by attending them in their daily lives, on the market, at school, in the barracks or at the sickbed in the family. This service is provided by specially trained and qualified lay people who particularly should be sensitive to the many different religious cultures in the border districts of the megacity. Here, too, it is not about recruiting. In the Archdiocese of Mexico City, this approach is part of the pastoral training of priests. But there are obviously also some reservations within the Mexican episcopate.

At the end of the meeting Adveniat managing director Bernd Klaschka reaffirmed the orientation of the work under the new project guidelines. He emphasized that in all activities of the church the social reality and spirituality, the emotional and political-prophetic dimension must remain connected. He expressly emphasized the particular obligation of Adveniat to advocate the indigenous population in Latin America (see HK, September 2003, 470 ff, and HK Special 2-2010, 51 et seq.)

Not least, he sees it as the duty of Adveniat, especially in its anniversary year, to introduce even more the concerns of Latin America into the pastoral work of the German local church and into the political and social debate in Germany. By its latest action late last year Adveniat has tried to show that the experiences of Latin American local churches can enrich the Church in this country. In its center was the manifold commitment of lay people in the Latin American church and society - with express reference to the recently by the chairman of the German Bishops' Conference initiated dialogue process in which the relationship between lay people and priests is one of the two main topics.

 

Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'