12 May 2007
Pope Benedict XVI presides over a conference of Latin American Bishops in Brazil Sunday that will examine ways to curb the influence of evangelical sects in the traditional bastion of the Catholic Church. The evangelicals account for about 17% of Brazil’s population—up from about 11% a decade ago. Latin America is home to about 50% of all Roman Catholics in the world and any demographic shift that is not in Rome’s favor usually attracts attention. The need to keep the flock within the camp has become more urgent to the Vatican today.
This struggle by the Catholic hierarchy with the Pentecostals for influence over Latinos will be the second spiritual/ideological battle with Pope Benedict at the center. He was one of the architects of the campaign by the papacy of late Pope John Paul II against catholic priests that embraced liberation theology in the eighties. Then, the Vatican mobilized conservative forces within the Church in Latin America to denigrate the teachings of those priests that sought to prove that leftist ideology was not necessarily incompatible with Christian teachings. The theology of liberation emphasizes social and political justice for the poor and as such identifies itself with most of the goals of leftist liberation movements in Latin America. The heavy- handed method employed by the Vatican to suppress liberation theology gave the impression to her critics that the Church was allied to the rich and powerful. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote the first Vatican document in the 80s condemning liberation theology and prohibited leading proponents of that doctrine from speaking in public. Supporters of the theology of liberation argue that Jesus Christ was inclined towards the poor and the downtrodden and as such the Church should follow his example.
As the pope visits Brazil with his conservative agenda that focuses on the family, he was not oblivious to the fact that this is a nation where roots of liberation theology still run deep in certain quarters. There are reportedly about 80,000 grass-root cells or ‘base communes’ of liberation theology existing in Brazil today. The crackdown by the Vatican did succeed in stalling the growth of liberation theology but it has not completely suppressed what Fidel Castro once described as “the encounter of Christianity with its roots”.
During the reign of Pope John Paul II, the rightwing of the church supported by grass-root movements like the Catholic Charismatic Renewal experienced unprecedented growth. Some of the more conservative revivalists opted to leave altogether and join the multitude of protestant evangelical churches that were springing up everywhere. The hope of bringing back those that are gone is almost completely lost. The only option left is to the Vatican is to try and stem the tide of those decamping. This is certainly going to be a harder fight than that waged against proponents of liberation theology. The ideological boundary between the current pope’s thinking and that of the evangelicals is fluid. I hardly see any difference between the conservative doctrine espoused by Pope Benedict XVI and that adopted by the evangelicals. The difference may be in style of worship. The worship style of the Pentecostals compared to that of Catholics is more vibrant and electrifying and they can be looked upon as ‘the new thing in town’. When you add the factor of their relentless drive to recruit followers, you then see why the Vatican has a lot of work to do to retain the flock. The Church in Latin America is therefore divided between followers of Liberation theology, the Fundamentalist wing and the majority mainstream members. The task of keeping these groups under one roof is probably one of the main challenges facing Pope Benedict XVI.
As the 80-year old pontiff rounds up his four-day visit Sunday and heads home, he can at least count some achievements recorded during his trip. He met with Brazilian president Lula, preached to to 40,000 youths from various Latin American countries and canonized Antonio de Sant’Anna Galvao—a Brazilian cleric that died in 1822.
Njei Moses Timah