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A Continental Shift : Latin Americans Convert from Catholicism to a More Private Protestant Belief

August 13, 1989|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is also an editor for Pacific News Service

SAN FRANCISCO — In a preface to a book of critical essays, the poet W. H. Auden defines his vision of paradise (by way of divulging how his critical faculties are colored) as "Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way, lots of local saints, religious processions, brass bands, opera."

At this point I should do likewise. My own version of paradise would be Roman Catholic in an easygoing Latin American sort of way. But Roman Catholic for all that.

After four Catholic centuries, a new brand of Christianity is catching fire in Latin America. Latin America, the Catholic hemisphere of the Americas, the last best wine the Catholic Church had counted on to see itself through the 21st Century, is turning Protestant. And not just Protestant, but evangelical.

Evangelico : One who evangelizes, the Christian who preaches the gospel. I use the term loosely, as the U.S. press now uses the term, to convey a movement, a spirit abroad, rather than a religion or a specific group of churches. There are evangelical elements within all Christian denominations. But those I call evangelical would wish to distinguish themselves from mainline Protestant churches and most certainly from the Catholic Church. Evangelicals are the most Protestant of Protestants. Evangelical conversion hinges upon the direct experience of Christ--accepting Jesus Christ as one's personal savior. Evangelicals are fundamentalists. They read Scripture literally: they say yes when they mean yes and no when they mean no.

Throughout Latin America most evangelical Christians tend also to be "Pentecostals." (Pentecost is the Christian feast commemorating the manifestation of the Holy Ghost as tongues of flame upon the heads of the apostles.) Pentecostal Christianity is emotional Christianity, trusting most a condition of enrapturement by the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism is rife with prophesy, healings and the babble of sacred tongues.

At the beginning of the century there were fewer than 200,000 Protestants in all of Latin America. Today, one in eight Latin Americans is Protestant; there are more than 50 million Protestants in Latin America. The rate of conversion (by one estimate, 400 per hour) leads demographers to predict Latin America will be evangelical before the end of the 21st Century.

A Catholic priest I know refuses the urgency with which I describe the phenomenon. "In Latin America you are Catholic just by breathing the air," he says. "The Catholic faith has so permeated the life of the people--the courtroom, the kitchen, the plaza, the architect's eye--that it would take centuries for Latin America to sweat it out."

This is the Catholic way of looking at things. It is my way. I am a Catholic because of Mexico and it is as difficult for me to imagine a Protestant Latin America as it would be to imagine the Pacific Ocean emptied of salt.

Protestantism began in Europe in the 16th Century when people found themselves alone, apart from their villages, apart from communal identities in cities. Protestantism taught Europe to imagine the self according to the new world of cities--the world of strangers. Protestantism taught that the central experience of faith was of an individual standing alone before God. Protestantism provided much of Europe with the conviction to defy authority.

In our century, Latin American peasants are making the journey into modern cities.

Protestantism in Latin America increased fivefold in the 1940s. Consider what may be a related statistic from Mexico during the 1940s: At the start of the decade, 70% of Mexicans lived in villages of fewer than 2,500 people. Since the 1940s, the population of Mexico has tripled. The dry land will no longer sustain Mexicans. The poor have left villages for cities, massive cities, for Mexico City, for Los Angeles. Today, 80% of Mexicans are urbanized.

When U.S. journalists travel to Latin America they report on the Contras or some latest brigade of jungle Marxists, trying their damnedest to keep track of khaki-colored commandantes appearing or disappearing from palace windows. So they miss the point. Generals are not the point of Latin America. Drugs are not the point of Latin America. Catholicism is the point of Latin America. Ask any Protestant. Ask Gloria Steinem. Ask Planned Parenthood. Latin America suffers because it is Catholic. Babies. Guilt. Fatalism.

Conversion is the new point. Catholicism assumes that men and women are powerless. Catholicism may always have been administered by celibate men, but its intuition is entirely feminine. The Church is our mother, the Church is Christ's bride. (Catholics are children.) Catholics need the intercession of Santos and the Virgin Mary. Catholics depend upon church guidance--centuries of tradition, centuries of example. Catholics live in communion with all generations of the faithful, living and dead.

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