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The Un-Evangelized Continent?

Despite 500 years of Catholicism, why is so much of Latin America a mess? Cardinal Rodriguez has an answer

As a follow to the Pew survey documenting the rapid Protestantization of Latin America, my old TAC colleague Catherine Addington points to a 2007 piece by the leading Catholic journalist John L. Allen, in which he traveled to Honduras to find out why, despite half a millennium of Catholicism, the country is such a basket case. The answers were really interesting. Excerpts:

If any corner of the globe should bear the imprint of Catholic values, it’s Latin America. Catholicism has enjoyed a spiritual monopoly in the region for more than 500 years, and today almost half the 1.1 billion Catholics alive are Latin Americans. Moreover, Latin Americans take religion seriously; surveys show that belief in God, spirits and demons, the afterlife, and final judgment is near-universal.

The sobering reality, however, is that these facts could actually support an “emperor has no clothes” accusation against the church. Latin America has been Catholic for five centuries, yet too often its societies are corrupt, violent, and underdeveloped. If Catholicism has had half a millennium to shape culture and this is the best it can do, one might be tempted to ask, is it really something to celebrate? Mounting defections to Pentecostalism only deepen such ambivalence.

After my recent jaunt in Honduras, I understand the question.


Fr. Ricardo Flores, pastor of San Jose Obrero parish in Tegucigalpa, told me that in his view, globalized economic systems and American policy “are not the big problems we face,” and don’t explain why Honduras is in crisis. He said the real issues are corruption, a lack of social solidarity, and inadequate investment in education — all of which, he said, are basically home-grown.


Thus the original question: Why hasn’t Catholicism had a more positive effect?

The most frequent explanation I heard boils down to this: For most of the 500 years since the arrival of Columbus, Catholicism in Latin America often has been skin-deep. People were baptized into the faith, married and buried in it, but for a variety of reasons there was precious little else.

Read the whole thing. Allen quotes the Honduran Cardinal Rodriguez as saying, in Allen’s paraphrase, “that deep evangelization is a work still to be done, and thinks the church in Latin America is now developing the muscle to pull it off.”

Is it possible that the cardinal’s theory is generally true for all of South and Central America, and that accounts for the rapid collapse of Catholicism in those countries?

If this theory were true, wouldn’t it be far more so in Russia, which has had Christianity for just over 1,000 years? Of course the Russians suffered what no Latin American ever has: 75 years of a technologically sophisticated atheist regime dedicated to the extermination of religion. But you can’t say that Russia was a Christian paradise prior to the coming of the Bolsheviks, right? How does a country that has had Orthodox Christianity for nearly a millennia fall to communism?

For that matter, what about western Europe? It had Christianity, both Catholic and then Protestant, for even longer, but it gave itself over to two world wars. Reading a short James K.A. Smith essay in Comment magazine, I became reacquainted with this quote from Erich Maria Remarque’s protagonist in All Quiet on the Western Front:

How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.

Auschwitz would come within a generation.

How does Cardinal Rodriguez’s theory about Latin American religion hold up when you consider revolutionary Russia, and Europe before the great wars?

Thought experiment: do we expect too much of religion, or too little? 



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