Latin-American Church in Anguish—Why Are Millions Leaving?
FROM the northern border of Mexico to the southern tip of Chile, there is hardly a Latin-American city or village that does not boast a Roman Catholic church in its main plaza. However, a “monumental change is taking place in Latin America,” acknowledges Joseph E. Davis, the program director of an institution that promotes Catholic activities. He also admitted that Latin America, a region that for more than three centuries has been under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, is now on the verge of a vast transformation.
It is no secret that the dominance of the Catholic Church is weakening rapidly. Recently, the number of active Catholics was estimated to be only 15 percent of the total population in Latin America. The 1991 Britannica Book of the Year reported: “Roman Catholic Bishops and the pope himself expressed fear that historically Catholic Latin America was turning dangerously from the old faith.” Why is this happening? Why are so many leaving the Catholic fold? What has become of those who stray?
The Search for an Explanation
Catholic leaders blame their problems on the proliferation of “the sects.” A European priest working in Bolivia complained: “The church is like a tree whose strength is being sapped by weedlike sects.”
In Argentina, 140 new religions are reported each year, which might help to account for a drop in Catholic Church membership from 90 percent to 60 or 70 percent since the mid-1970’s. In Tijuana, Mexico, 10 percent of the two million inhabitants have gone over to the 327 non-Catholic religions there. Time magazine reported: “Astonishingly, there are almost certainly more Brazilian Protestants in church on Sundays than Catholics.” It is no wonder that, as one newspaper stated, when “the Latin-American cardinals met with the pope in Vatican City to discuss two subjects of capital importance for the church today,” one of them was “the problem of the sects.”
In a meeting with the bishops of Mexico, the pope stated that the success of the many new religions “is due to the lukewarmness and indifference of the sons of the church that are not up to their evangelist mission.” Why are “the sons of the church” indifferent to filling the spiritual needs of Latin Americans when so many of these respect the Bible? An editorial in Última Hora, of La Paz, Bolivia, explains: “The church has entered the world to such an extent that each day it appears to be further abandoning its own sphere. It should not be surprising for us to find, as is in fact happening, that priests are more sociologists, economists, journalists, or politicians than they are clergymen.”
More Politicians Than Preachers?
The church’s political meddling during the ’70’s and ’80’s undoubtedly contributed to the disgust many Latin Americans now feel for Catholicism. A study published in 1985 made the following observation concerning Maryknoll, the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, with its many Latin-American missions: “Maryknoll has successfully brought the Marxist-Leninist message of violent revolution into public acceptance precisely because it has been allowed to operate as an arm of the Catholic Church. Its message has reached not only the average churchgoer, but leading American policymakers, as well.”
Consider also the so-called dirty war in which, astonishingly, from 10,000 to 30,000 Argentineans were abducted and killed without trial in the late ’70’s. An editorial in the National Catholic Reporter, under the headline “Blood Taints Church in Argentina,” stated: “The Argentine experience so closely resembles the performance of the Catholic church in Nazi Germany, it again raises the question of whether power is more important to the church than the Gospel imperative to be a witness to the truth.”
The church’s desire for power in the world’s governments clearly marks it as no friend of God. The Bible says: “Don’t you realise that making the world your friend is making God your enemy? Anyone who chooses the world for his friend turns himself into God’s enemy.” (James 4:4, Catholic Jerusalem Bible) Little wonder, then, that many no longer look to the Catholic Church for spiritual guidance. But what has happened to the people who have left the Catholic fold?
Sheep Without a Shepherd
They are much like the people that the first-century spiritual leaders of Judaism failed to care for. The Bible says that Jesus “felt sorry for them because they were harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36, JB) Many have defected from the Catholic Church to so-called evangelistic religions. Have these cared for the stray sheep any better? Are Protestants more inclined to be as Jesus stated of his true followers: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world”?—John 17:14.
Many non-Catholic religions try to project the image of being obedient to the Bible rather than followers of religious tradition. Often this is merely a veneer. The basic doctrines of the Protestant organizations are so similar to those of the Catholic Church that many observers could easily use the Andean saying: “Es la misma cholita con otra pollera” (It is the same little Indian woman with a different skirt).
For example, nearly all Protestant groups teach that God is a Trinity, yet this is not a Bible teaching. The Encyclopedia of Religion acknowledges: “Exegetes and theologians today are in agreement that the Hebrew Bible does not contain a doctrine of the Trinity . . . The New Testament also does not contain an explicit doctrine of the Trinity.”*
Protestants are clearly linked to this world and its politics as much as are Catholics. The Encyclopedia of Latin America says: “Protestantism in Latin America has also adapted itself to . . . populist electoral politics. Native pastors often become clients of political patrons and provide votes in return for government favors to their churches.” The Latin American Research Review says: “Protestantism has been wed to politics in Guatemala ever since it first arrived in the country,” adding that it “has been as much a vehicle for conveying political and social behaviors as a form of religion.”
Protestant participation in politics has often led to Protestant participation in war. The late Harry Emerson Fosdick, considered one of the most influential Protestant clergymen in American history, admitted: “Our Western history has been one war after another. We have bred men for war, trained men for war; we have glorified war; we have made warriors our heroes and even in our churches we have put the battle flags . . . With one corner of our mouth we have praised the Prince of Peace and with the other we have glorified war.”
What Should You Do?
After describing false religion as a symbolic prostitute that commits fornication with the governments of the earth, the Bible book of Revelation says: “Come out, my people, away from her, so that you do not share in her crimes and have the same plagues to bear.”—Revelation 18:4, JB.
Many realize that there is much corruption in the church, still they hesitate to leave because the Roman Church has such an ancient history. Remember, however, that the Jewish system of worship was very old; yet God rejected the Jews as his chosen people when they apostatized from his true teachings. Faithful servants of God left Judaism when they realized that God was now using the Christian congregation instead. How can you recognize the true Christian congregation today?
Nearly a million Latin Americans have become Jehovah’s Witnesses in the last two decades. Why did they make this change? A newspaper in Martínez de la Torre, Veracruz, Mexico, examined this question. It said: “These Bible students are made up almost 100 percent of former activists of different religions, mostly Catholics, that have noticed religion’s drifting toward politics and its acceptance and approval of unbiblical practices like interfaith, immorality, and violence. It has been a source of satisfaction for them to conform to Scriptural principles of conduct without resorting to idolatry or traditions of obscure origin. This has given them a praiseworthy unity of faith that seems to distinguish them wherever they are found.”
Another Latin-American newspaper put it this way: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are hard-working, honest, God-fearing people. They are conservative and tradition-loving and their religion is based on the teachings of the Bible.” We invite you to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses wherever you live. You will learn that their hope and their whole way of life are based on the Bible. Yes, you will learn how to worship God “with spirit and truth.”—John 4:23, 24.
See the booklet Should You Believe in the Trinity? published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Chart on page 21]
JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES IN SOME LATIN-AMERICAN COUNTRIES
Country Publishers Publishers
Argentina 20,750 96,780
Bolivia 1,276 8,868
Brazil 72,269 335,039
Chile 8,231 44,067
Colombia 8,275 55,215
Costa Rica 3,271 14,018
Dominican Republic 4,106 15,418
Ecuador 3,323 22,763
El Salvador 2,181 20,374
Guadeloupe 1,705 6,830
Guatemala 2,604 13,479
Honduras 1,432 6,583
Mexico 54,384 354,023
Panama 2,013 7,732
Paraguay 901 4,115
Peru 5,384 43,429
Puerto Rico 8,511 25,315
Uruguay 3,370 8,683
Venezuela 8,170 60,444
TOTAL 212,156 1,143,175