Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world. It has long surpassed the numbers of the congregation enjoyed by European countries from whence Catholicism has had roots.
Of late there seems to be trouble in this Catholic dominant country due to the rate of decline of its membership caused by the slow rate of conversions and the alarming increase of defections to other religious sects mainly to the Pentecostals and other Protestant denominations.
A new study conducted by Brazil’s top research institute found that the youth seek out other beliefs from the religion that has been foisted on them at birth. This represents a sea change among a younger generation of Brazilians. It is a fresh challenge for church leaders who are already at grips with the problems of low conversions as well as losses by attrition of parishioners across Latin America.
From a robust share of religious affiliation similar to that of the Philippines, Brazil’s Catholic membership has bottomed out at 68% last year. With the rate of decline of the Church in Brazil, Mexico is poised to taking the place of Brazil as the largest Catholic country. Although Mexico is also in a decline its membership is still at high 84% almost similar to that of the Philippines.
There seems to be a correlation between a strong Catholic population to the economic level of a country. The lower the economic standing of a country is the stronger the hold to its Catholic congregation. This is a hypothesis that needs validation.
For the Philippine Catholic Church there are lessons to be learned here in parallel. A similar kind of heritage is shared as colonies of Iberian countries and one could speculate that the same oppression of the “indios” existed with the secular government and similarly, abuses experienced from the religious authority. These may have been influential factors that formed their present socio-cultural character.
The Brazilians and Filipinos may have similar predispositions towards rebelliousness to an oppressive colonial government. The oppressive colonial government and the abusive religious practices of that time are merged, and perceived as one and the same. With the passing of Spain’s secular rule, religion, is the only remnant of a past hurt and may be burdened with carryover antagonism.
The aforesaid may be deemed speculative but in some instances, where it may apply, they may be relevant and explicatory. Our archetypal backgrounds are identical, and that being the case, our reactions and responses to stimuli will not vary too much. Factors that are deemed contributory to Brazil’s decline in its Catholic population may also be present and at work in the Philippine situation.
Other similarities are in the development of the counter forces that have contributed to the Catholic Church’s decline. Namely, these are the aggressive Protestant missionary activities such as Pentecostal efforts at conversion which had opportunities among the poor because of their easy to practice attraction, a media distracted youth, the improvement of life conditions making everyone in awe of technological bling blings, the rigidness of the Catholic stance towards contraception and the existence of more attractive social alternatives other than church events and activities.
Add to all these are the promiscuous scandals of Catholic clerics. All these events are helped out by highly efficient telecommunication networks that have a hot housing effect on the development of trends.
In Brazil, a growing middle class which started in the early eighties was a major factor in the decline trend. It seemed that improved living conditions added to the secularization of the public as well as in the rejection of the Catholic Church. It is a curious fact because the middle class has always been the bulwark of morality and that they tend to stay religious more than any other demographic grouping. Sociologists tend to conclude that the hedonistic inclination of a society is an offshoot of material prosperity. More than defections, rejection of any kind of faith or godlessness seems to be the more worrisome trend that has been spurred by prosperity.
Another phenomenon which seems different from ours is that in Brazil it is believed that the Catholic decline was sparked by a “female revolution.” A foundation study discovered that Catholic women, instead of giving up entirely on religion, are largely going to traditional Protestant denominations such as the Presbyterians or Methodists, which are viewed by many as less patriarchal.
There is definitely a downtrend in the Catholic population in countries where they have been dominant. The decline has historical roots which have started from the Reformation in Martin Luther’s time. Initially, Counter-reformation efforts of the Catholic Church were effective but the early gains of the Reformation really hurt the Church in terms of the number of defections and in terms of political influence in the European continent. Through time, despite the Counter- reformation efforts, the decline continued.
Some blame it on the focus of the counter-reformation which were on the outward efforts to stem the external bleeding but not in instituting change within a church that has been blamed for being stodgy and incapable of adapting to outward demands of changing times and changing people’s perspectives and attitudes.
The convening of the Council of Trent and the much more recent Vatican II would be the counter-reformation responses that would be of some consequence, but, it seemed to be a case of doing too little too late. What transpired in Europe some time ago and contemporary examples like Brazil and other Latin American countries may very well be the template that is repeating itself in Catholic countries outside the Americas and the European continent.
The Catholic Church remains as one of the bastions of Christianity. Its strength is based on discipline and constancy of its practice which at times may also be a reason for disenchantment of some of the flock. Those who have been steeped in Catholic practice, its lore, the observance of sacraments, its unrelenting insistence on its dogma and doctrine are proud to be part of this tradition and heritage and would be difficult to lure them out of the fold.
The younger generation who have been waylaid into joining the born again groups have been lured by the “easy to practice” and “interpret as you like” denominations. These enticements plus the fact that this is something new and that peers have joined are hard to ignore. The next step after joining these new groups is complete abandonment of the faith or godlessness. It is so easy to junk a faith that was so easy to acquire and practice because of the shallowness of the joiners’ convictions. Strength of faith comes from a high regard of a religion that is steeped in lore and tradition that one fully understands and one that is constant in its stand and consistent in its actions.
Its strength is in its traditional observances of its rites, its practices and the unwavering constancy by which it abides by its doctrines and dogmas, but, it is this very strength that may have been instrumental in causing disenchantment to those who have defected from its fold.
Despite the fact that this has been happening from long years ago and patterns are easily recognized and many lessons from observation and hindsight derived from what has transpired in other countries from early times to the contemporary, the Church may not have learned from these. Perhaps it may have, but, there are no easy solutions to this dilemma that faces the Catholic hierarchy. Addressing the problems and applying solutions to most of them would be tantamount to turning against its long held and essential doctrinal principles.