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R. Andrew Chesnut

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God's Not Brazilian but the Next Pope Should Be

Posted: 03/04/2013 11:31 am

A Brazilian, Cardinal Odilo Scherer hails from Latin America, home to almost half of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. Since the 1980s the Catholic hierarchy from Mexico to Argentina has been in a state of panic over stiff competition from Pentecostalism. Over the past five decades tens of millions have abandoned Catholicism for such Pentecostal denominations as the Assemblies of God. Between losses to charismatic Protestantism and a growing number of the religiously unaffiliated, especially among the region's youth, Catholicism in Latin America finds itself at a critical juncture.

All roads lead to Brazil. With both the largest Catholic and Pentecostal populations on earth, Brazil is the most important nation for the present and future of global Catholicism. Yet, if the Catholic church in Latin America is in panic mode, the Brazilian hierarchy is beside itself over the hemorrhaging of members to Pentecostalism and secularism. As recently as 1950, 99 percent of Brazilians were Catholic. Today, only 63 percent are, while Protestantism has skyrocketed from 1 percent to 22 percent during the same period! In fact, Pentecostalism has proved so appealing that 10 years ago in my book, "Competitive Spirits: Latin America's New Religious Economy," I described the Christian landscape in Brazil as Pentecostalized. With Pentecostalism accounting for 75 perent of all Brazilian Protestants, and approximately 60 percent of the country's Catholics claiming to be "charismatic" those groups who don't offer Spirit-centered worship mostly find themselves on the margins of the Christian landscape.

New Evangelization is key to future growth. Within the global context of competition with Pentecostalism, Islam in Africa and parts of Asia, and the growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated, the Church's strategy of New Evangelization holds the key to stanching the bleeding and even winning new converts. And no movement within the Church has been more successful in revitalizing dioceses and parishes throughout the Global South than the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which has its center of gravity in Brazil. A Catholic version of Pentecostalism, the CCR was born at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in 1967, and was exported to Latin America in the early 1970s. Charismatic masses and weekend prayer vigils, featuring priests who sing and dance to spirited rhythms, pack soccer stadiums in Brazil and other Latin American countries. Brazilian CCR priest Marcelo Rossi, a former aerobics instructor, is the rock star of the movement in Latin America. His latest book is the No. 3 Brazilian best-seller in non-fiction (losing out to Pentecostal rival, Bishop Edir Macedo, whose autobiography, "Nothing to Lose," claims the top spot. Moreover, his CDs of spirited sacred music sell millions, and he is a regular on Brazil's secular talks show and in the mass media. In Brazil and throughout the Southern Hemisphere, home to some two-thirds of all Catholics, it is this Spirit-centered type of Catholicism that is energizing the faithful and even winning new converts in Africa and parts of Asia. While not a Charismatic himself, Cardinal Scherer is a leading proponent of New Evangelization and has presided over its implementation in the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo, South America's largest.

In addition to compelling institutional factors, Scherer's personal and political profile makes him an attractive choice. Only 63 years old and presumably in good health, the Brazilian cardinal possesses the vigor that neither the pontiff emeritus nor many of his fellow cardinals enjoy. A Scherer papacy could conceivably last more than two decades. He also has worked at the Vatican and speaks Italian. Unlike some of his counterparts from the Global South, Dom Scherer has spent considerable time at the Vatican. From 1994 to 2001 he headed the influential Congregation for Bishops and learned Italian, which as a sister Romance language is relatively easy for Portuguese-speakers to learn. While Cardinal Scherer is largely perceived as a conservative within Brazil, on the world stage he cuts more of a centrist figure, and his tenure as a CEO at both the Vatican and Archdiocese of Sao Paulo show him to be a skilled pragmatist, a man who would be able to take on the serious challenges facing the church with flexibility and administrative acumen.

Finally, the argument for Scherer necessarily leads to reasons against his main contenders from Europe and Africa. By far, Africa is where the greatest Catholic growth is occurring, and so the Church there isn't in need of critical intervention as it is in Latin America. Scherer's successor should be African. And as bitter a pill as it is for the Vatican to swallow, Europe is by and large lost territory, mostly to the forces of secularization. A continued myopic Eurocentrism on the part of the Vatican would only lead to further weakening of the global Church. While God might not be Brazilian (as their tongue-in-cheek adage claims), the next pope should be.

 

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