THE BLOG
07/16/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2013

The Pope May Be Argentine But 'God Is Brazilian'

While the Argentine pope is unlikely to proclaim that God is Brazilian during his upcoming visit to Rio de Janeiro (as President Dilma Rousseff humorously did when she met Francis in Rome) his first international trip is to Brazil because the Latin American giant stands as the most important country on earth for the future of global Catholicism and Christianity in general. In fact, that a Latin American cardinal was elected pope derives more than any other factor from Brazil's rapidly changing religious landscape. In contemplating the future of their church cardinals at the conclave wisely decided to cut their losses in highly secularized Western Europe and focus on the Global South, where some 70 percent of the world's Catholics reside. However, within the Global South there is much variation within the Church. Catholicism in Africa is thriving, though not without competition from Pentecostalism and Islam. Likewise, the Church in the Philippines, China, Vietnam, among other Asian nations, enjoys healthy growth.

Latin America, however, with Brazil at the vanguard, presents a radically different religious landscape. After almost four centuries of enjoying a state-sanctioned monopoly on religion and a de facto one in many countries until the 1950s, the Church in Brazil and most of Latin America has been in sharp decline since the middle of the twentieth century. As recently as World War II, 99 percent of Brazilians were Catholic. Today that figure has plummeted to 63 percent. Barring a major reversal of trends, Brazil, home to the world's largest Catholic population, faces the prospect of no longer being a Catholic-majority nation within the next two to three decades. Here we have a fascinating mirror image of the United States, which is no longer a Protestant-majority country and appears to give Brazil a glimpse of its robustly pluralized future religious landscape.

And so it is within this context of precipitous decline that the cardinals chose a Latin American confrere as pope. Having written off a major attempt to revitalize the Church in Europe and having realized the vibrancy of the faith in Africa and Asia, Church leaders strategically opted to focus on the region that with 42 percent of the world's Catholic population holds the key to future growth. Thus in addition to Brazil figuring as the paramount country for the global Church, competition from Pentecostalism is the most compelling religious factor that has shifted the Vatican's focus to Brazil and Latin America. The great majority of the Church's losses have been to mushrooming Pentecostalism. Since the 1950s tens of millions of mostly poor Latin Americans have converted to the Assembly of God and Brazil-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. The meteoric growth rate is captured in the inverse of the aforementioned numbers on Catholic decline in Brazil. From World War II the Protestant percentage of the Brazilian population catapulted from 1 to 22 percent, of which approximately three-quarters are Pentecostal!

Pentecostalism, with its Spirit-centered worship, has become so popular in Brazil and most of Latin America that even 10 years ago I wrote of a pentecostalized Christianity in my book, Competitive Spirits: Latin America's New Religious Economy. What this means specifically is that Pentecostal style theology, complete with exorcism and the health and wealth gospel, has become hegemonic. Not only does Pentecostalism claim at least 70 percent of all Latin American Protestants, but also it exerts great influence on many "renewed" mainline Protestant denominations, such as Presbyterian and Methodists, who have had to adopt pneumacentric practices in order to remain relevant.

Over in the Catholic camp, the Church's own version of Pentecostalism, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR), has quickly become the most dynamic movement within the Brazilian Church and many others in Latin America. Like Pentecostalism, the CCR is an import from the U.S. arriving in the region in the late 1960s and early '70s. And while contemporaneous Liberation Theology failed to appeal to the Brazilian and Latin American Catholic masses in any significant numbers, the CCR packs soccer stadiums for its evangelical crusades and even conducts Pentecostal and Mormon-style door-to-door proselytizing in many countries. Testament to the astronomical growth of the CCR in Brazil is a recent Pew Foundation survey that found over 60 percent of Catholics there (and in Guatemala as well) identifying as Charismatic. During their early years Protestant influence led members of the CCR to downplay the importance of the Virgin and saints. However a combination of episcopal pressure and smart strategy transformed the CCR over the years into fervently Marian. Their enthusiastic presence will be felt throughout Pope Francis' visit to Brazil but especially at the Basilica of Brazil's patroness, the Virgin of Aparecida.

In short, if the Vatican's New Evangelization campaign is to have any chance at revitalizing the faith in Brazil and Latin America it must harness the spirited dynamism of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Pope Francis has already revealed his affinity for charismatic practice with his recent impromptu exorcism of a Mexican parishioner who claimed to be possessed by evil spirits related to the legalization of abortion in Mexico City. Brazil will thus provide an intriguing stage upon which Francis will be challenged to synthesize his option for the poor with the Latin American preference for the Spirit.