One of the main reasons for which a Latin American was elected the first pope from the New World five years ago is the long-term decline of the flock in the most Catholic region on earth. Only five decades ago, in 1970, Latin America was 92% Catholic. Argentines, Mexicans, Brazilians, for example, were born into the Church and lived out their lives as Catholics, although only a small percentage were regular churchgoers. However, after five decades of sharp decline throughout Latin America, the most Catholic region on earth, which is home to 39% of the world’s 1.3 billion parishioners, is poised to no longer be majority Catholic by 2030. A new survey by the respected Chilean polling firm, Latinobarometro, reveals Latin America now to be only 59% Catholic, down from 80% in 1995.
The landmark 2014 Pew survey of the Latin American religious landscape, for which I was the lead academic consultant, reported the region to be 69% Catholic. It’s in this context of long-term decline in the most Catholic region on earth that cardinals elected one of their confreres from Latin America with the hope that if Europe, with a few exceptions, seemed to be lost to the Religious Nones, there still might be time to stanch ecclesial hemorrhaging in the New World.
The Latinobarometro poll is the first to show that five years into his papacy, the Argentine pontiff has been unable to halt, much less reverse, the five-decade decline. In the year he became the first Jesuit pope, 2013, 67% of Latin Americans told Chilean pollsters they were Catholic. Thus, the percentage of Latin Americans who are Catholic has dropped by 8 points since Cardinal Bergoglio became pope. Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t contain detailed data on each country polled. In the one nation for which is there is more detail, Chile, the decline is even more dramatic. During Pope Francis’s tenure Chile has become a country in which Catholics no longer constitute the majority of the population. When the Argentine cardinal became pope, the region’s most prosperous country was 56% Catholic, and in the span of just four short years the figure has dropped to 45%, distinguishing Chile as the second South American nation, after Uruguay, to lose its Catholic majority.
While updated comparative national figures are lacking at this point, there’s a very good chance that Chile’s 11 point decline over the past four years ranks among the sharpest in the region. If we go back to the 1995, the benchmark year of the Latinobarometro survey, Chile’s decline from 75% Catholic to 45% ranks as the fourth greatest drop in Latin America. Honduras leads the region, plummeting from 76% Catholic to just 37% in the 22-year span. In fact, the violence-plagued Central American nation is the first country in the region in which Protestants now outnumber Catholics, 39% to 37% of the Honduran population.
Returning to Chile, which the Argentine pontiff recently toured along with Peru, the new poll reveals that the greatly accelerated decline commences with the sexual abuse scandal of Reverend Fernando Karadima who made headlines in 2010 with revelations of his chronic and serial molesting of minors. In what has been the Achilles heel of his papacy, Francis added fuel to the fire by appointing a protégé of Karadima, Juan Barros as bishop of a southern diocese, despite vehement opposition by parishioners alleging that Barros, as part of Karadima’s inner circle, had conspired to cover-up the crimes. By the end of the pope’s three-day visit to Chile it appeared that he had made great strides in repairing the damage caused by the Karadima-Barros affair. He not only offered a heart-felt apology to victims during his speech to President Bachelet and government officials, but also held an impromptu meeting with sexual abuse survivors in which he shed tears of sorrow for their victimization at the hands of clergy.
However, on the last day of his visit he managed to erase most, if not all, the good will he had created by energetically defending the embattled bishop when a Chilean reporter inquired about him. “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak,” declared the Argentine pope and added: “There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?” One can imagine that his vigorous defense of a much-reviled bishop on the last day of his tour will be the image that many Chileans are left with, which will likely contribute to the continued erosion of the flock in Latin America’s most economically developed nation.Beyond Chile, the Latinobarometro polls reveals that six other nations in the region are also no longer majority Catholic. Uruguay, the most secularized society in Latin America, figures as the other South American country at only 38% Catholic, while Guatemala (43%), El Salvador (40%), Honduras (37%), and Nicaragua (40%) make for a Central American region that is no longer Catholic-majority. Over in the Caribbean, Cuba, after six decades of socialist dictatorship, is home to Latin America’s smallest Catholic population but was not included in the Chilean poll. Nearby Dominican Republic is the sole Caribbean country surveyed that is no longer majority Catholic at 48%.
Returning to South America, Brazil, which is home to the largest Catholic population on earth and the epicenter of global Christianity with also the world’s largest Pentecostal community and second largest Protestant population, remains majority Catholic at 54%, but not for long. As a Brazil specialist I had recently predicted that the Latin American giant would lose its Catholic majority by 2030. However, in light of the new data from Latinobarometro, I am moving that date forward to 2025. For Latin America overall, it’s quite likely that the region will no longer be majority Catholic by 2030.
Until the past decade or so the primary beneficiary of Catholic loss was Pentecostalism, as evidenced by Brazil now having a larger Pentecostal population than that of the U.S., where the dynamic branch of charismatic Protestantism was born a century ago. After five decades of impressive growth, Pentecostalism has been able to claim some 70% of all Latin American Protestants, and its influence and competition for religious market share has resulted in the Charismatic Renewal becoming the largest and most dynamic Catholic lay movement across the region and throughout the Global South. In both Brazil and Guatemala, where Pentecostalism has found especially fertile soil, more than 60% of Catholics identify as Charismatic, according to Pew.
While Pentecostalism has continued to expand over the past decade, albeit it at a slower pace, the most significant new development on the Latin American religious landscape is the meteoric rise of the Religious Nones, those who don’t have any specific religious affiliation or identity. The 2014 Pew survey reported a Latin American population of 8% Religious Nones. In just three years that figure has more than doubled to 17%, according to Latinobarometro. In comparison, Pew reports the percentage of Nones in the U.S. at 22%, which is slightly larger than the American Catholic population at 21%. Part of the pope’s contrasting receptions in Peru and Chile can be attributed to the huge difference in the number of Nones in each country. While Chile’s None population at 38% is the second largest in Latin America, behind Uruguay, Peru’s at 8% ranks among the smallest, led by Catholic bulwark Paraguay and Bolivia at 8% each.
In short, we now have solid evidence of continuing Catholic decline in Pope Francis’s native Latin America on his watch. Despite initial anecdotal reports of a “Francis effect” that was filling the pews in a region that is home to 39% of the world’s faithful, it’s quite clear that his popularity has not translated into lapsed Latin American Catholics returning to the fold. On the contrary, parishioners have continued to leave the Church over the past five years. Thus, the rapidly shifting Latin American religious landscape in which Catholicism transitions from a majority to plurality religion appears to be an inexorable trend which not even a charismatic native son can reverse.