BY STAFF REPORTER
THE NUMBER of faithful in the world’s most Catholic region is falling, according to a survey by the Chilean polling firm Latinobarometro.
The research indicated that 71 per cent of South Americans consider themselves Catholic, down from 80 per cent in 1995, while the percentage who consider themselves evangelical or Protestant rose from 3 per cent to 13 per cent in the same period. In a region buffeted by corruption scandals, economic crises and social unrest, many people view presidents, legislatures and political parties with distrust.
However, the survey concluded that the Church is still vibrant in other ways, enjoying the confidence of 73 per cent of Latin Americans. As a result of that trust bishops and Church officials are often called in to mediate political and social conflicts.
The Bolivian bishops’ conference played a key role in bringing protesters and government officials to the negotiating table during the recent upheaval that led to the resignation of President Carlos Mesa and his replacement by the head of the Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodriguez.
In Peru Fr Gaston Garatea of the Sacred Heart, who heads the country’s national antipoverty task force, recently helped calm a conflict between community organisations and a mining company in the highlands of southern Peru.
The Venezuelan Archbishop of Merida, Baltazar Porras Cardozo, said: “[When countries are] up to their necks in political, social and economic problems, people turn to the Church and we take on the difficult role of mediator. That’s what we are here for.” The Latinobarometro survey also highlighted one concern that the region’s bishops had already expressed at the assembly of the Latin American bishops, known as Celam in Lima in May this year.
Although nearly three-quarters of the region’s people consider themselves Catholic, only 40 per cent said that they practise their faith.
The rate is highest, about 48 per cent, in Central America, and lowest, 37 per cent, in the southern countries of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay.
There has been a significant drop in the past decade in Mexico, where 31 per cent of the country’s Catholics said they practise their faith, compared to more than 60 per cent in 1995.
In Venezuela, the number of practising Catholics has fallen by 14 points over the last 10 years, to 37 per cent. In contrast, 70 per cent of Latin Americans who belong to other Christian churches said that they practise their faith. In response to this phenomenon, the fifth conference of Celam, which is planned for early 2007, will focus on discipleship and on building the Latin American Church’s missionary outreach.
“The encounter with Jesus Christ cannot remain an individual matter,” said Bishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Texcoco, Mexico, first vicepresident of Celam.
“Jesus didn’t call one disciple, he called a community of disciples. This community of disciples must express the consistency of its faith in the various spheres of the world.”