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Samuel Escobar

Catholic exodus to the ranks of Protestant churches in Latin America

The rapid growth of popular Protestantism has heightened the concerns of the Roman Catholic hierarchies in this region of the world.

FEATURES AUTHOR Samuel Escobar 08 NOVEMBER 2017 10:01 h GMT+1
A view of Buenos Aires, Argentina. / Sasha (Unsplash, CC)

This is the first article in a series of articles by Peruvian missiologist Samuel Escobar entitled Popular Protestantism and Catholic Missiology in Latin America.


Missionary expansion of Protestantism in Latin America has affected the Roman Catholic Church in various ways. One effect of the dynamic presence of an alternative religious force has been an exodus of nominal Catholics to the ranks of Protestant churches.

Yet another effect has been the unleashing of a process of self-criticism which reached even official levels and which can be said to have helped strengthen Catholicism in the region. A typical case was Peru where, according to a Jesuit historian, in the early twentieth century, Protestantism and liberalism emerged as challenges influencing the church: “The urgent need to deal with the modern world, albeit timidly and in a limited way, and reach agreement with the modernizing groups in Peruvian society, was largely a reaction to these threats”.[i]

In more recent years, the rapid growth of popular Protestantism has heightened the concerns of the hierarchies in the region. One of the best-informed Catholic scholars in this regard is the Belgian Passionist priest, Franz Damen, who was Executive Secretary of the Department of Ecumenism of the Bolivian Bishops Conference. Damen noted the fact that “according to statistics in Latin America, every hour on average 400 Catholics join Protestant sects, who now represent an eighth, i.e., 12.5% of the population of the continent”.[ii]

Damen also studied the reactions of hierarchies to this phenomenon by pointing out that, in numerical terms, this exodus of Catholics to Protestantism has already surpassed what happened in Europe in the sixteenth century. It is nevertheless noteworthy that it was Catholic specialists in missionary research like Damen who took the time to do a realistic, missiological, and pastoral analysis. The Protestant studies that overemphasized sociological analysis criticized the popular churches because they did not serve the cause of left-wing political militancy, the so-called “popular struggles” in the 1960s and 1970s. They failed to notice its missiological nature



In considering some reactions by Catholic missiology, we must first note that in official Catholic terminology, the term used most often for grassroots or popular Protestantism is “sects”. Catholic missiological literature in Latin America plainly shows that, for the hierarchies, and for their missiologists, the popular forms of Protestantism are the most disturbing and arouse the greatest anxiety.

This is reflected in a book meant to encourage mission by the well-known missiologist Monsignor Roger Aubry, who in a chapter on “Sects and evangelization”,[iii] drew attention to the growth of “the sects”, and said:

We are not speaking here about the traditional Protestant churches with which we maintain ecumenical relations, sharing the same yearnings for evangelization, justice, and peace.  We are talking about the so-called sects, most of which have come from up north during this century, particularly in recent decades.  Among them, we center our attention on the pentecostal-type sects or those with Pentecostal leanings in their worship expressions and in their doctrinal structure.[iv]

Among the “sects” that Aubry mentions as problematic due to their rapid growth are the Assemblies of God, the Church of the Nazarene, the Church of Christ, the Church of God, and the churches that emphasize healing.

Citing data from the publication Pro Mundi Vita, Aubry noted that these “sects” are those that are growing vigorously, and “represent almost 80% of non-Catholic confessions; for example, they constitute 73%  in Nicaragua, 83% in Costa Rica, 84% in Guatemala”.[v] 

Using official data from Catholic bishops’ conferences, Aubry pointed to the contrast in the case in Chile where Pentecostals are 14% of the population, whereas the remaining Protestants are not even 1%, and he notes that in Brazil pentecostals “constitute 70% of Protestantism”.  In his typology, Aubry obviously makes a distinction between two groups: those that are growing, which he calls “sects” and characterizes as “Pentecostals”, and the rest, for which he uses the term “Protestant churches”.

This same attitude is reflected in a handbook intended to offer guidance on the “sects”, in which an Argentine Catholic expert says that

For years ecumenical relations have preferred to establish another name less charged with negative connotations to designate the “sects”, thereby recognizing they also have some positive elements that deserve the church's consideration.  Today the preferred expression is “free religious movements” even though their proselytizing activity is always viewed as “sectarian”.[vi]

Inasmuch as the book studies Baptists, Adventists, and Pentecostals, along with Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, it is obvious that the same terminology that we have been noting is being followed. Without making the necessary theological distinctions, it is obvious that those forms of Protestantism that evangelize and are growing numerically are presented as “sectarian” and that is how they are distinguished from the rest.

One might expect that this Protestant growth would come to be understood from a missiological perspective inasmuch as Latin American societies are becoming increasingly pluralistic, but the vocabulary of official documents from Catholic bishops displays a hostile stance that has been hardening. A degree of evolution in how the different types of Protestantism in Latin America are described can be detected. The documents of the assemblies of CELAM, the Latin American Bishops conference are a good index to measure this evolution. 

At their 1955 meeting in Rio de Janeiro, the bishops made no distinction but simply noted “the serious problem posed by Protestantism and the various non-Catholic movements that have been introduced into Latin American nations, threatening their traditional Catholic culture”.[vii]

Thirteen years later at Medellin (1968), in their conclusions the bishops did not use the terms “Protestantism” or “sect” but insisted on different types of ecumenical cooperation with the “various Christian confessions and communions”.[viii]  Eleven years later at Puebla (1979) a distinction was made between “churches”, with which ecumenism is practiced and that participate with Catholics in bilateral or multilateral councils and on the other side, “the 'free religious movements' (popularly 'sects')”.[ix] About them, the document says, “we cannot fail to notice that these groups indulge in marked forms of proselytism, biblical fundamentalism, and strict literalism with respect to their own doctrines”.[x] At Santo Domingo (1992), Pope John Paul II had harsh words against what he called “sects”. Speaking to the Latin American bishops, he said,

Like the Good Shepherd, you are to feed the flock entrusted to you and defend it from rapacious wolves.  A source of division and discord in your ecclesial communities are--as you well know--the sects and "pseudo spiritual" movements," mentioned in the Puebla Conclusions, whose aggressiveness and expansion must be faced.[xi]

Further on the pope invoked the conspiracy theory to explain the “advance of the sects”, and stated:

“We should not underestimate a particular strategy aimed at weakening the bonds that unite Latin American countries so as to undermine the kinds of strength provided by unity.  To that end, significant amounts of money are offered to subsidize proselytizing campaigns that try to shatter Catholic unity”.[xii]

Samuel Escobar, missiologist, theologian and international speaker.

Next article: What can Catholics learn?

[i] Jeffrey Klaiber S.J., La reacción católica ante la presencia protestante durante la república aristocrática (Lima: Seminario de Historia del Protestantismo en el Perú, 1995).

[ii] Franz Damen, "Las sectas ¿avalancha o desafío?" Cuarto Intermedio (magazine published by the Jesuits) (Cochabamba, May 1987) p. 45.  Damen is a Passionist, has been a missionary in Bolivia, and has published several works on Protestants in Latin America.

[iii] Roger Aubry, La misión: siguiendo a Jesús por los caminos de América Latina (Buenos Aires: Ed. Guadalupe, 1990), pp. 105-115.  Monsignor Aubry, a Swiss Redemptorist priest, was president of the CELAM Department of Missions from 1974 to 1979, and has been a missionary in the interior of Bolivia since 1970.

[iv] Aubry, La misión p. 105.

[v] Ibid. p. 106.

[vi] Osvaldo Santagada, "Caracterización y situación de las sectas en América Latina," in CELAM, Sectas en América Latina.  There is no indication of place or date of publication but it is number 50 in the series published by CELAM in Bogotá, and in the introduction, Archbishop Antonio Quarracino mentions a 1981 meeting that led to the book.

[vii] I Conferencia General del Episcopado Latinoamericano, Documento de Río (Lima: Vida y Espiritualidad, 1991).  The original document reprinted in this new edition dates back to 1955.

[viii] See Medellin. Conclusiones 2: 26 and 30; 5: 19; 8:11;  9:14.

[ix]  Puebla conclusions 1107, 1109, in John Eagleson and Philip Scharper, (eds.) Puebla and Beyond: Documentation and Commentary (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1979).

[x] Puebla 1109.

[xi] Opening Address of the Pope in Santo Domingo, paragraph 12, in Alfred T. Hennelly, S.J., Santo Domingo and Beyond: Documents & Commentaries from the Historic Meeting of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1993).

[xii] Ibid.




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