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Samuel Escobar

Latin America: What Catholics have “learned” from Protestants

The key question is whether Catholicism can consider popular Protestantism as God´s work. It is the same question that many traditional Protestant denominations also ask themselves.

FEATURES AUTHOR Samuel Escobar 21 NOVEMBER 2017 12:45 h GMT+1
biblia, crucifijo Photo: Katherine Hanlon / Unsplash

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

The already mentioned work of Franz Damen takes a different tack and is in the line of what we may call a "Catholic missionary approach," in contrast to what would be a "police approach" which condemns these churches and seeks to disparage them, because they can no longer be suppressed by force as in the past.

The pastoral approach was that which had been used by some Catholic scholars in Chile, such as the Jesuit, Ignacio Vergara, and the Carmelite, Ireneo Rosier, who approached Protestantism, including the Pentecostal movement, with scholarly honesty and critical sympathy.i

For them, rather than trying to halt this advance by using state power and social coercion, the Catholic church ought to investigate its own pastoral and missionary faults and even ask "What can we learn from these movements?"

We have noted in a previous chapter the endeavor of self-criticism that went along with the rise of some strains of liberation theologies, a self-criticism that was partly the result of the Protestant advance and of Vatican II.ii

In assessing this growth of popular Protestantism from a missiological and pluralistic perspective, Catholic scholars indicate key points in Catholic missionary strategy that ought to be reconsidered. I will take up five of them.

1.First, Damen refutes conspiracy theories and concludes that “It still seems impossible to prove that there is a strategic connection between U.S. expansionist policy toward Latin America and the spread of religious sects in the continent.iii

His observations and studies have enabled him to verify three facts that are very important and must be taken into account: first, that the sects are primarily a religious rather than a political phenomenon; second, that a growing number of sects are not North American but Latin American in origin; third, that many of them quickly take root in the country and become independent.

Damen thinks that the defensive stance of the hierarchies must be criticized. He thinks that such a stance leads to false interpretations that do not seriously study the reality of Protestant advance, and that Catholic leaders are deceiving themselves when they do not recognize the truth of their own pastoral and theological failures. In his conclusion, he calls for self-criticism and realism:

I think that the avalanche image reflects not so much the reality of the sects as the state of soul and mind of the Catholic Church in Latin America. Ever since the conquest, it has been used to wielding hegemony in the religious field, and it has still not reached the point of accepting and assuming religious pluralism as a reality. The image of an avalanche is useful insofar as it helps it avoid dealing with the complex reality of the sects.iv

2. Secondly, these Catholic missiologists highlight and admire the ability of the popular churches to mobilize all their members in the task of evangelization. Thus, for example, Monsignor Roger Aubry describes what he calls "active participation in the life and mission of the church."

Using traditional language, he admires the fact that "all converts are active members who have to promote the life of the sect and work toward the conversion of those who are not yet converted."v

Aubry recognizes that this evangelizing effort is "very generous" but he criticizes the fact that sometimes "it seems more proselytizing than evangelizing." To him it seems that evangelization ought to take place in an atmosphere of respect and freedom, but that some methods do not take that into account.

His conclusion has a note of self-criticism: "We must confess that on our side, despite the serious efforts that are being made, few lay people are actively and creatively involved in the pastoral activity of their parish or their church."vi

Here Aubry is in agreement with Damen, who also describes the evangelical missionary drive as a distinctive note of the popular churches:

“With their systematic and enthusiastic proselytizing, the Pentecostal and millenarian sects present themselves as deeply missionary communities of faith where the task of evangelization does not become the responsibility of a specialized group of people, for it is the mission of each member of the community.vii

Damen is struck by the fact that the Pentecostal groups that are growing most rapidly are also those that in proportion to their size have the fewest foreign missionaries. This leads him to the self-critical observation:

“They thereby expose a weakness of the established churches, i.e., their relative inactivity in mission today, the tremendous difficulty that they find in developing a missionary spirituality of the communities of faith, and their seeming inability to initiate lay missionary programs.”viii

3. Third, from the missiological standpoint it is noteworthy that some of these scholars have come to the point of recognizing that the evangelizing effort of the popular Protestant churches provides some people their first experience of Christian faith.

Thus, for example, before the meeting of Latin American bishops at Puebla (1979) the CELAM Missions Department circulated a Working Document called Missionary Panorama, which described the "new missionary situations" in Latin America.

The Panorama recognized that "most Latin Americans generally describe themselves as 'Roman, Catholic, and apostolic' even though their ecclesial adhesion is often based more on a customs-based attachment to the church than on deep faith convictions."

This document also considered the way in which certain social processes such as migration reveal the weakness of the bond between the masses and the Catholic Church, or simply--we would say--the total absence of a personal and saving faith in Jesus Christ.

The missiologist John Gorski observes that in facing these new situations "if a typically missionary dynamic is not sufficiently present in the general pastoral work of the Catholic Church, it is characteristic of the activity of the sects".

The existence of this missionary drive in what Gorski calls "the sects" explains that“Protestant and other sects are profitably penetrating this urban and rural milieu.

They offer many people their first concrete and challenging experience of the Word of God, of community and ecclesial mutual aid, and of moral transformation. These sects often harvest the fruits of latent religious feelings and of a missionary drive that is absent from Catholic pastoral activity…”ix

4. A fourth characteristic of these churches that Catholic missiology highlights is their truly grassroots or popular character. A great deal of the methodology, liturgy, and style of these churches very much reveals that their members and leaders come from the tradition.

In this sense, they are truly contextual even though they have never spun out theories about contextualization.

The Spanish Jesuit José Luis Idígoras, who was a missionary in Peru for several decades, highlighted this aspect with greater precision in a study of "the popular character of the Protestant sects." Idígoras held that in North America Protestants were "people of popular religion.

Let us consider the many Pentecostal congregations that are obviously uninterested in anything speculative and directly seek charisms that can be seen and felt and are effective in the community.”x

He then discussed the growth of this type of popular Protestantism in Latin America and even the emergence of variations of a local nature that have been appearing.

“Their founders are not theologians or men of the hierarchy. They are Christians of the poor classes whose theology is rudimentary, who are endowed with heavenly visions, and preachers who wander through plazas and streets.

They speak of their spiritual experience and draw in people of their own milieu who in turn become spontaneous preachers without grandiose theologies. Popular life experiences prevail over the world of science and power.xi

Idígoras contrasts this popular nature of Pentecostal pastors with the elitism of Catholic priests. He criticizes the secularizing training that priests receive and goes so far as to say: "And that is why it is not surprising that among the priests in our countries some are hostile to popular religion or promote secularized systems, such as integrating historical materialism into theology".xii

By contrast, he tells us: “The reality of Protestant pastors is generally quite different. They come from the ordinary people as much as Catholics. However, they live closer to the people and their training tends to be less philosophical and theological.

It is fundamentally based on reading and interpreting the Bible, without much use of exegetical methods. That way they more easily retain the popular mentality with which they began their training. Moreover, their preaching is closer to the religious feeling of the people.xiii

5. Finally, in fifth place, these churches are seen to create a sense of community and family for the city´s poorest. In this regard, Angel Salvatierra, a priest and scholar for the Ecuadorian Catholic bishops offers another example of pastoral and missiological self-criticism.

He points out that while facing the unprecedented population growth in Latin America, Catholicism finds itself with its priest shortage and its pastoral practice limited by "excessive concentration of responsibilities on priests."

Here he observes that these methods are in contrast with the evangelizing and missionary practice of the evangelical popular churches.

…the sects try to respond with their own methods to the religious demand of the poor and outcast, who find in them a space of community and brotherly-sisterly life, a place where they can celebrate faith by giving the senses and emotions free rein, a community that makes them discover their evangelizing mission and even enables them to take an active religious role based on the Word of God, a religious vision of existence in tune with the sense of dependence on the sacred experienced by the people, and a family-like help in dealing with material needs.xiv

The factors noted by Salvatierra are said to be "those that offer a primary explanation of the growing penetration of the sects," and can only be perceived by a judgment that takes the dimension of the sacred seriously.

It seems to us that this is the point at which the analysis of popular Protestantism made by social scientists, historians, and theologians of a liberationist bent who are highly politicized have most fallen short.

A convergence is recently taking place between studies from Protestant sources and approaches by Catholic missiologists, that is, specialists who bring to the study concerns informed by the theology and history of the missions, and by the life of the churches in a broader sense than the strictly political.

These authors seem more open to accepting the situation of religious pluralism in Latin America, and hence they approach popular Protestantism with a less hostile attitude.xv

The recognition of these qualities of popular Protestantism does not mean that these Catholic authors have put aside their own convictions about the Church of Rome. Each of the works cited also sharply criticizes Pentecostals.

However, these assessments represent a step forward in comprehending the differences and similarities between Protestants and Catholics when one thinks of Christian mission in the twenty-first century.

The fundamental question is thus whether Catholicism can see popular Protestantism as God's work in the world, as a fruit of the action of the Holy Spirit.

These same questions are asked by many Protestants in the older denominations, who also feel challenged, if not threatened, by the growth of popular Protestantism.

Samuel Escobar, missiologist, theologian and international speaker.

i Ignacio Vergara, El Protestantismo en Chile (Santiago: Editorial del Pacífico, 1962); Ireneo Rosier, Ovejas sin Pastor (Buenos Aires: Ed. Carlos Lohlé, 1960).

ii See chapter 6. See also my book La fe evangélica y las teologías de la liberación (El Paso: Casa Bautista de Publicaciones, 1987), chapters 2, 3, and 4.

iii Here I am using partially material from my article "Conflict of Interpretations of Popular Protestantism" in Guillermo Cook, Ed (1994); pp. 112-134.

iv Damen "Las sectas…" p. 52.

v Ibid. p. 58.

vi Aubry, La misión…, p. 111.

vii Ibid. p. 112.

viii Damen, "Las sectas…" pp. 60-61.

ix Loc. cit.

x Juan Gorski MM., El desarrollo histórico de la misionología en América Latina (La Paz: Bolivia, 1985), p.283.

xi José Luis Idígoras, S.J. La religión fenómeno popular (Lima: Ediciones Paulinas, 1984), p. 236.

xii Ibid. p. 238.

xiii Ibid. p. 245.

xiv Ibid. p. 245-46.

xv Angel Salvatierra, "Retos y características especiales de la nueva evangelización," in CELAM, Nueva Evangelización (Bogotá, 1990).

xvi I have dealt with this issue also in Cook (1994) and in Historia y Misión: revisión de perspectivas (Lima: Ediciones Presencia, 1994).




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