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Samuel Escobar

Latin America: The Catholic Church ‘imitates’ popular Protestantism

Although a postmodern stance toward faith relegates theological issues to the background, they are indispensable for understanding the missionary reality.

FEATURES AUTHOR Samuel Escobar 08 JANUARY 2018 09:36 h GMT+1
A Catholic Church in Taxo de Alarcon, Mexico. / Pedro Lastra (Unsplash, CC)

Read part I and II of this article by Peruvian missiologist Samuel Escobar.


Changes in Catholicism

Missiological approaches have had their effect in the more recent changes that have taken place within the Roman Catholic Church.  Perhaps the most precise indicator is the recent Synod of Bishops of the Americas that brought together around three hundred bishops and cardinals from November 16 to December 12, 1997 in Rome. Latin American bishops came together with those of the United States and Canada, thereby pointing to a strategy intended to achieve greater official coordination between these regions. Emphasis was placed on what is known as the “new evangelization”, and hence “the church in the past had stressed sociological solutions to poverty whereas now the emphasis should be on conversion”.

This new regional structure will mean in practice, for example, greater financial aid from north to south, and coordination of efforts on Hispanics in the United States, who have been becoming Protestants at a rate that concerns Catholics.

The document Ecclesia in America is the text of the “Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation” that the Pope presented in Mexico on January 22, 1999. In it one finds an official summary of the pastoral and social agenda of the church of Rome for the coming years.  In paragraph 73, the document deals with Protestants, and what it says about them is revealing.  As we saw earlier, Rome always distinguishes between the Protestant churches that participate in the ecumenical dialogue led from Geneva by the World Council of Churches, and the more dynamic and evangelizing Pentecostal churches, which it calls “sects”. Ecclesia in America states: “The proselytizing activity of the sects and new religious groups in many parts of America is a grave hindrance to the work of evangelization”. It then mentions the ecumenical attitudes that Catholics ought to have, but it leaves no room for doubt about Catholic exclusivism: “These attitudes, however, must not be such that they weaken the firm conviction that only in the Catholic Church is found the fullness of the means of salvation established by Jesus Christ”.

There is also a self-critical effort which has two significant aspects. One refers to pastoral methodologies and proposes that in view of the Protestant advance, the church should undertake “a thorough study, to be carried out in each nation and at the international level, to ascertain why many Catholics leave the Church”. Hence, 

Pastoral policies will have to be revised, so that each particular Church can offer the faithful more personalized religious care, strengthen the structures of communion and mission, make the most of the evangelizing possibilities of a purified popular religiosity, and thus give new life to every Catholic's faith in Jesus Christ.

The second point of self-criticism has to do with a change of emphasis from the social to the spiritual. The document notes the observations of some of the participants in the synod to the effect that

it is necessary to ask whether a pastoral strategy directed almost exclusively to meeting people's material needs has not in the end left their hunger for God unsatisfied, making them vulnerable to anything which claims to be of spiritual benefit.     

As we pointed out earlier in this chapter, several Catholic scholars of Latin American Protestantism had been drawing attention to this question, referring particularly to the popular Protestant churches where what people find primarily is not money or social services but “an experience of God”. The document reaches the conclusion that

A Church which fervently lives the spiritual and contemplative dimension, and which gives herself generously to the service of charity, will be an ever more eloquent witness to God for men and women searching for meaning in their lives.

What the synod document points out is something that any attentive observer may now notice in Latin America: Catholic priests and laypeople are imitating many of the pastoral and evangelization methods that have been created and used by Protestants, especially by the popular churches. Thus, for example, many Catholic television programs have the same structure as Protestant programs, the popular hymns from the 1970s and 1980s have been incorporated into Catholic songbooks, and Bible study in small groups and meetings in homes with their time for testimony, biblical meditation, and prayer, are now being used. In some cases the methods have been modified and adapted but in other cases it has become hard to distinguish what is Catholic from what is Protestant. 

The changes in Catholicism constitute a challenge to the identity of Protestants and to their creativity. They force us to think about many aspects of the practical life of the churches in which lessons can be learned from what this Catholic awakening is creating. Today, for example, Catholic bookstores have a lot more abundant and varied material on Bible study, group dynamics, work with young people and adolescents, use of art for Christian education, videos on Christian and biblical themes, either produced originally in Spanish or translated, than Protestant bookstores.

Even so, beyond questions of method, the changes in Catholicism force us to define what the distinguishing features of our Protestant faith really are. If there is a church that successfully imitates evangelical methods, we ought to ask, how are we different from it? Why do we continue to exist as different churches? That poses for us the theological problem of the foundations of Protestant faith expressed in the various “faces of Protestantism” to use Míguez Bonino’s phrase.

Theological and identity issues are important, and Protestants have to use the missiological means provided to them by understanding their own history and theology. Although a postmodern stance toward faith relegates theological issues to the background, they are indispensable for understanding the missionary reality posed by popular Protestantism.

Samuel Escobar, missiologist, theologian and international speaker.




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