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Brazil: Scattered Thoughts on Brazilian Catholicism

During his tenure, Pope John Paul II made three visits to Brazil, inspiring hundreds of thousands of Catholics in many of cities he visited. His personal charisma, his rigorous schedule of world travel, and his vision for his church’s direction injected his church with new enthusiasm.
Beyond the “borders” of Catholicism, the pope influenced world politics for democracy, according to many, and provided a strong voice for traditional morality.
At the same time, it was during his papacy that the Brazilian Catholic church lost its greatest numbers. When he assumed the highest office, statistics were quoted to be in the mid to high 90 percentage range.
Today, the number of people identifying themselves as Catholics is the lowest in recent Brazilian history: about 73 percent, according to the national census of 2000. (1)

The inroads of the evangelicals, and especially the Pentecostals, have worried the Catholic hierarchy, prompting renewed efforts, like the New Evangelization campaign, to keep and regain their members.
But the losses continue, so much so that the evangelicals claim “Brazil belongs to the Lord Jesus.”
After the military government surrendered power and a democratically-elected president took office in 1985, Brazil has become, with the demise of government censorship, the country of tolerance and acceptance of the most diverse lifestyles.
An example is the annual gay pride parade in São Paulo which, aside from drawing thousands, enjoys the official blessing and presence of mayors and governors.
Catholicism has struggled against this tsunami of moral relativity and cultural diversity. With its post-Vatican II position of giving a nod to Protestant denominations as estranged brothers, while working to shore up its own communities, the Catholic Church in Brazil has, in practice, shot itself in the foot.
It also struggles with its own top-heavy approach, which plagues it to this day. Brazilians complain loud and long about celibacy of the priesthood, the authoritarian approach in the hierarchy, and the blatant materialism in the church.
The pedophile charges in other countries have so far not surfaced here, and one wonders for how long the largest Catholic country in the world may avoid them. But the lawsuits in the United States and Europe have not gone unnoticed here.
Even with efforts at renewal, the church is still plagued by its own bad press. Aside from cultural pressures, theological and political currents in the Brazilian church, notably, Liberation Theology, have plagued the traditional approach, to use an evangelical phrase, to “doing church.”
John Paul II clipped the wings of several of Brazil’s most outspoken Liberation Theologians, but the Liberation movement served only to wear down the church further as it itself, based on Marxist principles, began to implode with the fall of communism and the failure of its “base communities” to effect significant change in Brazilian society.
Some have expressed concern that the election of a Brazilian pope might give the Catholic church here new momentum. One can imagine that such a choice might invigorate Brazilian Catholicism, but the new pope would likely not vary from the traditional line. So while Brazilians might enjoy the person of the pope, as they did John Paul II, their distrust of the organization would probably continue and perhaps even grow, as the enchantment with the person might exacerbate their discontent with the system.
It is unlikely that the new pope, whoever he may be, will return us to a Brazil of 20-30 years ago, where Catholicism reigned supreme.
What might this mean for New Testament Christians? The cracking of the Catholic monolith hails both good news and bad for us. Good, in that there is more freedom to preach and evangelize than ever before. The freer exchange of ideas allows for a new (old) message to be presented in pratically all media possible.
Bad, in that the proliferation of Protestant, evangelical, and Pentecostal sects tends to obscure our message and present a renewed challenge to distinguish ourselves from the mass of religious groups in general.
Moreover, the influence of the evangelical groups upon the church of God is not to be ignored. More and more churches and Christians show signs of adopting a more evangelical tone and appearance. Much of this influence comes directly from North American sources within the church, so that the church is beseiged from within and without.
The passing of the pope, and with him, Catholic dominance in Brazil, means also that, while earlier preachers and teachers focused on Catholic doctrine as the Goliath to be attacked, today a wider array of doctrines present themselves in Brazil’s religious smorgasbord.
Pentecostal doctrine, especially the Theology of Prosperity, has insinuated itself into the lower classes, so much so that Christian writer Alvaro Pestana believes it now to be the great impediment to conversion to Christ.
Researchers and thinkers within churches of Christ have wondered why we have not capitalized more on the gains made by Pentecostal churches in paticular. Many have sought a strategic approach to simulate those successes. One wonders, however, if the search is not better directed toward the emotional underpinnings of both Brazilian culture and Pentecostal practice.
It is an easy step from saying, “I think that …” to affirming, “The Lord appeared to me and told me that …” If this be a major factor, it is one area where we don’t want to go. And it is doubtful that just being more forceful in our sermons, as one missionary suggested, will move us closer to a Pentecostal success. For these are not surface issues nor cosmetic improvements, but deeply conflicting approaches to evangelism and Christian life.
The disenchantment of Brazilians with the Catholic church provides us warning signs as well. In many efforts, the work in churches of Christ in Brazil tend toward missionary paternalism and the heavy use of American funds and strategies, two tendencies that have also fallen under heavy criticism from Brazilian Christians, which may be appreciated from a sociological as well as a theological perspective. If we are not careful, we may develop, in our own style, little charismatic popes whose kingdoms are no less restricting and demanding – and repulsive – as both Catholic and Protestant structures.
Pentecostalism has permitted anyone to become a pope, within his own sphere of influence. (Witness the titles of Bishop, Missionary, and President for heads of Brazilian denominations.) As in its political parties, Brazil’s denominations are personality based, not theologically motivated. Those of us whose appeal is for unity based on Scripture must eschew all temptation within our own hearts and all encouragements from well-meaning disciples to form our own parties and our evangelical friendly practices.
What does the passing of Pope John Paul II mean for our work in Brazil? Perhaps the best opportunity it affords us is a moment of reflection on our own work, that it be biblical, effective and efficient, rather than an American import of “practical” (2) strategy, hegemony and influence. We should be sure we are indeed doing missions and not a mechanical approach for short-term success that will ultimately be our doom.
(1) Catholics numbered 124,980,132 of a total population of 169,872,856.
Current population of Brazil is estimated at 183,461,420.
www.ibge.gov.br consulted 2005 April 14.
(2) “Practical” in American thought often means throwing money at a
problem and wanting to find a quick solution.
Randal Matheny is a missionary in São José dos Campos, Brazil. Read this and additional writings by Matheny online at randalmatheny.com.

Filed under: International Staff Reports

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