Brazilian Evangelical Church Grows as the Catholic Church Declines

SAO PAULO, Brazil; The Brazilian Census Bureau found a major incline in the evangelical protestant population, and a greater decline in the Catholic population, in the largest Catholic nation in the world. The data, taken from the 1991-2000 census, detects tensions familiar to the American church, where congregants are moving away from dogma and looking toward their personal spiritual experience as key to meeting God.

The census found that evangelical Protestants grew from 9% of Brazil’s population in 1991 to 15% in 2000. The Assemblies of God, Brazil’s largest evangelical church, experienced a marked growth, and now has some 8 million adherents.

"People are troubled in today's world by drugs, divorce, violence and alcohol, but when they go to the Catholic Church for succor, all they get is dogma; when they come to us, they get a sense of community," says Jose Luiz Lopes, a pastor for the A/G.

On the other hand, the catholic population fell from 84% in 1991 to 74% in 2000.

"Something happened over the past decade and, yes, it worries us," said Bishop Odilo Scherer, secretary-general of Brazil's Catholic Bishops Conference.

A separate survey found that 70% of Brazilian Catholics disagreed with the church’s position against contraception, while 63% favoured divorce as an option for troubled couples.

"The Catholic Church is not giving people what they want. For those who want hope, excitement or, in some cases, wealth, the evangelical movement was made to order," said theologian Fernando Altemeyer of the Catholic University of Sao Paulo.

Additionally, a 2001 survey by the Religious and Social Studies Centre found that only a third of the nation’s 150 million Catholics actually practice their religion, reinforcing the suggestion that Brazilians are looking outside dogma to find their faith.

"I don't attend Mass very often because I work all the time. My main concern is my wife and children. When I pray, it's for more customers," said Domingos Santos, a 50-year-old man who sells flowers in front of a Catholic church in Sao Paulo.

According to Altemeyer, the protestant churches have a greater leeway to appeal to the believers.

"It's easy for new churches to make such an appeal," Altemeyer said. "They are unburdened by centuries of doctrine."

Therefore, instead of changing its beliefs to gain back its congregational support, the Catholic Church decided to renew itself by “adding new blood."

In January, Pope John Paul II accepted the resignations of three powerful cardinals: Serafim de Araujo, 80, of Brazil's third largest city of Belo Horizonte; Jose Freire Falcao, 79, of the capital of Brasilia; and Aloisio Lorscheider, 79, of the shrine city of Aparecida. The pope replaced the three with experienced bishops in their 40s and 50s.

The Brazilian church is now led by men such as Scherer, 55; Walmor de Azevedo, 49, the new archbishop of Belo Horizonte and a Biblical scholar; and 69 year-old Cardinal Claudio Hummes, head of the country's largest archdiocese - Sao Paulo.

These relatively young bishops may help the Catholic Church rejuvenate itself.

"We are taking a missionary approach," said Hummes, who supposedly looks a decade younger than his age. "We are reaching out to the poor, especially in big cities. We are combating cynicism with the Gospel."

Other means the Catholic Church adopted to regain support was new actions and practices.

Pop star priest Marcelo Rossi has released hit records and uses the theatrical methods of Protestant evangelicals when he celebrates Mass accompanied by throbbing music and dancing.

Other priests have come to the forefront of social justice battles. These leaders, dubbed, speak out on social issues and call for reform even in the Catholic Church.

"There is a consensus now incorporating sensitivity to social issues, but rejecting Marxism," said Scherer.

Cardinal Hummes breathes confidence: "The Brazilian church is more united than it has been for decades. Vocations are up (17,000 priests now, against 14,000 a decade ago); we are showing, to all baptised Brazilians, that we are the way home."

Church in a city centre in Brazil
(by Mirek Towski//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Pauline J. Chang