Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The failure of Brazilian Catholic neoconservatism

by José Lisboa Moreira de Oliveira (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Adital (Spanish / Portuguese)

The latest census data shows a drop in the number of Catholics in Brazil. According to estimates, the percentage has dropped from 83.34% to 67.84% in the last 20 years. The issue was discussed at the last general meeting of the CNBB, in April this year, in Aparecida (SP). Some bishops were appalled by the news. Others tried to minimize the data, thinking it reflected "intrigues of the opposition." Others, more realistic perhaps, weren't frightened by the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) data.

The truth is that it wasn't necessary to receive this official data to realize this phenomenon. Any serious Catholic, observing the situation, knows very well that the Church is losing more and more faithful. Taking a look at the masses, groups, movements, the organized ministries is enough to clearly grasp the situation. It's true that some churches are still full on Sundays and some singing priests bring together thousands of people in their religious spectacles. Some are deluded about this and firmly believe that the Catholic Church remains a hegemonic force. However, this public is insignificant compared to the percentage of Catholics, so we can say without fear of contradiction that the number of practicing ones is much lower than in the data provided by IBGE. If we make more refined calculations, it can be said that practicing Catholics don't exceed ten percent. If we then think about youthful participants, then this number should drop to less than one percent.

But the most interesting thing about this experience is that the decrease in Catholics in Brazil coincides with the beginning of the dismantling of the Church of liberation and the implementation of a neoconservative Catholic regime. Catholics are decreasing in Brazil as the base Christian communities are being systematically replaced by the neo-Pentecostal Catholic movements. The number of Catholics started to fall from the time the more conservative bishops, who were instructed to systematically destroy every vestige of the Church of liberation, were appointed. That has been the case, for example, in Recife, since the replacement of Dom Helder Cámara.

The decline in Catholics coincides with the arrival of Catholic television networks and their conservative apologetics programs in Brazil. Catholics are declining while the number of singing priests, priest-actors in major media and mediagenic seminarians is increasing, all connected 24 hours a day via the internet to "evangelize" through very modern and fast means. Catholics are declining as exotic communities with their medieval costumes and strange and Manichean customs are appearing and multiplying in the Church. The decline of Catholics hasn't stopped, despite all the efforts to crush liberation theology, punish Brazilian theologians, dress priests in clerical garb, romanize the liturgies, and pull outdated, archaic, and obsolete things out of the old Catholic trunk.

Something went wrong. In the late 1970s, when, during the pontificate of John Paul II, neoconservatism began to appear, it was said that the Church of liberation had to be discredited and excluded because it jeopardized the future of the Catholic Church on the Latin American continent. They put an end to anything that might smell of liberation, but even with the implementation of neo-Christianity, Catholicism faded. The neoconservative project failed, and with its arrival, the shrinking of Brazilian Catholicism accelerated. It seems that the shot backfired.

I think it's time for the Church in Brazil do some serious reflection. Its leaders should be honest with themselves, admitting that they failed, having spurred, with their methods, the decrease in Brazilian Catholics. They, who were so afraid of liberation theology, who demonized it and fought against it, are now bitterly realizing the results of their interventions. They, and not the Church of liberation, provoked the crisis in Brazilian Catholicism.

I'm not worried about the growth of the evangelicals. Although I'm convinced that many small evangelical churches have no structure or level of seriousness, I believe God has his ways. He can even take His Kingdom from a church that claims to be its owner to give it to another. And if He sees fit to give it to one that follows the evangelical path, no one can stop it.

What I wish to highlight in this brief reflection is the failure of a model of Church that has been implemented in our country in recent years. The opportunity to give life to a way of being Church that would be much closer to the Gospel and the reality of the Brazilian people was missed. This can't be ignored without betraying the truth. The leaders need to admit this, if they want to reverse the current situation in any way at all. If they insist on keeping the current church system, our fate will be worse than that of old Europe: an infantile Church, womanish and senile, dusty, with no youth, no prospects, no life.

There was no shortage of "signs of the times", but many of the leaders of the Catholic Church chose "not to interpret the present time" (Luke 12:56). It would have been enough, for example, to take seriously what Paul VI said in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi. Throughout this document, drawn from proposals of the 1974 Synod of Bishops on evangelization in the modern world, the Pope, as if prophetically, provided for a series of ways to evangelize that were very appropriate and necessary for the Church of that time. But apparently, the neoconservative project that came right after, didn't pay the slightest attention to what the Pope had said.

Paul VI, setting the importance of testimony as the base, stressed the urgency of indispensable personal contact, "person to person" (n.46). And personal contact doesn't occur through a mass ministry, using impersonal means of communication, but through the proliferation of networks of small communities, in which, the Pope advised, people could satisfy their desire and quest for more human relationships.

Then the Pope affirmed the value of the base ecclesial communities which, especially in the big cities, could contribute effectively to overcoming massification and anonymity (No. 58). But what did most of the Catholic leaders do? They preferred ministry to the masses, the large flocks and big shows in which, as has been demonstrated by the sociology of religion, anonymity and indifference prevail. People jump, shout, and dance, but without worrying about "others". They only think about their problems and the immediate satisfaction of their needs and desires. Mass ministry doesn't humanize relationships. It congregates, brings together, agglomerates, but neither creates unity nor nourishes solidarity.

Most of the leaders preferred to suppress the base ecclesial communities or relegate them to a secondary plane, such that it can be stated that their current existence is the fruit of the great miracle of the resistance of some people. Meanwhile, the evangelicals followed the opposite path, opening small churches on every corner where people met not only to pray and sing, but also to strengthen the ties of friendship and mutual support. Human warmth came to be, in a certain sense, an "agape link", keeping people in the community united.

There was also the dismantling of other elements indicated by Paul VI as essential for the new evangelization. Let's consider, for example, the decline that occurred in the field of ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, dialogue with non-believers and non-practitioners. But one also thinks about the internal regression that made thinking people who were more aware leave the Catholic Church for good. It seems to me, then, that the time has come for the hierarchy in Brazil to face the numerous serious questions being raised by so many people. And -- as Paul VI would have wished -- to "give loyal, humble and courageous answer, acting accordingly" (n. 5).

José Lisboa Moreira de Oliveira is a philosopher with a doctorate in theology. He is a former advisor to the Vocations and Ministries sector of the Brazilian Catholic Bishops' Conference (CNBB). A former president of the Instituto de Pastoral Vocacional, he is now director and professor at the Centro de Reflexão sobre Ética e Antropologia da Religião (CREAR) of the Universidade Católica de Brasília.

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