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Catholic congregations in Latin America are decreasing; other religions gain converts

The Papal Palace at the Vatican

There was a time when Latin America was considered a bastion of Roman Catholicism and a powerful region for the Vatican to exercise its doctrine and work. Over the last few decades, however, Catholicism has been losing ground to various Protestant faiths and other religions.

According to an online report by Al Jazeera, Latin America is still home to about half of all Catholics in the world, but the numbers of faithful are dropping fast. Take Costa Rica, a Catholic country by virtue of her Constitution, a distinction shared with Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, and the Vatican. About 70 percent of Ticos are Catholics, down 10 percent from the 1980s. Other religions are growing in Costa Rica, and not just Protestantism. Scientology may be undergoing a schism in the United States, but that is not the case in Costa Rica.

Societal Change Drives Religious Preference

One of the reasons behind the dwindling numbers of Catholics in Latin America can be traced to society’s changing morals. The conservative stance of the Vatican in matters such as the use of contraceptives, same-sex marriage, divorce and other issues has not changed much in the last few centuries, but Latin Americans have. Advances in democratic rule and communications have had a deep effect in the transformation of Latin American societies, and in that regard the Vatican seems to be losing power.

Catholics in Latin America are eschewing dogma over social conscience and spirituality. In the case of same-sex marriage, for example, a Roman Catholic who supports the rights of homosexuals may not agree with the Vatican’s position on the matter and thus his or her faith could dampen. Divorce is a more common issue that many Latin Americans these days are at odds with the Catholic church over.

A New Strategy from the Vatican?

Some religious analysts consider Pope Benedict’s recent visit to Mexico and Cuba as strategic. The two countries are at opposite ends of the Catholic spectrum in Latin America. Mexico has the highest number of Catholics in Spanish-speaking Latin America (Brazil has the most overall), while Cuba has the least. With the recent visit, the Pope is cementing strong ties between the Vatican and Mexico, and he is also poised to gain converts in Cuba as Fidel Castro loosens his anti-religious iron grip on the Caribbean nation.

President Laura Chinchilla will visit the Vatican and meet with Pope Benedict XVI later this year. While she has not yet released her agenda or the topics she will discuss with the Holy See, it is possible that she will discuss in vitro fertilization and even the future of Costa Rica as a Catholic nation. A few legislators in the last few years have been pushing for a constitutional amendment to give all religions equal footing in our country, and the Vatican may not present an objection.

The last point on the paragraph above may also be strategic. By removing itself from politics, the Vatican has more room to work in spiritual matters -which in the end can help Catholicism remain strong in Latin America.

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