Almost 40 percent of the world’s Catholic population, about 425 million people, lives in Latin America. In 2013, for the first time in history, a Latin American, Pope Francis, became head of the Catholic Church.
But a recent study from the Pew Research Center says people in Latin America have increasingly lost faith in the Catholic Church. The study looked at religious beliefs and practices in 18 countries in South and Central Americas and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
A significant number of people are switching from Catholicism to Protestantism. Experts say that from 1900 to the 1960s, at least 90 percent of Latin Americans were Catholic. But the new Pew study suggests that membership in the Catholic Church has decreased as much as 20 percent.
Most new Protestants are members of Pentecostal denominations. Pentecostals believe in what they call “gifts of the Holy Spirit.” These gifts include things like divine healing and exorcism-- the practice of forcing an evil spirit to leave a certain place or a person’s body. Many say they have seen or experienced a sudden cure from illness or injury by a divine healing. Another of these gifts is ‘speaking in tongues’ – an act that many Pentecostals believe is a personal conversation with God.
Maria Helena de Almeida is a member of one Pentecostal denomination in Brazil. She says she turned away from Catholicism as a teenager because she wanted to become closer to God.
“I was baptized and christened, but I was empty inside and I knew something was lacking. Even though I was Catholic, I never prayed to idols, because I believed there was a Supreme Being - God! And I used to talk to Him. When I was a child, my neighbor used to take me to a Protestant church, and that's where I met God. That's why, at age 18, I became a Protestant.”
Religious views often differ within Latin American families. Ms. de Almeida says some members of her family remain Catholics, including her mother and brother.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis met with a group of Protestants in southern Italy. He wanted to apologize on behalf of Catholics around the world who treated those converting to Pentecostalism unfairly.
"I am the shepherd of the Catholics and I ask you to forgive my Catholic brothers and sisters who did not understand and were tempted by the devil," he said.
Though many are leaving Catholicism, Latin Americans have a generally favorable opinion of Pope Francis. At least half of Catholics in 14 countries have a very favorable opinion of him. But former Catholics do not have strong feelings one way or the other towards the Roman Catholic Church leader.
Many Catholics believe some of the church’s teachings do need to be changed. About 65 percent of Catholics questioned in the study say the church should permit birth control. Around 60 percent say the church should end its ban on divorce.
Last month, Pope Francis convened a two-week synod to discuss the church’s teachings. Even without any change, some observers believe the synod was a signal that the church might ease its position eventually.
I’m Jonathan Evans.
Jonathan Evans wrote this story for Learning English. This story contains additional material from Religion News Service and the Pew Research Center. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in this Story
Catholic - n. a person who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church
denomination - n. a religious group
Pentecostal - n. a member of a Pentecostal religious body that emphasizes individual experiences of grace, spiritual gifts such speaking in tongues and divine healing, expressive worship and evangelism
Protestant – n. a member of one of the Christian churches that separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century
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