Inside Story Americas
Is Latin America losing its faith?
We ask what challenges face the Catholic church as Pope Benedict XVI makes his first ever visit to Mexico and Cuba.
Last Modified: 23 Mar 2012 12:06

On Friday, Pope Benedict XVI will begin his first-ever visit to Hispanic Latin America, a continent that boasts half the world's Catholics, but recently the numbers have fallen with competition from Evangelical Protestantism.

"The Catholic church in Latin America is what I call an old, lazy monopoly, like the old IBM…The Evangelicals are like the Silicon start-ups of Christianity, they're entrepreneurial, creative, aggressive. Catholics can be pretty boring."

- Father Thomas Reese, senior fellow, Woodstock Theological Center

For the trip he has picked Mexico and Cuba, the region's most, and least, Roman Catholic countries. And he faces many similar, and many different challenges in each.

In Mexico, which has more Catholics than any other Spanish-speaking country, he will visit the state of Guanajuato, the most heavily-Catholic region, where he will meet political leaders.

Then he will go to Cuba, where Catholics make up only 10 per cent of the population. There, the church's influence is growing, playing a role in the negotiations to release political prisoners and nudged the government into instituting economic reforms.

In both countries, indeed in much of Latin America, the pope faces a declining congregation, partly due to the spread of secularism and the growing influence of evangelical groups.

"The main problem is how the bishops are trying to address competition…It's [also] not only these kind of more fun, more relaxed worshipping that you find with the Pentecostals but it's an issue of how faithful you are to Christian teachings."

- Rodolfo Nunez, author of Religion and Democracy in Latin America

Devotion still runs high for the pope's predecessor, John Paul II, who was a regular visitor to Latin America. Many feel the visit by Pope Benedict is long overdue and that he has spent too much time concentrating on Europe, and not enough time in Latin America.

And lastly, there is the Catholic church's conservative doctrine which opposes abortion, contraception, divorce and same sex marriage. But both abortion and gay marriage is now legal in some parts of Latin America, while Cuba has a high divorce rate.

So, what challenges does the Catholic church face in Latin America? And, what does Pope Benedict hope to achieve?

Joining Lisa Fletcher on Inside Story Americas to discuss these issues and more are guests: Andrew Chesnut, a religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and author several books on religion in Latin America; Rodolfo Nunez, from the Metropolitan University of Mexico City and author of Religion and Democracy in Latin America; and Father Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center who has also written extensively on the Catholic church.

Competition from other religions particularly Pentecostalism which has been surging through Latin America since the 1950s...is one of the great challenges of the church. The numbers also reflect…the growth of religious pluralism that now exists in much of Latin America.

- Andrew Chesnut, religious studies professor, Virginia Commonwealth University


President Felipe Calderon asked for a papal visit because of the suffering in the country caused by drug violence. The Vatican has told Mexico's presidential candidates to support church values, and to oppose abortion and gay marriages. The number of worshippers has been declining - 96 per cent of the population was Catholic in a 1970 census, in the 2010 census the figure dropped to 82 per cent. The government says the Protestant population has doubled in the past decade. The 2010 census also showed that five per cent of the population was atheist.


After the 1959 revolution religious practices were restricted and many Catholics lost their jobs. Two years later 80 per cent of Catholic priests left the country, following the state's move to promote atheism. Catholic baptisms rose from 7,000 in 1971 to 33,500 in 1991. After 1991, the Cuban Communist Party allowed believers to become members. Church attendance is now estimated at two per cent of the population.

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