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Posted August 24, 2006

Interview with Samuel Escobar

Conducted August 14, 2006
By John L. Allen, Jr.



What explains the growth of Protestantism in Latin America?

One way of explaining it would be the pastoral failure of the Catholic Church, which does not have the resources to educate the people in the faith. They have a religious sensibility, but are often basically unattached to the church, and consequently they look for alternatives. The Catholic Church recently carried out a study of more than 1,000 converts to Protestantism in Latin America, which concluded that if the Catholic Church had offered deeper Bible study, better worship and more personal attention, these people would not have converted. One factor in this pastoral failure is obviously the shortage of priests.

[Note: In 2001, there were 7,176 Catholics for every priest in Latin America, compared to 1,325 Catholics per priest in the United States, according to official Vatican statistics.]

A deeper reason is the way Christianity was implanted in all of Latin America. There was never really a complete missionary effort the way the missionary orders envisioned it. It was done quickly in order to turn the Indians into subjects of the King, and to collect their tithes. There was no real missionary process that made people understand the faith.

But that was four hundred years ago. Surely the church has had opportunities to catch up in the meantime?

Thatís true. But one also has to recall what happened to Iberian Catholicism when it was imported here. In Latin America, itís characterized by a kind of superficial church allegiance, which under the right conditions turns into syncretism. In earlier eras, this was described as ďpopular religiosity.Ē In general, the colonial church was weak and not really interested in mission. Those interested in true mission were a minority, and so catechesis and education in the faith never received sustained attention except in isolated pockets.

Some argue that todayís conversions to Protestantism are equally superficial, and that many of these people will eventually return.

That would be a possibility. Thereís a recent study in Costa Rica of people who deserted the Catholic Church for the evangelical churches, which was carried out by a Protestant team. It found that eight percent of Costa Ricans who at one point joined a Protestant church eventually left, some to return to Catholicism, while others moved on to something else.

In general, however, experience shows that most Latin Americans who become evangelicals endure, because they find a different approach to the understanding of faith and the church. For one thing, evangelical Christianity in Latin America is very much a movement of lay people. Of course, there are pastors, many of whom donít have as complete a theological training as Catholic priests. But in general, evangelicals rely on their ability to mobilize the people. Protestantism is also more home-grown. In Peru, for example, 60 percent of Catholic priests are foreigners -- Spaniards, Americans, Canadians, and so on. The number is just 10 percent in the Protestant churches.

I was in Peru two summers ago and read a study of the bishopsí conference on the growth of evangelical Protestantism, which asserted that one factor was a conscious policy on the part of the American government and American Protestants to undercut Latin American Catholicism. What do you think?

Thatís what we call a conspiracy theory. In fact, those groups that have grown the most dramatically are not related to Protestant bodies in the United States. Those with the most expansive power are national bodies, with little or no contact with North American Protestantism. There are some American denominations that have made considerable missionary efforts, but the bulk of Latin American Protestantism is not an American product. The pastors and leaders are almost entirely native, which disperses the conspiracy theory.

What else explains the Protestant expansion?

Itís connected with the growth of cities. New arrivals in the cities in recent decades were disoriented, away from their familiar environment, and also from the traditional means of social control. Many of them found a home in the evangelical churches, which became in some ways a home for the homeless. The correlation between urbanization and the growth of Protestantism has been clear since the 1950s, and has accelerated in recent years. They found a spiritual home in evangelical Christianity.

These people underwent a conversion experience in which they became masters of their own life. It put an end to an old way of living. Their decision to accept Christ meant a change in patters of behavior which helped people to reorient their lives. David Martin talks about this in his book Tongues of Fire.

What kind of behavioral changes do you have in mind?

For example, ending alcoholism, which is a major problem among the urban poor. Also, becoming better parents, better husbands, and in general developing a stronger sense of personal morality. Non-Protestant sociologists have studied this, and it continues to be the case.

Some Catholic observers say thereís an additional factor in the attrition -- the impact of liberation theology, which they believe ďpoliticizedĒ the church and drove some percentage of the middle and upper classes into Protestantism. True?

There may be some truth in that, but I think it has to be qualified. Liberation theology had its high point in 1968, when the Latin American bishops in MedellŪn committed to the ďpreferential option for the poor.Ē In turn, MedellŪn stemmed from what happened in 1955, when the Catholic Church recognized that it was losing both to Protestantism and to Communism. The working class and the young both seemed more attracted to Marxism than to the church. The bishops asked for help from abroad. In Peru, for example, they went to the United States and asked for missionary priests to come to the country as a kind of ďtithe.Ē The idea was to save these people from Communism. These foreign missionaries were sent to work with the poorest of the poor, and when they got there, they discovered that the problem was not Communism but rather that the church was part of the oppressive structures of society. Influenced by these foreign missionaries, the bishops decided to realign themselves with the poor. In some forms, this choice became highly politicized, and they forgot about the spiritual dimension -- that is, people need a spiritual experience from the church, not just political guidance. This produced the popular saying that the Catholic Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for the Pentecostals!

At the same time, however, Iím very conscious that liberation theology responded to a reality in Latin America. We still have the pastoral question of poverty.

Are you saying that itís unfair to blame liberation theology for the declines in the Catholic Church?

Yes, I think itís unfair. For example, the small Christian communities that were one of the fruits of liberation theology are one of the areas in Catholicism in which there has been new life, and a new commitment to the basics of the faith, with an effort to turn that commitment into social awareness. Civil society in Latin America owes much to these small Christian communities, which have their parallels in Protestantism.

Will the growth in Protestantism in Latin American continue?

Two things need to be said.

First, thereís a new phenomenon in Latin American Protestantism, which is the emergence of new charismatic mega-churches, which is not typical of the Protestant churches of the past. They have some similarities with the mega-churches in the United States, though the strongly charismatic element makes them different.

These mega-churches in Latin America appeal to some deep-seated aspects of Catholic culture. For one thing, they rely on symbols such as blessed water, which classical Protestantism shunned. They also feature a more authoritarian pastoral style and a denial of the priesthood of all believers, which has historically been a key element of Protestant churches.

We might say, therefore, that Protestantism will continue to grow in Latin America, but what will grow is not classical Protestantism as we have known it.

Second, Latin American Protestantism faces a serious pastoral challenge. People are coming to the churches, so the numbers are increasing, but they have very basic pastoral needs. Like in Catholicism, some of these Protestant churches may fail if they donít develop a pastoral strategy that comes out of a reflective theological approach.

What should be the top priority?Education in the faith. In Peru, for example, a charismatic pastor recently got 500,000 votes in national elections. Thatís real political clout, but itís not coupled to any deep theological understanding of relations between church and state, between religion and public life, which could under gird this political action. It has to go deeper.

Why is the charismatic element so appealing to Latin Americans?

It appeals to the continentís Catholic culture. It relies on symbols, which doesnít come naturally for most Protestants, who stress the Word and the proclamation of the Word. Maybe itís a better Ďfití for the post-modern world thatís developing. It doesnít care much about history or theology in the classic sense, but it appeals to post-modern attitudes -- emotion over reason, the individual over tradition, and so on.

What will the rise of the south mean for global Christianity?

The real significance of what it means to be global, plural, and Ďcatholic,í will have to be understood in a new way. The Catholic Church in particular has had a way of existing in which elements of uniformity have had the upper hand. It has even had a single language, Latin. Thereís a unity which comes from a center that defines things. But the church of the first century was not like that. The Protestant scholar Justo Gonzalez has written on why there are four gospels rather than one. He says the point was Ďcatholicity,í meaning the capacity to respond to different contexts. Today, thereís a need for Christians to have their own way of being Africans, Asians, Americans, and still be part of the church. In other words, this is testing catholicity. It will have to be understood in a new way. Protestantism faces the same challenge, and perhaps the mega-churches may be a new shape of Protestantism that eventually finds theological expression.

What are the characteristics of southern Christianity?

Expression in worship is very different. Feeling is more important than thinking, and the emotional is more important than the rational. Thereís a stronger sense of the church as a body, that we belong to one another here in the church, that we are brothers and sisters. This is of course also said in North America, but it may be truer in theory than in practice.

We can get some glimpse of all this in the United States through the experience of African-American Christianity. If you go to these long services, often three hours or more, itís totally different from white Christianity. Iíve spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, and thereís been a slow process of mutual discovery there. This will happen on a global scale.

For some, this change in perspective is difficult. Some believe that anyone whoís not like us is not really a Christian. But itís futile, because thereís already a process of change underway. In Protestantism, for example, we see this in recent evolution in music and worship expressions, which reflect the encounter with the rest of the world.

How will the typical white Christian in, say, Kansas City feel the impact?

For one thing, they may find the global church in their own backyard. Given the realities of global migration, today we find African, Asian and Latin American Christians everywhere. The question becomes, how will the traditional congregations in Middle America have fellowship with that strange church down the street? Theyíre very different, but they still have something in common. Can we recognize that these people with a very different way of practicing their faith are still Christians, and we may have something to learn from them? Itís a humbling experience to realize that this other way of being Christian is also legitimate, also a valid expression of the faith.

Itís all there in Paulís letter to the Romans -- the multiplicity of cultures, the oneness and richness of a new global reality.

Let me test some impressions of southern Christianity on you. Are Christians in the developing world generally more theologically conservative, especially on sexual morality?

I think so, and itís generally true across the board. Immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America tend to choose more conservative churches in the United States and Canada. Indian churches are more conservative on these issues. Itís also true that Eastern European churches are more conservative than Western churches. When it comes to personal morality, therefore, the growth of a global church will probably mean a harder line.

In Spain, to take just one small example, the Romanian Baptists wonít drink wine, and they donít let men and women sit together at services. These are certainly not the classical patterns of Spanish Protestantism!

Why is this?

Itís difficult to say. In general, southern Christianity is closer to Biblical patterns of thought. Its way of reading scripture does not make much room for higher criticism, or a modern approach that takes away the supernatural elements and rationalizes everything. Itís a way of reading scripture that some might call ďnaÔve,Ē in the sense of not being ďmodern.Ē

The strong stress on the supernatural is also a fact. In a context where medical services are very limited, for example, people view sickness with a different attitude. They believe that behind health issues, God can act. Itís not only a matter of going to the doctor, but of asking God for health. Southern Christians enter into the mystery of the supernatural; they have an awareness of it, and take into account in daily life.

In the West, we seed a form of this approach in the charismatic movement, and its growth suggests thereís openness to this way of seeing the supernatural also in the West, despite being a highly secularized society. Reason and modernity clearly have not given answers to all of lifeís questions.

Another impression of southern Christianity: On political and diplomatic questions, southern Christians often see their people as victims of the established global order, which among other things suggests that as southerners take up leadership positions in Christian bodies, they may push them into more critical positions regarding American foreign policy and commercial interests. True?

I think so. Southern Christianity generally believes that religion should apply to all areas of life, so that justice questions have to be dealt with by the churches. Thatís a fact. If I can tell just one brief story to make the point, I used to teach hermeneutics in Peru to very poor catechists from around the country. I once wrote the expression, ďThe poor you will always have with you,Ē on the board and asked these poor teachers in the village market what it meant. One poor lady said, ĎThis means there will always be exploiters in the world.í If I had been among middle class people in the north, the interpretation probably would have been different. Thereís a strong awareness of exploitation and oppression in Third World Christianity.

Does this mean greater conflict with Western interests, especially the United States?

Probably so. The church will not be able to avoid dealing with social issues in those places where it has growth and development, and the repercussions will be felt in the global church. This is one of the great challenges: Will Christians in the West really hear the voices of Christians in the rest of the world, or just continue their old way of life?

The relation between the faith and social issues is complicated, and the theological articulation that puts these things together will take time, but sooner or later the reaction will come. In Africa especially, thereís a growing awareness of the intersection between Christianity and structural issues.

Are southern Christians generally more interested in issues outside the church than in internal debates?

I would say so, though of course southern leaders are often aware of the inadequate balance of power in the church, which is an issue for them. Bishops in the south have a desire to have their voice heard, to be present, to have influence. This leads them to talk about internal questions.

Certainly the great concern is external, but one has to make a distinction in the case of Latin America. There, theological reflection has addressed ecclesiological issues. Take the Catholic theologian Leonardo Boff. His Christology may be questionable, but what got him into trouble was his book Church, Charism and Power, meaning his ecclesiology. Latin America is different from Africa and Asia, because it inherited the long debate with Protestantism that was part of the established form of Christianity in colonial times. It thus has a more developed internal conversation.

Is southern Christianity generally less interested in ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue?

In the case of Latin America, itís true that thereís less of a tradition of ecumenical concern. Itís much like southern Europe -- Italy, Spain and Portugal. Historically, where the Catholic Church finds itself a majority, it has found it difficult to talk about religious freedom. At the Second Vatican Council, the document on religious freedom came from an American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, who reflected a culture where the Catholic Church was not established and there was a strong consciousness of religious freedom.

In Africa and Asia, Christians often represent a minority within a world of other religious options. In Asia, itís the great religions of the East, while in Africa itís Islam and traditional tribal religions. They tend to be more open to cooperation and dialogue than in Latin America.

In Europe, ecumenism is a conversation with a long tradition of institutions, journals, and so on, which is not the reality of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Whatís the nature of southern ecumenism?

I would say that on issues of faith and order, there are differences between the various Christian groups which are basically insurmountable. But on issues of service, this is not the case. In Peru, for example, relations between the Catholic Church and Protestants are very bad, almost non-existent. But on a personal basis, when it comes to issues regarding children, the defense of human rights, and so on, thereís a grassroots kind of ecumenism that will continue, because of the seriousness of the issues at stake. Itís an ad extra kind of ecumenism.

What about other religions?

Islam is a great mystery and a great challenge for global Christianity. I would go so far as to say that the possibility of a truly global Christianity is dependent upon how we react to Islam.

Islam cannot be global in the same way as Christianity. It is far more conditioned by its relationship to a particular culture and language. It cannot conceive of globality as Christians are able to understand it in light of the Incarnation. The belief that Christ took up the human condition, making every culture a potentially valid arena for his presence, provides the basis for the living reality of a global church. It gives us the capacity to accept a wide variety of expressions of the Christian faith, while still maintaining the Christological center.

Christianity will be tested by Islam, and the question is whether Islam will push Christianity into a kind of exaggerated uniformity. I think weíve seen this historically. Latin American Catholicism, for example, was highly influenced by 800 years of the Islamic presence in Spain, which made Iberian Catholicism more ďIslamicĒ than other forms of European Catholicism -- militant, closed, nationalistic. The question now is, will this happen on a global scale?

National Catholic Reporter, Posted August 17, 2006

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