Catholicism challenged in Brazil

Santo Andre, Brazil - To witness the challenges facing the Catholic Church in Latin America, pay a visit to this former diocese of Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, a Brazilian considered a front-runner as a successor to Pope John Paul II.

Tuesday evening a young priest held a memorial Mass for the late pontiff in Santo André, a gritty, industrial suburb of São Paulo, South America's biggest city. As some 60 parishioners hummed along with a folksy duo by the altar, the pastor, in red vestments, followed a group of acolytes up the center aisle.

A few miles away, a Pentecostal evangelist, in white trousers and a cotton shirt, gripped the forehead of a young woman. Jumping in unison to his shouts of ''burn, burn, burn" and ''Burn the demons within this woman," some 700 faithful shook the church, a football field-sized building with a helipad for a roof.

The ground is trembling around the Catholic Church in Brazil. The Vatican's footing here and throughout Latin America is slipping because of attrition and inroads by rival faiths. In a region often roiled by economic hardship and violence, many Catholic clergy believe, people are abandoning Catholicism for what they see as more flexible, personable creeds or, worse, a rejection of worship altogether.

''It's a serious challenge," said Bishop Nelson Westrupp, head of the suburban diocese, a region of 3 million inhabitants. ''Faith has become subjective, individualized, and materialized and it's causing the [Catholic] Church to weaken."

Though half the world's Catholics live in Latin America, quickly shifting demographics are likely to fuel further departures, theologians say. The rural, less globalized Latin America that was a Vatican stronghold is evolving into an urban, contemporary region less pliant to a central dogma.

Consider the Catholic Church's recent history in Brazil.

According to a 2003 report by the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has 125 million Catholics -- more than any other country in the world. But the percentage of Catholics in the country's population is falling -- from 92 percent in 1970 to roughly 73 percent today -- and many of those remaining, the church admits, rarely attend church. ''We have to recapture those who haven't even left," Westrupp said.

Part of the loss is because of incursions by evangelical Protestants, now nearly 16 percent of the population. But some stems from a drop in churchgoing overall: in 1970, only 0.8 percent of the population considered itself ''nonreligious;" in 2003, the figure was nearly 8 percent.

Much of the exodus can be linked to migration. In recent decades, millions of rural Brazilians have flocked to cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where the demands and pace of life yield less to the draw of a local parish.

For those who did seek spiritual guidance, evangelical churches stepped into the breach. With the teachings of empowerment theology -- that devout worship can lead to success and personal gain -- evangelical churches thrived in Brazilian cities.

''The urban lifestyle is a consumer lifestyle," said Fernando Altemeyer, a theologian at the Catholic University of São Paulo. ''And evangelicals teach prosperity comes through faith."

The Catholic Church in Latin America also faces challenges that mirror those elsewhere around the globe. While societies in the region remain relatively conservative, a growing number of Catholics disagree with doctrine in areas ranging from birth control and homosexuality to biotechnology and women's role in the Church.

''Catholicism should be more tolerant," said Sonia Barros, 29, a Rio nanny who is unmarried, but lives with her boyfriend. Raised Catholic, she attends Mass occasionally. ''I'd like to participate more," she said, ''but I'm told I live in sin."

Such views exemplify the ''individualization" of faith that many church leaders lament. By opposing long-held matters of Catholic teaching, worshipers are pushing the church to reassess the principles to which Pope John Paul II held so firmly.

Many Latin Americans hope for a more progressive successor. In Brazil, that hope lies in Hummes, a Franciscan who was bishop of Santo André before becoming archbishop of São Paulo. Hummes has many followers because of his support for human rights, land reform, indigenous causes, and the labor movement. In the 1970s, when Brazil's military dictatorship was arresting strike protesters, Hummes gave union leaders -- including Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist firebrand who is now the country's president -- a hiding place in his Santo André church.

This week, before departing for Rome, Hummes spoke on television of the Catholic Church's need to be more open ''to dialogue with science, reason, philosophy, culture, and society." ''We must show that our faith isn't fundamentalist, medieval," he said. ''There are important questions that demand modern answers."

But the absence of answers has driven many followers to other faiths. ''I don't need an intermediary to teach me right from wrong," said Marilda Paulino, a 33-year-old nurse who left a Catholic Rio parish for an evangelical congregation.

''Faith is not about the pastor, it's not about any saints," she said. ''It's about God and me."

Catholic priests worry about the social impact of such teachings. The immediacy offered by evangelical denominations, they say, is the equivalent of a spiritual quick fix. Their focus on personal prosperity, they argue, neglects the broader Christian goal of universal well-being for all.

''The goal is salvation for humanity, not just personal gain," said the Rev. Fernando Sapaterro, the priest who led the memorial Mass in Santo André.

Evangelical leaders disagree. Society at large, they argue, is enhanced by the prosperity of individuals. ''Is society better off if people remain miserable?" asked the Rev. Estevam Hernandes, leader of the Apostolic Church of Rebirth in Christ, a Pentecostal denomination with more than 1,200 churches in Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. ''Faith in Jesus improves every aspect of our lives."

In some instances the Catholic Church is trying to popularize its appeal. Around the corner from Hummes's residence in central São Paulo sits a military chapel that has recently grown popular with civilians. Its patron, St. Expeditus, is increasingly revered here as the saint of urgent causes.

Though theologians and church historians disagree on the saint's authenticity, including whether he existed, St. Expeditus inspires devotees who pray for him to intervene in job hunts, love woes, sickness, and other plights.

One morning this week the chapel was abuzz with supplicants at prayer -- a wooden sculpture of the saint towering above a photo of the deceased pope. Many of the worshipers do not even come to Mass, says the chapel's chaplain.

''Lots of them aren't even Catholic," said Captain Osvaldo Palópito. ''But they want help really fast."

Beneath the steps leading to the chapel, Patricia Aparecida Gobbo, a 22-year-old off-duty policewoman, speaks with a visitor. A Catholic -- her T-shirt reads ''Jesus is my Lifeguard" -- she praises the chapel's ecumenical following.

''People need more than doctrine to be religiously satisfied," she says, admitting that she goes outside the church to consult the ''white magic" of a spiritual adviser. ''Catholicism is just too rigid."