Protestants, Atheists Gaining Ground on Catholicism in Mexico

Mexico City, Mexico – Traditionally Catholic Mexico has modified its religious profile in recent years not only because of the increase in atheism, but also because of the growing activity of other denominations such as evangelical Protestantism, experts consulted by Efe agreed.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists are now part of Mexico’s religious landscape, along with 10 percent of the population who acknowledge that they do not belong to any religion.

“It’s incredible to verify how there are zones of the country where each decade there is a noteworthy decline in Catholicism,” said Renee de la Torre, of the Center of Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology.

Several indicators confirm this trend.

In the Federal Register of religious associations, the number of evangelical Protestant churches – 3,950 – handily exceeds the Catholic ones, which number 3,150, while the country’s 2000 census reflected a population that was 87.9 percent Catholic, down from 98 percent in the 1950s.

“If the Catholic church does not change what it offers to the realities that people are experiencing today, this reduction will (continue), acknowledged the executive secretary of public relations for Mexico’s Catholic bishops conference, Manuel Corral.

The explanation for these changes is complex, just like the social and demographic map of Mexico, and the experts consulted differed in their view of it.

Corral said that it is the greater freedom to express atheism that has caused some to drift away from Catholicism, given that, according to his figures, no other church – or combination of churches – in the country has increased its followers in proportion to the decline.

De la Torre said that the religious landscape is being “pulverized and atomized,” as disaffected Catholics turn to cults rather than to other established Christian denominations.

There are 53 municipalities where Catholics now find themselves in the minority. Of those, 62 percent are in the state of Chiapas, where one-quarter of the population are Indians and which, in recent times, has been the scene of religious conflicts.

Chiapas has endured clashes between Protestants and Catholics, who accuse the former of not respecting the traditions of the region and, on occasion, who have expelled them from their communities.

De la Torre also said that the fights for political power and the links that Catholicism traditionally has maintained with corrupt local and state political machines are factors that play a part in the fact that an ever greater segment of the population is separating itself from that religion.

Tabasco, Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche and the northern border region, she said, are other areas where Catholicism is in retraction, while the states of “deep Mexico” – Jalisco, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and Guanajuato – remain the bastion of the Catholicism brought by the Spaniards in the 16th century.

In many cases, De la Torre explained, the change “is simply due to the fact that the public has received greater solidarity from other churches,” like the Adventists, a U.S.-born Protestant denomination that is very active among Mexico’s poor population.

Other sects that are inspired by Catholicism are also gaining more followers. Perhaps the best known is the Church of Holy Death, with 10 million members, according to its leaders, and a repertoire of legends surrounding its rites and its main church, located in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood of Mexico City.

But this is not the only cult that is blooming to provide solutions to the new problems of Mexicans who have not found protection from them in the traditional churches.

In Sinaloa, a possibly apocryphal highway robber named Jesus Malverde is known as “The saint of the narcos.”

In the capital, just a few streets from the mother church of the Holy Death sect, hundreds of young people and businessmen meet on the 28th of each month to worship St. Jude Thaddeus, the investigator said.

“It’s a very interesting phenomenon, which is still growing,” said Manuel Corral. “There are cults without institutionalization or doctrine, not subject to any authority and without a defined ethic. That doesn’t mean they don’t have values, but they have them in another area.” EFE