Catholicism has dominated the region since the Europeans brought it through colonisation. Now, the Vatican looks set to lose a region which it ruled uncontested.

Latin America for centuries has been a bastion for the Catholic church, accounting until recently for more than 40 percent of the global Catholic population. Yet the Vatican's hold over the continent is slowly and inexorably sliding.

Up until the 1960s, data indicates that 90 percent of Latin Americans identified as Catholics. However, by 2014 only 69 percent identified as Catholics, and the trend is downwards.

According to studies carried out by Latinobarometro, a local polling company that carries annual surveys across Latin America, by 2017, the number of those identifying as Catholic had dropped to 59 percent. And those numbers may already be out of date, painting a picture of a region that is set to become minority Catholic if it's not already.

The trend, however, amongst different countries is not equally even.

In places like Chile, trust in the Catholic Church has dropped from 72 percent in 1995 to 31 percent in 2020.

According to Latinobarometro, Chile is one of the most agnostic countries in the world, at 35 percent, and now around 45 percent of the population identifies as Catholic compared to 70 percent 15 years ago.

The dramatic decline has been driven in part by a series of sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic church in the country and subsequent cover-ups.

Similar sex scandals in Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, to name a few Latin American countries, have left the church battling for its reputation and increasingly a flock distrustful of their shepherds.

At the beginning of the 20th century, El Salvador was almost 100 percent Catholic, today, it teeters on half of the population.

But a crisis for the Catholic church has meant an opportunity for other Christian denominations that have sought to capitalise on the woes of the Vatican.

New Christian movements

One Catholic magazine has described the crisis of Catholicism in Latin America as likely to last for more than a generation, and the church is likely only at the beginning of the shift.

Moreover, while there has been somewhat of a decline amongst people identifying themselves as Catholic, that hasn't necessarily meant a decline in Christianity.

Latin America is still a staunchly conservative region on the whole.

The extraordinary rise of evangelical churches in Central America and particularly in Brazil, where it has grown from less than 5 percent in the 1960s to accounting for almost 30 percent of the country's population today - has resulted in one of the largest concentrations of evangelicals in the world.

Defining Evangelical Christians as a singular group is still an ongoing debate amongst Christians, however, broadly, it centres around converting others and spreading the gospel, activism, being "born again," singing and worshipers speaking in tongues - the ability to speak in a language unknown to them through divine intervention.

This differing interpretation of the Christian faith sets apart from the rigid and institutionalised formulation to worship of the Catholic Church.

While the Catholic church has been split down the middle between reformists and conservatives over the future direction of the church and debates concerning female priestesses and whether male priests should remain celibate - Evangelical Christians have been on the march.

Evangelical pastors, who can marry, have not had to debate such questions. The decentralised nature of Evangelical Christian missions has also meant that different parishes have become more adaptable to the needs of local worshipers.

In 2018, Pope Francis, the representative of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics, called the Church "elitist and clericalist" and displayed an "inability to be near to the people of God."

Although, Evangelical movements have shown a willingness to recruit and spread their version of Christianity to some of the poorest people in Latin America.

By far, the most powerful Evangelical movement in Latin America has been the Pentecostal churches, which emerged in the United States and emphasised a personal connection and experience between the faithful and God.

These Evangelical churches have also been keen to showcase and promote materialism as a sign of God's love, provided they contribute handsomely to their respective churches.

The wealth these pastors have garnered from running their churches runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. It has also become a divine sign of God's favour when some of the Evangelical pastors have bought private jets.

Against the backdrop, one study found that the "advance of evangelical congregations in the Latin American religious scene is one of the most significant cultural transformations of the last decades."

The challenge has profound implications for the Catholic church and is increasingly shaping the region's politics in ways not seen since the conquest of the area by European powers in the 16th century.

Source: TRT World