Rivals rustle the Pope's Central American flock

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The Independent Online
PHIL DAVISON

Latin America Correspondent

Thirteen years after his last visit to Central America, swept then by civil wars, the Pope found relative peace and a warm welcome this week. But, at least in public, he largely evaded the fastest-growing problem for the Roman Catholic Church in the region: the surge of Protestantism.

Beyond the bullet-proof glass of his Popemobile and over the heads of the hundreds of thousands of people who lined his routes, the Pope would not have noticed that Protestants had ripped down his posters or defaced them. But he must have been well aware from his bishops and priests that Protestant churches and temples of countless names, shapes and sizes are springing up almost-daily and pulling in disillusioned Catholics.

It is a phenomenon across the Spanish-speaking world but most obvious in the Central American isthmus as a result of the prevalence of American and European Protestant missionaries. Only once did the Pope touch on the theme, pointedly choosing his first stop, Guatemala, where up to 30 per cent of the 10 million people are said to have converted to Catholicism in little more than a generation.

He told the native Mayan Indians and the rest of the poor and downtrodden that they were the most vulnerable to the "proliferation of sects and new religious groups that generate confusion and uncertainty among Catholics''.

He did not mention it but many Indians, strengthened by the cultural stand of such leaders as the Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, are also abandoning the Church to return to the ways of their ancestors before the Spanish conquest. Most Indians never gave up worshipping the sun, the moon and nature but managed to integrate it into their new-found Catholic beliefs.

Protestant pollsters say up to 8,000 Catholics are turning to Protestantism throughout Latin America every day.

If that figure was correct and the trend continued, it could give Protestant churches the upper hand over Catholicism by the end of the next century.

While even Guatemala's Protestant radio stations were ordered by the new government to carry "live" reports of the Pope's appearances, they made sure they got the last word. "We would just like to explain to our listeners that we do not agree with a word of what has just been transmitted," said an announcer on one station.

Critics of the Pope, even within the Catholic Church, said he should have spoken out more strongly against one problem which has not diminished since his 1983 visit: poverty.

In a region that Ronald Reagan liked to consider "America's backyard", millions of peasants and workers still earn less than $1,000 (pounds 600) a year. The Pope did, in one homily, refer to poverty as a "plague" but gave no hint of what the Catholic Church thought should be done about it.

By evading the issue, his critics said, the Pope was demonstrating his conservatism and his determination to pull the plug on liberation theology, the Catholic school of thought geared to ending the oppression of the poor, that held the upper hand in Central America for the past generation.

In El Salvador, which the Pope visited on Thursday, many Catholics criticise his appointment last year of Mgr Fernando Saenz Lacalle, a conservative and member of the Opus Dei movement, as archbishop of El Salvador. That ended a tradition of liberation theologians, notably the popular Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, shot by a death-squad in 1980.

"I am not a politician. I will neither support nor criticise the government," Archbishop Saenz said yesterday, in a stark contrast to the activism of his predecessors.

The Pope was clearly comfortable with the conservative governments of all three Central American countries he visited - Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. But his emphasis on the region's new-found peace - "Never again war!" he said in El Salvador - ignored the fact that military officers still wield considerable power in all three countries.

Although his welcome in Nicaragua was in sharp contrast to 1983, when the ruling Sandinistas organised disruption of his speeches, many Nicaraguans felt he had gone too far by describing the Sandinistas' rule as a "long, dark night".

Even many supporters of the current President, Violeta Chamorro, acknowledge the Sandinista revolution was a key and positive moment in Nicaraguan history and that the Sandinistas were undermined by Mr Reagan's anti-Communist paranoia and support for the Contra guerrillas. Mrs Chamorro's husband was assassinated by the pre-Sandinista regime of the dictator Anastasio Somoza.

She supported the revolution and was in an early Sandinista government.

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