Amajestic, powerful figure, Christ the Redeemer stands far above the Brazilian city of Rio De Janeiro—a physical manifestation of the power and authority of the Catholic Church. Upon its completion in 1931, the statue symbolized the hope and prosperity of Catholicism in Latin America. But no longer. In the slums and favelas below Christ’s welcoming embrace, fewer and fewer turn towards the Catholic faith for solace.



Although Brazil remains the most devout region of the Catholic world, with over 40 percent of global adherents, the Church’s once-monopolistic grip is weakening. During the past century, Latin America’s Catholic population dropped from 90 percent in 1910 to 72 percent in 2010. Brazil and Mexico, the two most populous Catholic countries, experienced a 27 percent and a 13 percent decline in share of the population from 1970 to the present. The future is even bleaker on the political front. In 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American nation to legalize gay marriage, with Uruguay and Brazil not far behind in 2013. The gilded halls and the majestic steeples of the Vatican are a far cry from the crowded, impoverished, and violent streets of Latin America’s cities. Orthodox doctrines forbidding the use of contraceptives, the ordination of women, and gay marriage, create problems, not solutions for the trials and tribulations of development. For the Church to remain relevant in the developing world, it must accept the realities of evolving social standards and demographics within the developing world.

The Pope’s Latin American flock, tired of conservative doctrine, has begun to turn towards other alternatives. Protestantism and similar, more liberal Christian sects continue to grow across the region—a result of long-term demographic changes. A wide variety of missionary groups, primarily Evangelicals from North America, arrive each year to successfully spread the faith in areas with little influence from the church or the state. Over 50,000 Evangelicals arrive in Honduras alone each year. Without social services, missionaries fulfill a critical role in providing infrastructural improvements and aid to those lacking support. Grateful locals convert in droves. Since 1970, the percentage of Brazilian Protestants has in- creased from 5 percent to 22 percent. Guatemala, Venezuela, Honduras and El Salvador are all close behind, with over 20 percent of their populations identifying as Protestant. Atheism, once unthinkable in Latin America, is on the rise.

Although Brazil remains the most devout region of the Catholic world, with over 40 percent of global adherents, the Church’s once-monopolistic grip is weakening. During the past century, Latin America’s Catholic population dropped from 90 percent in 1910 to 72 percent in 2010. Brazil and Mexico, the two most populous Catholic countries, experienced a 27 percent and a 13 percent decline in share of the population from 1970 to the present. The future is even bleaker on the political front. In 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American nation to legalize gay marriage, with Uruguay and Brazil not far behind in 2013. The gilded halls and the majestic steeples of the Vatican are a far cry from the crowded, impoverished, and violent streets of Latin America’s cities. Orthodox doctrines forbidding the use of contraceptives, the ordination of women, and gay marriage, create problems, not solutions for the trials and tribulations of development. For the Church to remain relevant in the developing world, it must accept the realities of evolving social standards and demographics within the developing world.

Although still lagging behind its more secular counterparts, Latin America’s fertility rate experienced a gradual decrease from the latter half of the 20th century to the present. In 1960, the average Latin American woman would give birth to six children during her lifetime. Today, that number is only 2.2—just above the replacement rate. With fewer children to support, more women have entered the workforce and are receiving degrees than ever before, eroding traditional family structures as younger generations move to cities. Latin American men and women now marry and bear children much later than previous generations, and the practice of cohabitation—looked down upon by the Catholic Church—is becoming increasingly popular. During the 1970s, fewer than 10 percent of Brazilian and Uruguayan women between the ages of 25 and 29 lived with their partners outside the bonds of marriage. Now over 50 percent of Brazilian women, and over 71 percent of Uruguayan women, cohabit with their partners. Foregoing marriage violates one of Catholicism’s basic tenets, but is a common feature of the transition towards a swiftly modernizing society.

Drops in fertility rate have little to do with the population becoming more chaste. Without economic and cultural incentives to have children, contraceptive use has increased the population is gradually accepting the idea of abortion as a practical solution to dangerous pregnancies. Over the last ten years, Mexico City and Uruguay both legalized abortion during pregnancy’s first 12 weeks. Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia all took major steps in legalizing abortion under rare and dire circumstances, such as rape or the preservation of the mother’s life. Outside of these few areas abortion remains illegal—but not for much longer. Squalid living conditions in across Latin America, especially in the continent’s booming cities. Over 62 percent of women across Latin America now regularly use contraceptives, up from around 38 percent in the 1990s. In combination with the increasing trend towards cohabitation, the number of Catholics ignoring the guidance of the Church will soon be a majority—if it isn’t already. The rapid economic development and rampant crime that permeate most population centers do not cater to religious adherence.

Latin American governments, long known for dysfunction are responding in kind. Leftist leaders dominate regional politics, altering the relationship between state governments and the Church. Despite its conservative past and less developed present, Latin America possesses a solid record of promoting gay rights and legalizing gay marriage. Although gay marriage is only legalized in a few Latin American states, the legal protection of gays is virtually guaranteed across the continent. Following Uruguay’s legalization of gay civil unions in 2007, Colombia’s Constitutional Court granted couples the same insurance, inheritance, immigration and social security benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. In Mexico City, gay couples can now legally wed and adopt children—much to the chagrin of both the federal government and the local bishops. By 2008, every country in Latin America fully decriminalized homosexuality, an obvious loss for the Catholic Church.

The battle for abortion fares only slightly better. Once completely banned across the region due to pressure from the Vatican, the population is gradually accepting the idea of abortion as a practical solution to dangerous pregnancies. Over the last 10 years, Mexico City and Uruguay both legalized abortion during pregnancy’s first 12 weeks. Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia all took major steps in legalizing abortion under rare and dire circumstances, such as rape or the preservation of the mother’s life. Outside of these few areas abortion remains illegal—but not for much longer. Squalid living conditions in the slums of the region’s cities promote abortion as a better alternative to raising a child—even when it remains illegal. Around 4.4 million abortions are estimated to take place across Latin America each year by the Guttmacher Institute, a NGO promoting reproductive health, more than in any other region of the world. The vast majority of these abortions lack regulation and medical oversight, endangering the lives of those who choose to receive them. With newer generations approaching the polls and entrenched leftist politicians on the ballot, it is unlikely that Uruguay will remain the only Latin American nation to fully legalize abortion in the years to come. As tradition and family values lose their foothold throughout the region, Catholicism will likely lose even more of its followers.

But it isn’t all bad news for Pope Francis. Despite current doctrinal challenges, the Church continues to conduct its most important work: providing education, support, and sustenance to the region’s poor. Inequality remains a major economic scourge across the region, especially in rural areas and slums. Latin America’s Gini coefficient, the most commonly used measure for income inequality, was 0.500 in 2010, higher than that of the United States, 0.450, China, 0.415, and even India, 0.368. With over 5 percent of the region’s population living below the poverty line, a wide swath of Catholic aid, development, and rights agencies provide an alternative social safety net in areas too remote, or too politically inconsequential, for governments to reach. Throughout Latin America, economically disadvantaged groups possess little political power and representation—an issue few governments in the region attempt, or even desire, to resolve. The same cannot be said for the Catholic Church.

Despite the loss of Catholic representation in Brazil, the Church has developed long-standing relationships and networks with the working classes—emphasizing not only religious issues, but humanitarian concerns and workers’ rights within its numerous dioceses. The Pastoral Land Commission (PLC), an organization staffed by both local lay people and clergy, has played an enduring role in aiding the landless poor in Brazil’s restless and violent northeast. Governmental policy, bent on rapid development, ignored environmental and social concerns when passing legislation that facilitated rainforest clearing. Armed with government permits and a lack of provincial government authority, ranchers and loggers forced out locals—often violently—and stripped the Amazon of resources. By organizing protests and social movements in response, the PLC attracted the attention of foreign aid agencies and domestic politicians to the conflict. The issue remains unresolved, but economic growth is no longer the sole influence on governmental policy in the region. Similar socio-religious movements and organizations fight for South America’s downtrodden populations, utilizing religion for more than just regulating society’s morals.

Local and regional organizations are not the only Catholic organizations concerned with development. Founded in 1943 by a collection of US bishops, the Catholic Relief Service (CRS) provides hundreds of millions in aid around the world to over 130 million people. It hands out more than just Bibles. The CRS runs a wide array of agricultural, sanitary, educational and even micro-financial projects around the world. By making long term commitments to individual communities and ensuring that their projects will continue once the missionaries have left, the CRS forges strong ties to those they help. Their efforts may not always spread the faith, but they do spread the wealth.

Although rooted in development efforts, the CRS quickly responded to the global HIV/AIDS epidemic by funding care for afflicted individuals, orphans, and educational programming. Today, their HIV/AIDS programs perform charitable work in more than 62 countries and spend over US$170 million dollars each year. Even massive disaster relief projects are not beyond the scope of the Catholic Church. CRS dedicated US$200 million to a five year recovery program following the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, more aid than most countries provide. More impressively, the Church does not limit its efforts to Catholic regions or areas likely to accept the faith, as evidenced by its implementation of a number of programs in response to the Syrian Civil War. The Catholic Relief Service possesses a massive and devoted pool of donors from the developed world and a wide network of churches, professionals, and volunteers to call upon something few secular organizations can boast of. The Lord’s work continues to be done.

Yet it can be done more effectively. Strict doctrines may restrain humanity’s vices, but they also restrain the success of humanity’s relief efforts. Bishops can argue endlessly over the proper methods to control humanity’s sins, but few can argue that preaching offers a better alternative to contraceptives in controlling rapid population expansion and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. In Europe and North America, debates over Catholic doctrine often devolve into political and moral arguments. Elsewhere it is an issue of life and death. For an untested Pope hailing from an underdeveloped and increasingly progressive region, that ought to be a sign from God.