Pope battles for Latin America’s Catholic soul

By on March 1, 1999
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Faced with an explosion of charismatic, fundamentalist Protestantism, Pope John Paul II has again issued a call to arms in the battle for Latin America’s soul.

Addressing a million people in a Mexico City racetrack in late January, the 78-year-old leader of almost a billion Roman Catholics worldwide cautioned against the spiritual blandishments of non-Catholic “sects.” At the same time, he urged the faithful to rally around the work of evangelization.

Many media reports interpreted the pope’s remarks as a general attack on Protestantism. Curb Protestant Inroads, was typical of newspaper headlines. But church officials in the ecumenical field suggest this is not the case. They say that rather than attacking mainstream Protestant denominations, the Pope was targeting the aggressive proselytizing methods of newer, fundamentalists, many of which are supported financially by U.S. right-wing groups.

The Vatican and the Latin American Roman Catholic hierarchy have long been worried about what has been called an invasion of what was once a Roman Catholic dominion. Some estimates put the number of Protestants in Latin America at more than 50 million: a startling increase from the 2.5 million of the 1930’s. Many of those who have switched allegiance are former Roman Catholics.

Sister Donna Geernaert, director of ecumenism with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, says the Pope’s recent comments appear consistent with what has been said before about the aggressive evangelization efforts of some groups. She said a distinction is made between “churches who are interested in dialogue and those who are not.”

Sister Geernaert noted that the 1997 Synod for America, a gathering of bishops from North, Central and South America, addressed the proselytizing tactics of new religious groups.

Saying the success of such proselytising could not be ignored, the synod called for a thorough study to find out why many Roman Catholics leave the church. It urged all American Roman Catholics to become involved in evangelization and called for greater co-operation between “sister Churches” to send missionaries to help spread the Gospel.

At the same time, the synod stressed that nothing should be done to weaken “the firm conviction that only in the Roman Catholic Church is found the fullness of the means of salvation established by Jesus Christ.”

Recent years have seen a growing co-operation between the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical groups and denominations especially in North America. They have worked together on such issues as abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality. Such co-operation would have been unheard of 20 years ago.

Three years ago, 40 prominent Catholics and evangelicals met in the U.S. and endorsed an accord entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. Aimed at fostering co-operative efforts to spread the Christian message, the accord also called on Christians to stop trying to win converts from each other’s folds.

Ironically, the day before the Pope’s comments, Rev. Gary Walsh, a Free Methodist and president of the Evangelical Council of Canada, met with officials from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to discuss co-operation between evangelicals and Roman Catholics.

The following day, he received a fax from the bishops’ conference expressing concern that news reports about the Pope’s remarks could be misinterpreted and so sour relations. He also received the full text of the Pope’s address.

“I’m not nervous of the comments made,” says Walsh. “I’m inclined to go with the larger text rather than the (newspaper) headlines.”

Walsh suggests that 20 years ago the Pope’s remarks would have upset many evangelicals. He said most Christians today “from every branch of the tree” are more concerned about identifying the distinction between Christian and non-Christian than the distinction between one Christian denomination and another.

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