The Catholic Church's central role in the religious, social, and political life of Latin America has undergone a series of dramatic changes in the last twenty years. These changes stem from religious pluralism and the popularity of Protestant churches, new forms of civil organization and mobilization, and the consolidation of democratic politics in the region. While the Catholic Church continues to play an important role in Latin American policy agendas, the religious landscape of the region has become a contested space. On April 28, the Latin America Program convened a panel to discuss this phenomenon, and its consequences for the traditional relationships between religion and politics, faith and political participation, and Catholicism and democracy.

 Daniel H. Levine , James Orin Murfin Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, described the dramatic changes in Latin America's religious scene in the last forty years. The burst of Protestant churches and a more open civil society have led to what Levine described as a pluralization of voices both outside and inside churches, including the Catholic Church. Churches have come to support democracy, while the public image of religion, once believed to be an alliance of power between the Catholic Church and the state, has been changing in light of the multiplicity of venues for the exercise and practice of religion. Social movements once linked to the Catholic Church have both risen and fallen; churches are no longer "the Church," but rather one institution in a competitive space of civil society, itself the result of mounting urbanization and access to the media. Although the Catholic Church remains strong, increasing secularization, the spread of Protestantism, and the rising numbers of the faithful who describe themselves as católico a mi manera ("Catholic in my own way") have augmented the sense of lost hegemony in the Church. Levine argued that these developments have confounded scholars and analysts who espoused functional theories about the need for a basic moral order, or otherwise believed that modernization would lead to an effacing of religion as a social actor in Latin America.

Reflecting on the future of the Catholic Church after the Latin American Catholic Bishop Conference (CELAM) in Aparecida, Brazil in 2007, Levine highlighted the general sense of fear emerging from the final documents of the meeting. Bishops are worried about the loss of cultural integrity in the region, the decay of a unified view of the faith, increasing moral disorder, gender issues that promise greater equality and freedom to women, and the loss of clerical and ecclesiastical guidance of religious organizations. Levine characterized the current position of Catholic bishops as being mired in fear over a loss of control--over the faithful and over the organization they lead.

 Frances Hagopian , Michael P. Grace Chair in Latin American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and current Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow, explained that scholars have largely neglected the importance of the Catholic Church, and religion in general, in studies of democratic politics in Latin America. The shallow view that the Church supports democracy does not address how the Church still mobilizes grassroots movements, supports parties that advance its moral agenda, and can play an important political role in countries such as Cuba and Venezuela. According to Hagopian, since the 1990s the Church has supported democracy as a system of political rights, rather than liberalism and the notions of individual liberties and civil rights this philosophy entails. The Catholic Church has also played an important role in Latin American political culture, as early congregational efforts through Catholic Action evolved into CEBs (ecclesiastical base communities) in the 1970s, alongside many grassroots movements supported by the Church. Ironically, these groups sowed the seeds for a democratic political culture in Latin America, by reinforcing a language of individual responsibility and collective action, Hagopian noted.

Yet the Catholic Church faces several important challenges. One-fifth of Latin Americans are Protestant and one-tenth consider themselves non-denominational. According to Hagopian, the Church is worried about the secularization of popular and political cultures; its loss of moral hegemony as a result of globalization; its ability to influence human rights, education, and public health policies; and its claim to perquisites from Latin American states. Strategically speaking, the Church intends to re-claim the moral public sphere while balancing its efforts to retain numbers of the faithful with its ability to influence policy, as evidenced in the 2007 Aparecida documents. Yet according to Hagopian, few, if any, political parties adhere to Catholic bishops' optimal position in these efforts.

 Tom Quigley , former Latin America policy advisor for the U.S. Catholic Conference, observed that the number of Catholic defections to Protestant churches in Latin America has leveled off; moreover, he noted, such numbers may not be very reliable as they rarely take into account variables such as migration, indigenous populations, or what he termed "indifferent Catholics." In this sense, he questioned when Latin American Catholics have not been Catholics "their own way," even in areas such as reproductive rights. While acknowledging the challenges from globalization and secularization, Quigley asserted that, as one of the first globalized institutions, the Church is not trying to stem globalization, but rather point to its unsavory aspects. The Church also faces important challenges in the indigenous and Afro-Latin communities, whose traditional rights and practices differ from the core practice of the Church. Reacting to statements from the other panelists, Quigley dispelled the notion that the Church is fearful about its future; that groups in the Catholic Church ever rejected democracy; and that the Church relies on state patronage.

José Raúl Perales, Senior Program Associate, Latin American Program