Key story behind B16's Brazil visit

catholics in brazilThere seem to be two dominant story lines coming out of the Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Brazil that began Wednesday. One is that the Pope is facing the lingering spectre of his longtime nemesis -- Marxist-inspired social liberation within the Catholic Church -- and the other is the Protestant challenge from Pentecostals. The "rival theology" story, focused on "socialist-influenced 'liberation' Catholicism," has a rich history and is what most people think of when approaching a Latin America religion story. But from what I've gathered, this theme is growing tired and is losing its news value. That is not to say that reporters shouldn't pay attention to that angle, but several media reports have overplayed its significance.

For starters, here's The New York Times on Monday:

In the early 1980s, when Pope John Paul II wanted to clamp down on what he considered a dangerous, Marxist-inspired movement in the Roman Catholic Church, liberation theology, he turned to a trusted aide: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Now Cardinal Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI, and when he arrives here on Wednesday for his first pastoral visit to Latin America he may be surprised at what he finds. Liberation theology, which he once called "a fundamental threat to the faith of the church," persists as an active, even defiant force in Latin America, home to nearly half the world's one billion Roman Catholics.

Over the past 25 years, even as the Vatican moved to silence the clerical theorists of liberation theology and the church fortified its conservative hierarchy, the social and economic ills the movement highlighted have worsened. In recent years, the politics of the region have also drifted leftward, giving the movement's demand that the church embrace "a preferential option for the poor" new impetus and credibility.

The key words in that lede are "once called" and "persists." Exactly how is liberation theology persisting, and how forcefully does Benedict speak out against liberation theology these days?

A Los Angeles Times headline from Wednesday really overstates the case: "Benedict to confront a vast theological divide in Brazil." Yes, there are differences, but that's overstating the case just a bit.

For a more balanced perspective, check out the subtitle to this Economist article (sub required) on the visit that sums up nicely the real story behind Benedict's visit: the growth of Pentecostal churches and its influence on Catholic worship services:

In his first Latin American visit, Pope Benedict XVI will find a less divided church facing stronger rivals

This idea is expounded on later in the piece. The Economist should be commended for treating religion like any other "real world" subject rather than relegating it to a category of non-real-world subjects like The Wall Street Journal has done repeatedly of late (here and here):

The bishops' conference may be less disputatious than its predecessors. Democracy and the end of the cold war have drawn some of the sting from the arguments between conservatives and progressives. Dom Raymundo says the bishops will reaffirm the church's preference for the poor, but he insists that social change begins with the transformation of the individual believer. In the coming fights against abortion and the use of embryonic stem cells, the Latin church is probably more united than its North American counterpart. According to a recent poll, just 16% of Brazilians want to change a law that makes abortion illegal unless the mother has been raped or her life is endangered.

That does not put to rest nagging questions about the shape of a church with too few priests to sustain its traditional structure. Benedict will arrive in Brazil fresh from having censured Jon Sobrino, a liberation theologian in El Salvador, for over-emphasising Christ's humanity. The original draft of the conference guidelines was modified after pressure from the many in Latin America who take a less hierarchical view of the church and want a greater role for the laity. "For us the pope is father and pastor" rather than an "authority figure", says Carlos Francisco Signorelli, who heads the National Council of Brazilian Laity. In Aparecida, Benedict may reveal how he sees himself.

Now I'm not saying this all to say that these individual stories are a huge problem or anything. Balanced with stories that focus on the huge issue of the growth of Pentecostalism, they're fine. The LAT did just that in a very long piece on Tuesday:

The pop-idol priest strides to the altar like the star that he is, a rock band pounding away to his right, cameras flashing to his left and the multitudes pulsating in this cavernous ex-factory that serves as a church.

"Hold the hand of Jesus!" Father Marcelo Rossi, a dynamic giant in a red cassock and billowing white sleeves, proclaims into the cordless mike, urging the faithful to hold hands. "God is tops! God is tops!"

Rossi is the kind of priest who just might be able to save the Roman Catholic Church here. Brazil has more believers than any other country, but the church has been steadily losing members to evangelical denominations.

Rossi is also just the kind of priest that Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives here Wednesday, is likely to frown upon.

Covering a story as huge and as fast-moving as a pope's first major world tour is all about balance. There are more than enough stories that could be told, but the big one is the very threat to the existence of Catholicism in Brazil. According to the Pew Forum, Protestantism in the form of Pentecostals is growing at an amazing pace. That's going to be the key story worth focusing on.

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