Roman Catholicism in a Changing Latin America

Roman Catholicism is changing, so they say. Many people are expecting great things from the conciliar meetings, some already held and others to be held in Rome. As one of our Roman Catholic neighbors said the other day, “Now at last we’ll all be one.” She herself seldom attends mass and has little time for the church. Yet it made her happy to think that soon the basic differences between us would all be erased. After all, wasn’t the Roman Catholic Church willing to initiate certain reforms? Why else would the clergy be meeting in Rome? According to her interpretation Christianity had taken a great step forward.


Those of us who work in areas where Roman Catholicism is dominant find it difficult to believe that any substantial change can be carried out effectively. Perhaps it is necessary to state at the beginning that Roman Catholicism in Latin America is quite different from that which we knew and observed in the States—if not in theory and teaching, at least in practice and comprehension. This is explained by a fine article which appeared in Time magazine (Jan. 18, 1960). The article was authored by a certain Father Vekemans who wrote, “The Roman Catholic Church is losing ground fast among its 168 million members in Latin America, close to one-third of all the Catholics in the world…The materialism of modern technological civilization has been especially serious in Latin America because of the nature of Spanish Catholicism. Traditionally, Spanish Catholicism has been highly spiritual, almost mystic. It has never been as we could put it, an ‘incarnation Catholicism’; it has never been very concerned with man’s life in this world.”

In the foreword to George P. Howard’s book Religious Liberty in l.atin America? are these words of John A. Mackay, president-emeritus of Princeton Seminary, “A third question arises, What is the crucial problem of Latin American culture? According to the best and most thoughtful men and women in the Southern Continent, it is this: a religious sense of life—that is, a spiritual inwardness in which religious faith is correlated with moral action and cultural expression. Their complaint is that Latin American life has lacked a form of spirituality which would give it a sense of wholeness, fulness of meaning and ethical direction. The truth is that religion and life have never been closely connected in Latin American spiritual tradition. Religion has been divorced from culture and ethics by a great unbridged chasm.” For that reason religion is comparable to one’s Sunday suit or dress. It is put on for a special occasion but laid aside when one desires something more comfortable and practical. Few people have any conception of living for Christ in daily service and applying biblical principles to everyday activities.

Recently we attended a debate organized by a local club concerning the message and meaning of director Ingmar Bergman’s latest picture, “EI Silencio,” as it is called in Spanish. The picture has received an unusual amount of publicity in this country. Comments ranged from “tragically immoral” to “a fresh approach to the ancient problem of spirit versus the flesh.“ Approximately forty persons attended the debate, many of them professional people. Although the discussion lasted approximately three hours, no one even once mentioned the Bible or applied its teachings to the “ancient problem” of good versus evil. Yet the Argentine people appear to be religious. Crucifixes are seen everywhere. Images of the Virgin and saints are found at the main entrance of many homes. People are constantly saying, “Gracias a Dios” and “si Dios quiere” (“Thanks be to God” and “if God wishes”). Father Vekemans put it well. The type of Roman Catholicism we face is highly mystical as opposed to practical.

In his book, On This Foundation, Dr. W. Stanley Rycroft quotes from the late Jual B. Teran, one time rector of an Argentine university. Said he: “How strange it is that we should be able to say even today that there exists in Hispanic-American sentimentality something of fetishism, a lack of spirituality, the fondness for external ritual, the devilish beliefs which the superficial christianization of the Conquest did not extirpate. Men of the upper classes keep aloof from all religious affairs, believing them to be for women only; at best they take an attitude of benevolent neutrality. They are not atheists, because to be an atheist would be a sign of having reflected on religious problems. They are simply indifferent…” (p. 61).

Those who have studied the Latin American situation generally agree that Christianity to a large extent was paganized and paganism christianized. The tragic result was the separation of religion and life, faith and practice. The things of the Spirit have little bearing on man’s everyday problems, his tensions, his joys, his sorrows and his morals. Religion thus has little to say about gambling, sexual immorality, deceit and corruption in politics. One’s religious faith appears to be “an extra something” given him at the time of his birth. an added something that automatically makes him a Roman Catholic. For that reason it need not be practiced; it is not something to be lost or gained.

Recently we met an interesting example of such think. ing. We visited a family whose eight-year-old daughter attends our Sunday School and whose twenty·year·old son has affiliated himself with a Baptist group. At present the mother does not attend mass; it is doubtful that she has ever done so regularly. Beyond a doubt she concerns herself very little with the affairs of the Roman Catholic church located in the heart of the city. Yet Mrs. Amado tens us in all seriousness that she is a Roman Catholic. How does she know? In what way does she express her faith? She couldn’t really say; she only knows that she ought not to attend our chapel because she was born and baptized a Roman Catholic. Even more interesting is the case of the individual who says; “I’m a Catholic but think like a Protestant.” He perhaps means, “I like the fact that the Protestant minister can marry. I like the attention you give us and I like your social concern—but I’m still a Catholic at heart.” Yet Roman Catholicism is hardly more than a tradition for a large majority of Latin Americans. This explains the enormous difference between “confessing members” and actual participants. One set of statistics acknowledged a ratio 90 to 10; 90% professed to be members of the Roman Catholic Church but only 10% took the time and trouble to practice their faith.



There is, of course, this basic problem; Mary lives but Christ is dead!

Christ is carried in her arms or hangs from the cross; He nowhere appears to be the living Savior who is able to help men in their time of need. In The Other Spanish Christ John A. Mackay writes, “A Christ known in life as an infant and in death as a corpse. over whose helpless child. hood and tragic fate the Virgin Mother presides; a Christ who came in the interest of eschatology, whose permanent reality resides in a magic wafer bestowing immortality; a Virgin Mother who by not tasting death, became the Queen of life—that if the Christ and that the Virgin who came to America! He came as Lord of death and of the life that is to be; she came as Sovereign Lady of the life that now is.”

The truth of the statement reveals the tragedy of the situation in Latin America. Representative of this is the ceremony carried out in the neighboring city of Tandil, during Holy Week. Tandil is something of a center of Catholicism. It has a large and beautiful park called “Cal-vario” with an enormous statue of the crucified Christ. The seven stages of His final sufferings are depicted in life-size statues of stone. The last, and the one directly above his tomb, is that of Mary holding in her arms the dead Christ. Beneath is the tomb from which the corpse is taken for procession through the streets on Good Friday. During the last few weeks prior to this day all social events are canceled. No dances are scheduled. Life in general takes on a more somber, serious appearance. But on Good Friday Christ is put back in the tomb and replaced by the dying Savior on the cross. This is Christ’s place; there He is left, dead and nailed to the cross.

It becomes easy to understand now why the Virgin receives such a prominent place. While at a Bible camp for young people during the first two weeks of February, we met a 29-year..old girl who for fourteen years had lived in a convent. She entered when eleven and had taken the perpetual vows. When many doubts made it impossible for her to continue in the convent, and after repeated and severe discipline, she was granted permission to leave. Still searching for peace with God four years later, Juanita told us her complete story at camp. During our conversation we suggested the necessity of prayer and communion with God. Her reply was, “I find it impossible to address Jesus in prayer. For so many years I have been taught to speak with Mary and ask her to make my requests known to her Son, that direct communion with Him seems incredible.”

Several times in Tres Arroyos we have seen processions honoring the Virgin Mary. At the time of the first communion service for children her statue is carried through the streets. Twice famous statues from other cities were brought into town. Posters which advertised their coming said: To Jesus through Mary! No wonder that offerings of all kinds are given to the Virgin when some particular need or difficult situation arises. What could a dead Christ do? But Mary isn’t dead; she went directly to heaven and awaits the requests of those who need her assistance. A dedicated Christian lady who is now a member of our church. La Iglesia Reformada. once gave her most precious ring to the Virgin because her sister was ill. The costly ring was made of diamond and pearl. Not knowing what to do, or from whom she should seek help, she entered the church which she never attended, yet of which she was a “member.” Said the priest, “If you need help, you ought to give your most precious possession to Mary and seek her guidance.” The statue of the Virgin in this local church is adorned with jewelry, each piece offered with prayer for some particular need. “He came as Lord of death and of the life that is to be; she came as the Sovereign Lady of the life that now is.” So basic is this teaching to the Roman Catholicism which we have observed in Argentina and so engraved is this belief in the mind of the people. that we find it difficult to believe that any substantial change will be brought about. even though suggestions for change should come from Rome itself.


It is no anachronism to say that Latin America needs what historical Protestantism has to oHer. The basic principles set forth at the time of the Reformation must still be taught to those living in our southern continent. The priesthood of all believers, for example, is an important doctrine to every Protestant. It asserts boldly that Christ, as our heavenly high priest. opened a way to direct communication with God. An individual without the assistance of another human being can enter into final relationship with him. The priesthood of all believers by making each man responsible before God is able to develop new moral character; it makes relevant to daily life the ethical implication of Jesus’ life and ministry. This is the message that Latin America needs.

A second emphasis of the Reformation, justification by faith, is clearly understood by the evangelical Christian. It proclaims salvation only by faith in Jesus Christ. Someone has defined the situation in Latin America as ‘“bargaining with God”; men believe that they can earn God’s special favor by doing something. How lacking is the invitation of Him who said, “Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money, come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

Finally, the sole authority of the Word of God is an unknown refrain in this area. How sorely men need to hear that Word which, when accompanied by the Spirit of God, is able to speak to and transform men’s lives. It is the source of security, comfort, joy and hope which the Roman Catholic Church has failed to transmit to the Latin American community. Many still need to hear the message of the One who said: “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

Latin America is still waiting to meet the living Christ whose life and death so profoundly influence our words and thoughts and deeds. George P. Howard in Religious Liberty in Latin America? wrote, “It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that Latin America is Christianity’s most shocking failure” (p. 43) . A mission survey presented in Christianity Today c1aimed, “Many missionaries are convinced that the greatest opportunity for the Church of Jesus Christ today lies in Latin America. With population expected to soar well past the half-billion mark by A.D. 2000, Latin America may become the most populous and in many ways the most important segment of the Western Hemisphere” (August 1, 1960, pg. 9). The same report listed the outlook for evangelism in Spanish-speaking America generally as “favorable,” and for Brazil as “highly favorable.” It also stated Brazil has the fastest growing evangelical community in the world.

No one can deny that Latin America offers an open door for evangelistic activity. But our Reformed witness is given in Argentina, by only a handful of people: three ministers from the Netherlands, four from North America (the fifth man is expected to arrive in August) and three Argentines, one minister and two women evangelists. We could use many, many more. The local Federation of Evangelical Churches has demonstrated that there are extensive geographical areas without one evangelical church! The only possible conclusion is: The call has been given us; the task is visible to us; the proclamation of the message awaits us. Latin America needs the message of the Bible with the Christ who came to be the Savior of the world. This is the challenge presented to us. As Dr. W. Stanley Rycroft states in the preface to On This Foundation, “Jesus Christ who lived, died and rose again—all that He was and is this—is the foundation of a great civilization in Latin America and in the Western Hemisphere of tomorrow.”