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Aug. 18, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 49

John L. Allen Jr.

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The dramatic growth of evangelicals in Latin America; Boff and Betto on Castro; More on evolution and religion; Mozart, Masonry and Catholicism; The pope on TV


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I've written a fair bit recently about the expansion of Catholicism in the developing world, especially in Africa, which is creating new centers of pastoral energy and theological insight.

Yet this growth is uneven, and not without its shadows. Aside from Africa, growth has been largely demographic rather than missionary -- driven by increases in the overall population rather than by new conversions. In Latin America, now home to half of the world's Catholic population, Catholicism is actually under siege. Dramatic Protestant gains have come mostly at Catholic expense, creating a historic realignment.

Belgian Passionist Fr. Franz Damen, a veteran staffer for the Bolivian bishops, found that conversions from Catholicism to Protestantism in Latin America during the 20th century actually surpassed the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 16th century.

Statistics illustrate the point.

Latin American Protestants shot up from 50,000 in 1900 to 64 million in 2000, according to Evangelical scholar William Taylor, with Pentecostal and charismatic churches making up three-quarters of this number. In 1930, Protestants amounted to one percent of the Latin American population; today it's between 12 and 15 percent. A study commissioned in the late 1990s by CELAM, the federation of Latin American Catholic bishops' conferences, found that 8,000 Latin Americans were deserting the Catholic Church for Evangelical Protestantism every day.

Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world at 149 million, loses half a million Catholics every year. Protestants have grown from nine percent of Brazil's population in 1991 to 15.1 percent (some say as much as 22 percent), while the proportion of Catholics has dropped from 84 percent to 67 percent. In Mexico, 88 percent of a population of 102 million is now Catholic, a decline of 10 percent compared to the mid-20th century.

When the two largest Catholic countries in the world are hemorrhaging, something serious is afoot.

This phenomenon has not escaped the attention of the Vatican. Rarely does a major gathering take place in Rome without discussion of the "sects," the preferred (and slightly pejorative) term for these Protestant bodies. At the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in October 2005, Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Sao Paolo, Brazil, bluntly asked, "How long will Latin American be a Catholic continent?"

To discuss these trends, I reached out to Samuel Escobar, one of the world's foremost Evangelical scholars specialized in missionary studies. He grew up as an Evangelical in Arequipa, Peru, and splits time between Eastern Baptist Seminary in Pennsylvania and the Board of International Ministries in Valencia, Spain. His 2002 book, Changing Tides (Orbis), examined the growth of Protestantism in Latin America.

The full text of the interview can be found in the Special Documents section of Escobar Interview.

* * *

What explains the growth of Protestantism in Latin America?
One way of explaining it would be the pastoral failure of the Catholic Church, which does not have the resources to educate the people in the faith. Latin American Catholics have a religious sensibility, but are often unattached to the church, and consequently they look for alternatives. The Catholic Church recently carried out a study of more than 1,000 converts, which concluded that if the church had offered deeper Bible study, better worship, and more personal pastoral attention, these people would not have converted. One factor is the shortage of priests. [Note: In 2001, there were 7,176 Catholics for every priest in Latin America, compared to 1,325 Catholics per priest in the United States.]

A deeper reason may be the way Christianity was implanted in Latin America. There was never really a complete missionary effort, the way the missionary orders envisioned it. It was done quickly in order to turn the Indians into subjects of the King, and to collect their tithes.

Some argue that today's conversions to Protestantism are also superficial, and that many will return.
That's a possibility. A recent study in Costa Rica, carried out by a Protestant team, found that eight percent of Costa Ricans who joined a Protestant church eventually left, some to return to Catholicism, while others moved on to something else.

In general, however, most Latin Americans who become evangelicals stay with it, because they find a different approach to understanding the faith and the church. For one thing, evangelical Christianity in Latin America is very much a movement of lay people. There are pastors, many of whom don't have as complete a theological training as Catholic priests, but they rely on their ability to mobilize the people. Protestantism is also home-grown. In Peru, for example, 60 percent of Catholic priests are foreigners -- Spaniards, Americans, Canadians, and so on. The number is just 10 percent in the Protestant churches.

Some charge the United States government and American Protestants have consciously aimed to Latin American Catholicism. What do you think?
That's what we call a conspiracy theory. In fact, those groups that have grown the most dramatically are not related to Protestant bodies in the United States. There are some American denominations that have made considerable missionary efforts, but the bulk of Latin American Protestantism is not an American product. The pastors and leaders are almost entirely native, which disperses the conspiracy theory.

What else explains Protestant expansion?
It's connected with the growth of cities. New arrivals were disoriented, away from their familiar environment, and also from traditional means of social control. Many found a home in the evangelical churches. … The correlation between urbanization and the growth of Protestantism has been clear since the 1950s, and has accelerated in recent years.

These people underwent a conversion experience in which they became masters of their own life. It put an end to an old way of living. Their decision to accept Christ meant a change in patters of behavior which helped people to reorient their lives.

What kind of behavioral changes?
For example, recovering from alcoholism, which is a major problem among the urban poor. Also, becoming better parents, better husbands, and in general developing a stronger sense of personal morality.

Some Catholics say liberation theology "politicized" the church and drove the middle and upper classes into Protestantism.
There may be some truth in that, but it has to be qualified. [In the 1950s], the Catholic Church recognized that it was losing both to Protestantism and to Communism. The working class and the young both seemed more attracted to Marxism than to the church. The bishops asked for help from abroad. In Peru, they went to the United States and asked for missionary priests as a kind of "tithe." The idea was to save people from Communism. Foreign missionaries were sent to work with the poorest of the poor, and they discovered that the problem was not Communism but rather that the church was part of oppressive structures in society. The bishops realigned themselves with the poor. In some forms, this choice became highly politicized, and they forgot about the spiritual dimension -- that is, people need a spiritual experience from the church, not just political guidance. This produced the popular saying that the Catholic Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for the Pentecostals!

At the same time, however, I'm very conscious that liberation theology responded to a reality in Latin America. We still have the pastoral question of poverty.

It's unfair to blame liberation theology?
Yes. For example, the small Christian communities that were one of the fruits of liberation theology are among the areas in Catholicism in which there has been new life, and a new commitment to the basics of the faith. Civil society in Latin America owes much to these small Christian communities, which have their parallels in Protestantism.

Will the growth in Protestantism continue?
Two things need to be said.

First, there's a new phenomenon, which is the emergence of new charismatic mega-churches, not typical of Protestant churches of the past. They have some similarities with the mega-churches in the United States, though the strongly charismatic element makes them different. They appeal to deep-seated aspects of Catholic culture. They rely on symbols such as blessed water, which classical Protestantism shunned. They also feature a more authoritarian pastoral style and a denial of the priesthood of all believers, which has historically been a key element of Protestant churches.

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We might say, therefore, that Protestantism will continue to grow, but what will grow is not classical Protestantism as we have known it.

Second, Protestantism faces a serious pastoral challenge. People are coming to the churches, so the numbers are increasing, but they have very basic pastoral needs. Like in Catholicism, some of these Protestant churches may fail if they don't develop a pastoral strategy that comes out of a reflective theological approach.

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* * *

Speaking of liberation theology, the big news in Latin America in recent days has been the health of Fidel Castro. For Catholics, it will hardly be a surprise that Leonardo Boff and Frei Betto -- both progressive Brazilians, the one a former Franciscan and the other a Dominican -- have rallied to Castro's side.

As ironic as it may seem, the world's most enduring Communist icon has long has what amount to "court theologians" in Betto and Boff. Castro once presented them a poster from Cuba's revolution, with the inscription: "If I ever recover the faith of my infancy, it will be the merit of you two."

Betto travelled to Havana after news of Castro's illness broke, and met with his brother Raoul. Speaking with Corriere della Sera Aug. 15, Betto said of Castro: "Certainly in recent years, his openness to religion has increased. Whether he's undergone a personal conversion, frankly, I couldn't say."

Boff circulated an essay in mid-August, saying of Castro: "He is larger than the Island."

"His Marxism is more ethical than political: how to do justice to the poor?" Boff wrote. "He has read a mountain of books, all of them with notes … I once told him, 'If Cardinal Ratzinger understood half of what you understand of the theology of Liberation, my personal destiny and the future of this theology would be very different.'"

Boff said he once planned to write a book about his conversations with Castro in Cuba, which often began at dinner and stretched until 6:00 am, but that four volumes of notes were robbed from his car in Rio de Janeiro.

In Corriere della Sera, Boff said in typically provocative fashion that Castro got on well with John Paul II, in part because they were both "authoritarian personalities …dictators, if you like."

Neither Betto nor Boff said much about the rocky relationship between Castro and the Cuban church. (In a gesture of reconciliation, the Cuban church has organized prayer vigils for Castro's health).

Boff said only: "It obviously would be a scandal if Fidel openly said he's a believer, but he's never proclaimed himself an atheist. In my opinion, he's not."

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Last week, I looked ahead to a Sept. 1-3 meeting of the pope's Schülerkreis, his circle of former doctoral students. This year the Schülerkreis ponders the explosive theme of "Creation and Evolution," in the wake of a New York Times op/ed piece from Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna last year arguing that the theory of evolution is incompatible with Catholicism.

Among the speakers at the meeting will be Dr. Peter Schuster, President of the Austrian Academy of Science and a molecular biologist. Schuster spoke with NCR from his office in Vienna on August 11. The full text of the interview can be found in the Special Documents section of Schuster Interview.

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* * *

Are you a Catholic?
I was a Catholic, but I no longer consider myself one. I suppose I am agnostic. Let's put it his way -- I have difficulties with the idea of a personal God. I don't have trouble with God as creator of the world as a whole.

How were you invited to Castelgandolfo?
A half-year before Cardinal Christoph Schönborn published his article … we met over breakfast and had a very relaxed and interesting discussion on chance and evolution, what shapes the evolutionary process, and so on.

[After] the New York Times piece, there was a partly angry excitement among scientists, though there was also some agreement with the cardinal in broader society. I was invited by a group of physicists to speak on the subject in Traunkirchen. I gave a one-hour talk, then Schönborn spoke, followed by discussion. [Note: A Power Point version of Schuster's talk is available here: It is a large file so will take a bit of time to download.]

Generally speaking, we came to the conclusion that there was much less disagreement than we originally thought. Schönborn stayed away from his statement that biologists are promoting an ideology, and I'm glad, because in essence it's not true. Every biologist has the obligation to change his ideas when experiments contradict what he thought. …

The only area of disagreement concerns whether there are conclusive points in nature which require the hypothesis of an intelligent designer. As molecular biologists, we do not need the intervention of an intelligent designer to explain what we see.

… Six months ago, Cardinal Schönborn called to ask me if I would give more or less the same talk to the pope and his doctoral students. We had lunch together, and I asked the cardinal, 'Why me? Certainly there are evolutionary biologists who are closer to the church.' Schönborn said he had a discussion with the pope, and the pope wants a scientist who in no way can be suspected of being a creationist.

In your view, science neither proves nor disproves intelligent design?
Biology by no means disproves the idea of a Creator, but the point is that we don't need a Creator to explain what we see. One hundred years ago, it was the common belief of Christians that God directly created every new species. Darwin showed how natural development can lead to new species. Today we understand this much better, and there's no evidence that can't be explained within this general framework.

What do you think will come from the Schülerkreis meeting?
I think they want to have some kind of statement on Darwinian theory, close to that made by the previous pope in 1996. [Note: John Paul II then defined evolution as "more than a hypothesis."]

What are your impressions of the thinking of Benedict XVI on evolution?
I think he's very close to John Paul. One thing I will stress is that referring to "neo-Darwinism" [as Schönborn did in The New York Times] is not appropriate in our time. We have different knowledge, and we know many more details. For one thing, we can now do evolutionary experiments in the lab. We can empirically show how the mechanisms of evolution work, optimizing molecules by mutation and selection. We can design molecules by evolutionary techniques using the same process we see in nature. I believe the pope is interested in this.

So you believe Benedict will take a somewhat different position than Schönborn?
I think so, but one never knows. We'll see at the end.

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* * *

In a 1996 interview, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger recalled that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart "thoroughly penetrated our souls" in rural Bavaria, in the shadow of Salzburg.

"His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence," he said. As is well known, Benedict XVI tries to get in a few minutes at the keyboard every day, usually Mozart.

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The pope is hardly alone in this passion.

Such disparate theological voices as Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hans Küng and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini have all penned tributes. The Protestant Barth once wrote that when he arrived in Heaven he would seek out Mozart, a Catholic, ahead of Luther or Calvin. Barth even proposed a performance of Mozart's "Coronation Mass" at a meeting of the Protestant World Council of Churches in Evanston, Illinois, an ecumenical gesture that in 1954 proved too far ahead of its time.

On this 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, however, a nagging question concerns the extent to which Mozart's grasp of the "tragedy of human existence" was colored by the liberal and anti-clerical currents of his day, especially Freemasonry.

According to historians, Mozart was initiated into a Masonic lodge in Vienna at 28, and eventually became a Master Mason. He wrote at least eight pieces of music for the Masons. Conoscenti also detect influences of Masonry in his famous opera "The Magic Flute."

Mozart joined despite the fact that Pope Clement XII had prohibited membership in 1738, and this antipathy is still alive. In 1983, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reiterated: "Faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion."

One understands, therefore, why links between the pope's favorite composer and the Masons make Catholics nervous.

Yet Mozart also composed some of the most famous Roman Catholic Masses and other liturgical scores in Western history, more than 60 pieces of sacred music altogether. How to reconcile these two aspects of his biography has long been a puzzle.

Once again, Schönborn is at the center of the debate.

Speaking July 16 in Chieti, Italy, at the opening of a Mozart festival, the Austrian cardinal asserted that "there's no foundation for his frequently mentioned membership in the Masons."

"To prove the point," Schönborn said, "there's the fact that the composer came from a Catholic family that belonged to ordinary society, conformed to and defined by a religious life."

Mozart "merely belonged to a circle of intellectuals," Schönborn said, rather than taking his Masonry seriously. He was "sustained by a solid Catholic faith thanks to which his sublime music, in particular that composed for the Mass, was a faithful expression of the liturgical text."

That brought a rebuke from Luigi Danesin, Grand Master of the Italian Lodge of the Masons.

"To affirm that a connection never existed between Mozart and Masonry is a historic falsehood that's part of a revisionism which, for some time, has gone on around the figure of Mozart," Dansein said.

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* * *

To discuss Mozart's Masonry and his Catholicism, I interviewed Robert Levin of Harvard University, a concert pianist and harpsichordist and an expert on Mozart. Levin recently completed a setting of Mozart's "C Minor Mass," making it liturgically complete for the first time. He hopes to arrange a performance at the Vatican.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has questioned Mozart's ties to the Masons. What do we know?
His association with Freemasonry has never been a matter of controversy. For one thing, we know the exact lodge to which he belonged, known in German as "Crowned Hope." He persuaded his father to become a Mason, and perhaps his friend Haydn. He wrote a substantial body of music for the lodges and for various Masonic ceremonies and functions, for example his famous Masonic funeral service. The last piece he finished before his death was K.623, "The Little Masonic Cantata." … To argue that Mozart wrote these compositions merely at arm's length as a kind of commercial proposition is not particularly persuasive.

Did Mozart feel a tension between his Masonry and his Catholicism?
We shouldn't drive a wedge between these two things … Individuals, and artists in particular, often can be more nuanced than the official positions. Mozart saw no conflict. He was the assistant choirmaster at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna and expected to become the master, anticipating writing a glorious series of sacred music. The Masonic lodges Mozart visited weren't subversive. He found them attractive because of their fascination with human dignity and human freedom. They represented a break with the aristocracy and oligarchy.

What about Mozart's Catholicism?
The best way to approach it is through his music. I find it very, very hard to believe that the fervor and expressiveness of the music Mozart wrote for the church, such as the "C Minor Mass" or the "Requiem," is just the equivalent of an opera composer making a good pitch for his libretto. The sense of the glory of God is so powerful … Mozart's spirituality emphasizes majesty, grandeur, and affirmation. There's relatively little terror and trembling. … His music of greatest solemnity and complexity always comes at the resurrection, not the crucifixion. Some might say it's a sugar-coated Catholicism, but the tenderness he brings to the Et Incarnatus Est in the "C Minor Mass," for example, is special. In the 18th century, the "doctrine of affections" was in force, which held that each key symbolized a particular human emotion. It's telling that even though the "C Minor Mass" starts out in that key, it's C Major which dominates, the key of majesty and glory. … Mozart's Catholicism is a powerful affirmative force, without being subject to the "stick" of terror, threatening eternal damnation to those who didn't believe. It's overwhelmingly music of tenderness, empathy, and at times of grandeur.

What about his bawdy sense of humor and active libido?
First of all, it has to be seen in context. Some of the salacious expressions he used in letters to his cousin are also used by his mother in letters to his father, all of which sounds shocking to 21st century ears. It was a way of letting off steam, and we should not assume that these people therefore lacked faith or piety. …

Mozart saw deeper into the human spirit than almost anyone, yet he didn't make judgments. In the operas, he allows his characters to be who they want to be. Thus when Don Giovanni raises his champagne glass for a toast, even though we know he's a monster, we want to go to the party. … Mozart forces us to look at who we really are, what actually motivates us. In that way, our relationship with our Creator and Savior becomes immeasurably stronger.

You don't find anything jarring about the pope admiring the music of a Mason?
Not at all. Mozart himself would be thrilled. … His Holiness is not doing anything controversial in listening to Mozart. He'll be a better pope if he does!

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* * *

Though Mozart never wrote at length on religion, some of his attitudes can be gleaned from letters and recollections of contemporaries. One source is the journal of Friederich Rochlitz, published in 1801, which records a visit by Mozart to Leipzig in 1789.

According to Rochlitz, Mozart said that an "enlightened Protestant" could never understand what the Agnus Dei of the Catholic Mass meant to him.

"But if someone has been introduced from earliest childhood, as I have been, into the mystical sanctuary of our religion; if there, when you did not yet know how to cope with your dark but urgent feelings, you waited for worship with an utterly fervent heart, without really knowing what you wanted, and went away with a lighter and uplifted heart without really knowing what you had; if you thought how lucky were those who received the Eucharist, and at the communion the music spoke in quiet joy from the hearts of those kneeling there, Benedictus qui venit, then it is all quite different."

"Once you really take in again words which you have heard a thousand times, in order to set them to music, it all comes back. It stands before you, and moves your soul," Mozart said.

Scholars debate the Rochlitz's reliability, but since he would have been present for this exchange, many regard it as authentic.

How to reconcile this Catholic piety with Masonry?

One way is to recall that down the centuries, criticism of individual churchmen or of ecclesiastical systems by Catholics often had little to do with one's faith. Moderns may reject Catholicism if they become frustrated with the church, but that's not how someone like Mozart thought.

Perhaps the best glimpse of this comes in a 1771 letter to his father, after Mozart had a falling out with the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymus Colloredo, who among other indignities insisted on lodging him with household servants.

Noting that "I hate the archbishop to insanity," Mozart wrote:

"Always remember, as we do, that our Mufti [Colloredo] is an idiot, but that God is compassionate, merciful and loving."

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Pope Benedict XVI's long-awaited interview with German television was broadcast the evening of Saturday, August 13. A full transcript can be found here:

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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