“The Catholic Church opted for the poor and the poor opted for the Pentecostals…”

John Allen’s “All Things Catholic” continues to be a good read—a little more general and a little less “Vatican-gossipy”, but still informative. Thankfully not overly “US-centric”. He has covered some big general issues lately, and in his latest column he focuses on the situation in the Latin American Church, viz. the threat of the “sects” (read: “Protestants”).

Allen points out that in the 20th Century, more Catholics left the Church for the Protestant “sects” in Latin America than in Europe during the Reformation. Rather than ask the Catholic Church leaders why the Church is haemorrhaging, he does something really radical: he asks a Protestant: Samuel Escobar, “one of the world’s foremost Evangelical scholars specialized in missionary studies”.

So how does Samuel Escobar explain the “haemorrhage”? He answers:

“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.”

It ain’t rocket science, as they say. Here in Australia, the Catholic Church is also haemorrhaging (as Archbishop Coleridge notes in his inaugural homily), not to the “sects” but to secularism. When I was a pastor, I spent most of my time teaching people in bible studies, improving our liturgical worship, and constant personal pastoral attention. Of course, I only had several hundred parishioners—a dream for most Australian clergy, let alone for the South Americans (where, according to Allen, “in 2001, there were 7,176 Catholics for every priest in Latin America”), but bible study, worship and pastoral attention can be led by lay ministers.

You want to stop the haemorrhage? Then get your parish into the bible, get them into the liturgy, and make damned sure you look after each soul that crosses the threshold of your narthex.

Oh, and by the way, the heading to this blog is a quote from Samuel Escobar about liberation theology in South America. The folk at Redfern might want to take some notice.

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5 Responses to “The Catholic Church opted for the poor and the poor opted for the Pentecostals…”

  1. Peregrinus says:

    Hi David

    I don’t think we can assume that the factors which Escobar identifies as underlying defections from Catholicism to Evangelical Protestantism in Latin America necessarily underly all defections from Catholicism, everywhere in the world.

    Converts to Evangelical Protestantism have gone somewhere where they will find bible study, worship and (presumably) more personal pastoral attention. It’s reasonable to believe them when they say they value this, and not totally unreasonable to think that this was at least part of the reason for the move.

    But, althoug the option of Evangelical Protestantism is certainly available, you point out yourself that those who defect in Australia overwhelmingly defect to secularism – an odd choice, if what they are seeking is bible study, worship and personal pastoral attention.

    Maybe what Catholics in Australia need to do is take a leaf out of John Allen’s book and talk, not to those who have chosen to remain, but to those who have chosen to leave, to find out what account they offer of their reasons for leaving.

    PS Thanks for the plug for Catholica Australia!

  2. Schütz says:

    I find Catholica rather amusing. Especially “Isshy”, but I feel he may be a little over the “interreligiously correct” line!

    No, I am not suggesting that those who leave the Church for secularism are looking for bible study, good worship, and pastoral care, but I am suggesting that if there were more of this, there would be less people leaving the Church. Consider a restaurant where only the second rate food was served up, even though the cook was capable of preparing first rate food. Those who stopped patronising such an establishment would (perchance) have remained if the good stuff were put on their plates for a change.

    So it isn’t just a case of giving people what they know they want, but of giving them what the need even if they don’t know it. Like good wine and classical music, it is an aquired taste to which one needs to be introduced (by some benevolent soul), but a taste which (once established) remains forever.

    On the other hand, I had it verbally from another commentator that there are indeed very, very many ex-Catholics in Australian evangelical and pentecostal churches–as many as 50% of the members of these churches are baptised Catholics. From my own experience, I believe this to be true.

  3. Peregrinus says:

    Hi David

    Couple of responses, in more or less reverse order to the points you make:

    It may (or may not) be the case that former Catholics are disproportionately represented in Pentecostalist congregations, but from the Catholic perspective that’s relatively unimportant. We know that the great bulk of those who cease to practice Catholicism do not practice in any other tradition. Of those who do practice, we know (anecotally) that some move to more “liberal” traditions (because they reject what they see as authoritarianism, favour women clergy, or whatever) and some move to more “conservative” traditions, whether ‘traditional’ Catholicism or some flavour of evangelical or pentecostalist protestantism. If those who find their way to Pentecostalism form a signficantly visible group within Pentecostalism, that may tell us more about the relatively small size of the Pentecostalist movement than it does about more mainstream reasons for leaving Catholicism.

    Secondly, we know from the NCLS that, although the Pentecostal movement in Australia has a very high ‘conversion rate’ from other traditions and from the non-practising, it has an equally high ‘attrition rate’, to other religious traditions and to non-practice. Signficantly, the last time I looked at the figures (a couple of years ago now) a majority of conversions to Pentecostalism were from other traditions, but a majority of conversions out of Pentecostalism were to a position of non-practice. Crucially, the latter figure exceeded the former.

    This means that, when we look behind the explosive growth rate, we find that Pentecostalism is, on balance, more a route out of religious practice than a route into it – a sobering thought.

    This also means that, although converts to Pentecostalism may say that they value, and have converted because of, the vibrant worship style, the focus on scripture, the strong sense of community, or whatever, after a while a lot of them tend to find that this isn’t satisfying them, and they move on. In other words, to pick up on your own point, what they thought they wanted turns out not to be what they want.

    Finally, I take your point about the church “serving up the good stuff”. But I don’t think we identify the “good stuff” by looking at what other restaurants are serving, and in particular we don’t look at what one restaurant, which attracts only a small minority of the diners who leave us, is serving. We’re in the restaurant business (to flog this metaphor to death) because we have our own recipes which we believe it is important to serve. We can’t start from an assumption that what other restaurants serve is “the good stuff” – especially if our real problem is that most of our former diners have taken to eating at home.

    No jokes about cafeteria Catholics, please.

  4. Schütz says:

    I can’t make any comment to top that reflection, Peregrinus!

  5. Bruce says:

    My family came into the Catholic CHurch for all the above reasons — and more. I was an elder in a Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America). Although we were willing to be in a Novus Ordo parish, we finally moved to a TLM parish started by the recently retired Archbishop of Atlanta. We have two priests from the FSSP, who are absolutely wonderful. A very active parish in the Atlanta area. We had 41 people confirmed this Spring.

    Liturgy – (reverent) it’s what people want.
    Bible Study – you bet, we need it badly.
    Pastors who care about their flock – also needed, and it happens at our church. Also at the N.O. parish I went to last Saturday.

    The Holy Catholic Church – I’m glad I’m there. So was my wife as she discovered she had mealnoma one year ago. She passed away in December, in the arms of Holy Mother Church.


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