Central America's religious landscape Papal visit: Challenges from Protestant groups, divisions on liberation theology.

February 09, 1996

IN HIS week-long trip to three Central American countries and Venezuela, Pope John Paul II has returned to a region that has changed markedly since his last visit in 1983. Except for Guatemala, which remains in the throes of a decades-long civil war, Latin America have seen a waning of armed violence, but a rise in religious divisions.

For Catholics, the divisions are the legacy of the often-bitter struggle to implement the church's ideal of supporting the poor. Since the Second Vatican Council 30 years ago, Catholic theologians, clerics and lay people have attempted to transform the council's "preferential option for the poor" from words into reality.

Liberation theology and its Marxist overtones attracted a devoted following in Latin America -- and eventually earned the wrath of the Vatican when the movement's adherents became too entangled in revolutionary politics. Especially in countries where grinding poverty for peasants is part of an economic system ruled by landed oligarchies, supporting the poor can easily take on overtones that threaten the established order.

As Catholics attempt to separate politics from their duties to the poor, they find themselves facing a new and unfamiliar challenge. Other Christian groups, particularly Mormons and evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, are making significant inroads by converting these same peasants, long the bedrock of Latin American Catholicism.

Pope John Paul II has referred to the evangelists who are rapidly starting up new sects and churches as "hungry wolves" preying on Catholics. These outreach efforts may disturb the church, but their successes are not really surprising.

For families, the emphasis on clean living -- abstaining from drinking, gambling and womanizing -- can mean the difference between a drunken man who wastes the food money on fleeting pleasures and a father devoted to his wife and children. Naturally, poor women already carrying heavy burdens are attracted to that kind of practical message, one not unlike the emphasis on personal piety that helped revivalism speed the domestication of the American frontiers.

Yes, the pope needs to shore up the church in Central America as it moves into a new and unfamiliar climate of religious diversity. But this is not an impossible challenge, as is evident in the church's ability to thrive in the United States. In fact, religious diversity may well provide the impetus for Central American Catholics to overcome their lingering divisions.

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