The Vatican is Losing in Latin America” read the Jan. 12 headline in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a line that surely took some American Catholics by surprise. It shouldn’t. It was not like when the Emperor Constantius declared himself for heresy and, as St. Jerome wrote, “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.”

The rise of evangelical churches in Latin America was seen as a danger as early as the 1950s. That is why St. Pope John XXIII asked North American church workers to engage in pastoral work there in the 1960s. My home diocese of Cleveland and many others answered his call by opening missions in various countries. 

I worked as a missionary priest in El Salvador for 20 years, all told, with a hiatus of five years back in the states between. I witnessed the growth of the Protestant denominations that has caused some researchers to claim there are some Latin American countries that are now majority non-Catholic, including all five Central American nations. 

There are no simple explanations for the cultural changes that led to these developments. The Journal said most Protestants in Latin America are Pentecostals, but that was not true in El Salvador. At least some of the megachurches there are closer to Baptist or fundamentalist denominations in the United States.

What I noticed in my ministry is how religious change influenced pastoral work. The Protestant children of a Catholic parent might elect not to have a funeral Mass, and they might dispense with the traditional nine days of prayer after the death of a loved one. Families were divided, acrimony accompanied religious discussion, wakes became a battleground. 

Catholicism was accused of idolatry, superstition or ignorance, by the fundamentalists. Their aggressive proselytizing, unfortunately, was not matched by the pastoral work of parishes, most of which were overtaxed with basic demands.

In my years in El Salvador, there was an average of 20,000 faithful per priest. The Protestant churches were filling up, but the Catholic parishes, especially on feast days and Holy Week, were also filled. Priests noticed the defections, but there were other things to think about.

Nevertheless, the Latin American Catholic Church’s ignoring of the Protestant explosion remains problematic. Imagine Our Lord’s parable of the shepherd who lost one sheep changed to 40 who strayed away. Even the recent Amazon synod barely touched on the fact that 46% of the Amazon region’s 34 million people are not Catholic, according to a recent report. 

The WSJ reported that the “theology of liberation” has played a part in the alienation of cradle Catholics from the Church. Based on my experience, I would certainly agree that liberation theology, despite its “preferential option for the poor,” deflected attention from the fact that many of the poor were defecting to join Protestant groups. 

I remember a religious order missionary from the states telling me that his order sponsored the building of houses in a poor slum in Venezuela. When he visited, he was surprised at the storefront churches where former Catholics gathered to pray. “You have helped us with houses,” said a woman. “They have promised us heaven.”

Utopia or salvation? Individual salvation is easier to preach, and in many “evangelical” circles this was combined with the preaching of the “Prosperity Gospel,” the idea that the Lord rewards those who follow him with material comfort and wealth. It was a message of hope for some poor people, who did not seem to mind that some of the major preachers were living high. (The proof was in his obvious success: God will bless you materially.)

Protestantism has always been associated with individualism, especially the belief that every person can read and interpret the Bible without the benefit of clergy for guidance or interpretation. Individualism understood in terms of material success is a lot easier to grasp than liberation theology’s complicated theories of social justice and development. Tithing is a bet on future prosperity, apparently sanctioned by the Bible.

The Church was and is divided in Latin America, and much time and effort is expended in internal struggles. This is something you can read between the lines of the Latin American bishops’s 2007 Aparecida document, where “traditionalist” resistance to the Second Vatican Council is ranked as more of a problem for the Church than the tsunami of defections to the Protestant churches. The fractiousness of the Catholic polity in El Salvador has resulted in three separate seminaries breaking off the national seminary since the 1970s. There would be room for the seminarians in the enormous San José de la Montaña complex, but the bishops are divided on who should teach and what to future priests.

Another problem is that the preparation of priests for the onslaught of biblical fundamentalism was poor. There were no courses in Protestant theology or apologetics, and the clergy were not always knowledgeable of the Scriptures, or “biblically fluent,” as some would say. 

Once on a priest retreat, I walked by three of my colleagues in a discussion and one of them, a former vicar general, said, “Let’s ask Ricardo [me] if he ever heard of it.” The question was whether I knew the term “Armageddon.” 

“The final battle predicted in Revelation,” I answered. “See,” said the former vicar general, who had once been an eminence grise in his diocese, “he heard of it. They must study that in the United States.”

French philosopher Jean Guitton said in the 1960s that the Protestant Reformation was conducive to the secularization of civilization in the West. My anecdotal estimation of Protestant growth in El Salvador is that the children of ex-Catholics do not always commit to their parents’ denominations. Nor do they return to Mother Church. Instead, and perhaps more troublingly, they become “nones,” not identified with any specific denomination and only vaguely Christian in their worldview, which is not always coherent. 

Where will these trends end? In El Salvador, Protestant churches are growing every day. The influence of the Catholic Church is weak. The younger generation does not look to the Church for guidance, and TikTok is more of an influencer than the Catholic clergy. The current president is a Muslim. Secularism is ascendant. While the Church has canonized Archbishop Oscar Romero and beatified others considered advocates of social justice during the years of civil turmoil, there are few signs of a Catholic revival in the region. 

The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, our Lord promised. But that does not mean there won’t be tough times in the short and medium term. To steal a line from our liturgy, “Let us pray.”