Readers are probably aware of the common quip that the Catholic church in Latin America decided to have a preferential option for the poor, and the poor decided to have a preferential option for Pentecostalism. Conservotrads and traditionalists use the huge inroads made by Pentecostalism and evangelicalism in general in Latin America as proof that the liturgical and theological laxness of the post-Vatican II church was/is driving away people who just wanted Jesus and not Marxism in Christian clothing (i.e., liberation theology). But is this a correct assessment? Let’s take a look.
First of all, it’s worth mentioning that until recently, the Catholic church had a religious monopoly in Latin America. If you were in the lower classes and didn’t care for Catholicism, your best bet was to get involved with a sycretistic religion like Candomblé in Brazil or Santeria in Cuba. Much like Europe, the bishops tended to be white and of aristocratic backgrounds; the idea of a black or indigenous Roman Catholic bishop would still be considered risible in the 2015, much less 1935. To put it bluntly, the poor, black, and/or indigenous populations in Latin America didn’t have any illusions that the church had any kind of preferential option for them or that the bishops represented their interests. The Leonardo Boff trial was a cause célèbre in Brazil, and he had a lot of support from Brazilians of all walks of life. Clearly, Boff was saying something that was touching a nerve in Latin America.
Now here I’m going to do something unexpected and agree with the common conservotrad complaint about the effects of bad catechesis, because I think it’s true in the case of Latin America. The people at the bottom of the social pyramid in Latin America were more often just baptized, taught a couple of basic prayers and then left to their own devices, so long as they paid lip service to Catholicism. This explains why syncretism was accepted in African slaves Latin America, but much less so among African slaves in Protestant North America. When a single religious group of any kind has a monopoly on religious expression, it’s possible to let certain things slide, because they don’t affect the status quo. For example, during the Renaissance it was completely acceptable to paint a bunch of naked people on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, because it could easily be assimilated into the Catholic humanism of the time, and not be seen as subversive. Once the Reformation and Counter-Reformation set in, art and scholarship had to become more conservative. Going back to Latin America, Protestant missionaries were probably able to take advantage of this educational neglect and use it as evidence to potential converts that the Catholic church was keeping “the truth” away from them.
Another aspect we have to keep in mind about Pentecostalism is that it tapes into ideas that are already present in Latin American culture. Although Protestantism in general tends to frown upon anything that smacks of syncretism, many aspects of Latin American culture can be easily translated into Pentecostalism. Latin American musical forms can be used in Pentecostal services, as well as drums, guitars, and other instruments considered “profane” by white conservotrad and traditionalist Catholics. Dancing, another conservotrad/traditionalist no-no, is also considered a legitimate form of expression in Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism also has a heavy emphasis on contact with the spirit realm, which is a constant concern for many individuals throughout the developing world. Perhaps most importantly, anyone can set up a Pentecostal church and preach, without having to get permission from Rome. The SSPX would certainly agree with Pentecostals in this regard, since I have a feeling that for all their rhetoric to the contrary, they really like being able to do their own thing without having to run it by Rome. Readers may be interested in this lengthy but informative Pew Research Report on the Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity from a global perspective:
Those Latin Americans who are inclined to become Pentecostals would have done so whether Vatican II had happened or not. Going back to the example of Brazil, the second great expansion of Pentecostalism in that country occurred in the 1950s and early 1960s (i.e., pre-Vatican II). If you honestly think that the Catholic church is “the True Church” and that the Tridentine Latin Mass is the best way to worship god, you aren’t going to become a Pentecostal, no matter what. I remember asking some of the older people at St F what they did after Vatican II, and many of them said they just stopped going to mass, period. If you’re in the “Latin Mass or nothing at all” group, you won’t be going to a Protestant church of any type for any reason, because they lack the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Conversely, Pentecostals will view Catholicism, especially traditionalism, as “dead ritual” and “popery” of the worst kind. Traditionalist Catholicism and Pentecostalism are two very different animals, with different theologies, ecclesiologies, and liturgical styles, and you’d have to have some kind of theological conversion to go from one to the other.
Now I don’t believe that Pentecostalism is any more true than Catholicism, but the idea among conservotrads and traditionalists that Latin America somehow “belongs” to them is grossly arrogant, not to mention culturally imperialist. The rigid Eurocentrism that is trumpeted by conservotrads and traditionalist as “real Catholicism” is why Pentecostalism is so attractive to people in the developing world. If you have to look like an Abercrombie and Fitch model to be considered an “orthodox” Catholic but you like in the favelas of Sao Paolo, why bother?