Francis in Brazil

Heard a terrific piece this week on Tom Ashbrook's "On Point" discussing the Pope's recent trip to Brazil. Some highlights:
  • Brazil (like much of Latin America) has been hemorrhaging Catholics since the 1950s. Once with 80-90% Catholic population, Catholics now account for only 55% of Brazilians (though the country's bishops peg the number at 65%.
  • New evangelical churches are picking up the former Catholic faithful, and are growing
  • Reasons for the shift include everything from the Church's support for authoritarian regimes, to its decrees against birth control to the evangelicals' boots-on-the-ground work with drug addicts and other sufferers. Also, it sounds like the evangelicals are more fun: their services are more emotional. Plus, their "prosperity gospel" promise riches to the godly.
The speculation is that Pope Francis picked Brazil for his first papal visit because it has the largest number of Catholics in the world, but also to address the drop in membership. I have to applaud both reasons. But, to be perfectly cranky about it, I shake my head that past popes just watched, without raising a ruckus, as 25%-30% of their flock drifted away. It's nice to see that Francis may may some management instincts.

The Pope has been making some good moves during this trip -- humbly asking the Brazilians to allow him to visit, advocating for spiritual values as an antidote to alienation, visiting the the poor in the favelas, and so on. But will this be enough to stem the attraction to the evangelicals' prosperity gospel? When one group promises riches, and then other side promotes the virtues of poverty, bystanders might by forgiven for asking whether a third way is possible. Can't we respect the poor while trying to make the world a better place for them?

It will be a measure of Francis's genius to find a middle way between the longstanding Catholic acceptance of the existence of poverty (exacerbated by its embrace of rapacious right-wing dictators and its allergy to birth control) and the siren song of personal success and healing offered by the evangelicals.