SANTIAGO, Chile (ChurchMilitant.com) - The number of Catholics in Latin America has been plummeting, and the "Francis Effect," as a native son raised to the papacy, as of now has not slowed the trend.
In 2006, a survey by the Pontifical Catholic University found that 70% of all Chileans identified as Catholics. In 2019 that number has shrunk to 45%. This mass-disaffiliation, analysts suggest, is fueled by one of the worst clerical abuse scandals of the 21st century.
In a country of 18 million people, there are currently more than 150 clerical sex abuse cases on the books. In May 2018, after a three-day meeting at the Vatican, all Chilean bishops offered their resignations to Pope Francis. As a result, according to researchers, only 26% of Chilean Catholics now express confidence in the Church, and just 9% express confidence in their priests and bishops.
Pope Francis inflamed the crisis when he accused abuse survivors of "slander" during his visit to the country in 2018. A few months later, he publicly admitted he had made a "grave error," and invited victims to Rome to ask for their forgiveness. But the damage had been done.
Across Latin America, the trend is similar, with the infiltration of Protestantism and Liberation theology accelerating the Church's decline in what was once one of the world's most Catholic regions.
As a whole, the territory is home to more than 425 million faithful — nearly 40% of the world's total Catholic population.
According to a Pew Research survey, 84% of Latin American adults report they were raised Catholic. The number who identify as Catholic today is 69%.
This pattern is reversed among those in the region and those who identify as Protestants and with no religion. Less than 10% of Latin Americans were raised in Protestant churches, but 19% now describe themselves as Protestant. And while only 4% of Latin Americans were raised without a religious affiliation, twice as many are religiously unaffiliated today.
When the survey asked former Catholics why they converted to Protestantism, the top reason was they were seeking a more personal connection with God. This movement away from Catholicism typically happened during youth. In most countries surveyed, most Catholic-to-Protestant converts say they left their Catholic faith before the age of 25. Pentecostalism has had a great effect on young Catholics seeking to know God.
Christianity took root in Latin America in modern-day Mexico with the miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the message of Juan Diego in the 16th century. In the same century the Dominicans and Franciscans brought the Catholic Faith to Chile.
For 500 years, the Catholic Church has shaped the culture and identity of Chile and most of Latin America. Yet, in just 15 years, the number of Chileans identifying as Catholics has fallen by 25%.
Some have argued that a "Francis Effect" is helping fuel the decline. Since then-Cdl. Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope in March 2013, the Church in Latin America has garnered more attention — most recently, with the highly controversial Amazon Synod.
But it is too soon to know whether or not the Francis papacy has had a positive effect on Latin America, and whether the Church can reverse the trend of defection. The Pew survey found that while a majority of Catholics in the region view Pope Francis favorably, former Catholics are much more skeptical. In every country other than Argentina and Uruguay, fewer than half of ex-Catholics approve of Francis.