A woman looks at a postcard with a photograph of Pope
Benedict XVI inside a church store in Panama City.
As throngs of costumed revelers celebrated Brazil's
Carnival festivities, a trickle of decidedly more sober people
entered Nossa Senhora da Paz, a Catholic church two blocks from
a packed beach in Rio de Janeiro.
While the churchgoers prayed, the revelers outside drank
beer, beat drums and flirted in a days-long party known for
such debauchery that local officials hand out free condoms.
True, the city isn't always as crazy as it is during the
annual revelry Of Carnival.
Also true, though, is that the near-empty church, one of the
few quiet spots in Rio this week, tends to a shrinking flock
of Catholic faithful. Brazil has the world's biggest Catholic
population but the Church is steadily losing its influence,
here and across much of Latin America.
"There's nothing wrong with having fun," says Henrique
Pereira, a 35-year-old businessman leaving the church after a
prayer. "But I wish people valued faith and the Church as
This is the landscape awaiting the successor to Pope
Benedict, who said on Monday he would step down.
If his goal is to retain Catholic churchgoers or even attract
new faithful in a region undergoing profound cultural, social
and economic change, a new pontiff must find ways to wed
doctrine with contemporary Latin American lifestyles.
While the region is still home to more Catholics than any
other, boasting 42 percent of the 1.2 billion faithful, the
numbers have dwindled in recent decades.
As Latin America grows more prosperous, more urban and more
educated, people are less pliant to a religion that once held
a firm grip on believers in locales as diverse as the pampas
of Argentina and the parched pueblos of northern Mexico.
"Latin America is becoming more like the rest of the Western
world and in that sense less homogenous when it comes to
faith," said Fernando Altemeyer, a theology professor at the
Catholic University of Sao Paulo. "There are changes in
society here that make it hard for any one faith or belief to
The transformation, of course, is happening elsewhere too, as
growth in big, emerging economies empowers millions once
segregated by poverty, geography, and social strictures. Cell
phones and the Internet are also bringing the world to once
Latin America has long been a Catholic stronghold and there
is growing talk that the next pope could be from the region,
a nod to its importance inside the Church.
The Church's internal theological differences have often
played out in Latin America. Indeed, as a cardinal, Pope
Benedict quashed a rebellion among those in the Latin
American Church who supported so-called liberation theology,
a left-leaning movement focused on helping the poor.
Along with other tensions, the rift was later compounded by
the recent growth of Evangelical denominations.
For many across Latin America, evangelical churches are
attractive because they preach success and prosperity in this
life, as opposed to the sacrifice and struggle that Catholics
are taught to endure. Many churchgoers also say they prefer
Evangelical pastors, who shed the robes and ritual of
Catholic mass for casual attire and free-form sermons.
Aware of that challenge, some of the Catholic leadership in
Latin America has long pushed the church to modernise.
"I dream of a pope free from the titles of nobility, of
crowns, of palaces," Eduardo de la Serna, an Argentine
priest, wrote in Página 12, a Buenos Aires daily. "I dream of
a pope who presents himself as everyone's brother."
Pope Benedict, to be sure, acknowledged the pressure by
describing a Church that today exists to "propose" beliefs,
not to "impose" them. And some of the cardinals who will be
electing his successor, including several from Latin America,
hail from some of Catholicism's more progressive ranks.
Still, change in the Church is slow.
For every guitar-strumming priest seeking to make mass more
fun - Brazil's Father Marcelo Rossi fills stadiums and
recently penned a bestselling book - many others criticize
efforts to make the Church more palatable.
"We should live more consistently with faith," warned Joaquin
Diez Esteban, a prominent Peruvian priest, in an interview.
"Faith shouldn't be a feeling, like it so often is in Latin
America ... more popular religiosity than deep conviction."
The debate over modernization is common in Brazil, Latin
America's biggest country and an ethnic melting pot with some
of the world's more tolerant views on sex, race and religion.
There are 120 million Catholics in Brazil - about 65 percent
of the population, compared with over 90 percent in 1970. But
much of the affiliation, theologians warn, is due to family
and cultural ties - not active participation in the church.
"Belief in the Church is different now than it was when it
was one of the few functioning institutions anywhere," said
Altemeyer, the professor in Sao Paulo.
Those at Nossa Senhora da Paz on Monday said they welcome the
chance for change.
After pausing to pray before a stone crucifix, Ana Beatriz
Couto de Andrade, a 35-year-old software consultant, said a
new pope should make the church more inclusive.
"Many people want something to believe in, but they feel like
the church is not accessible," she said.
By choosing Benedict, a church enforcer whose theological
strengths surpassed his ability to connect with followers,
some said the Vatican may have marginalized parishioners who
already felt out of step with the Church.
"You need someone charismatic," said Mercio Franco Maturano,
a 51-year-old lawyer. "This pope didn't inspire."
Even longtime parishioners said they see room in the Church
for changes that would embrace those that currently feel
"It doesn't matter who you love, what you look like or who
you sleep with," said Ary David de Almeida, an 83-year-old
retiree. "The Church should realise that the world is
changing and learn to make adjustments for that."