Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mexico losing Catholics - even as relics of John Paul II are circulated

Mexico has been a profoundly Roman Catholic country since it declared independence 201 years ago. Not a surprising fact, since it was part of the colonial empire of Spain for centuries. A Mexican priest, Miguel Hidalgo, gave the rallying cry which began the war of independence on the morning of September 16, 1810 (

Today nominal Catholics account for 83% of the Mexican population, although far fewer actively participate in church affairs. But one student of religious trends in Mexico predicts that by 2040, that number will have been reduced to 67% -- a membership forecast which is unnerving to church leaders within the country and internationally.

Sociologist Elio Masferrer, a professor at Mexico's National School of Anthropology and History, says the signs of decreasing commitment to Catholic traditions can already be seen in fewer baptisms, first communions, confirmations and weddings within the church.

Why is this occurring? Masferrer argues that the Catholic church has "enthroned itself as a conservative institution steeped in tradition, and it is therefore paralyzed in the face of sweeping social, political, economic and cultural changes" over which it has no control. The sociologist says that Mexican bishops in particular are "unable to read the signs of the times," resulting in defections.

Beyond these factors, numerous non-Catholic denominations have greatly accelerated their missionary work and proselytization activities in Mexico in recent years. They often have better grass-roots organizational skills than do local Catholic groups, and their followers are highly motivated.

Masferrer claims that the church is resorting to extraordinary methods to hold onto its existing faithful, and perhaps even to gain a few new ones. Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, was recently beatified and is now on a fast track to sainthood (beatification, or being declared "holy," is the last major step within the Catholic church before an official declaration of sainthood). Recently his relics, portions of physical remains such as drops of blood in a vial, have been on a worldwide tour to promote the impending event (they were here in Merida several weeks ago). Masferrer sees a secondary purpose in the highly touted tour -- that of stirring anew the faith of traditional (usually older) Catholics, while soliciting new members at the same time.

Masferrer says that ultimately, each Catholic parish in Mexico is in charge of its own recruiting. The challenge they are facing is to make the church a contemporary social force that still has relevance for Mexicans, just as it did for most of the last two centuries.

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