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 CNS Story:

AMERICAS-POLL Jun-23-2005 (490 words) xxxi

In Latin America, Catholics down, church's credibility up, poll says

By Barbara J. Fraser
Catholic News Service

LIMA, Peru (CNS) -- The number of Catholics in the world's most Catholic region has dropped off slightly, but the church's credibility in Latin America remains high among people of all faiths, according to a survey by the Chilean polling firm Latinobarometro.

The survey said that 71 percent of South Americans consider themselves Catholic, down from 80 percent in 1995, while the percentage who consider themselves evangelical or Protestant rose from 3 percent to 13 percent in the same period.

In a region buffeted by corruption scandals, economic crises and social unrest, many people view presidents, legislatures and political parties with distrust. The church, however, enjoys the confidence of 73 percent of Latin Americans.

Because of that credibility, church leaders are often called in to mediate political and social conflicts. The Bolivian bishops' conference played a key role in bringing protesters and government officials to the negotiating table during the recent upheaval that led to the resignation of President Carlos Mesa and his replacement by the head of the Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodriguez.

In Peru, Sacred Heart Father Gaston Garatea, who heads the country's national antipoverty task force, recently helped calm a conflict between community organizations and a mining company in the highlands of southern Peru.

When countries are "up to their necks in political, social and economic problems, people turn to the church and we take on the difficult role of mediator. That's what we are here for," said Venezuelan Archbishop Baltazar Porras Cardozo of Merida.

The Latinobarometro survey underscored one concern that the region's bishops expressed at the assembly of the Latin American bishops' council, known as CELAM, held in Lima in May. Although nearly three-quarters of the region's people consider themselves Catholic, only 40 percent said they practice their faith. The rate is highest, about 48 percent, in Central America, and lowest, 37 percent in the southern countries of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay.

There has been a significant drop in the past decade in Mexico, where 31 percent of the country's Catholics said they practice their faith, compared to more than 60 percent in 1995. In Venezuela, the number of practicing Catholics has fallen by 14 points over the last 10 years, to 37 percent.

In contrast, 70 percent of Latin Americans who belong to other Christian churches said that they practice their faith.

In response to this phenomenon, the fifth conference of CELAM, which is planned for early 2007, will focus on discipleship and on building the Latin American church's missionary outreach.

"The encounter with Jesus Christ cannot remain an individual matter," said Mexican Bishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Texcoco, first vice president of CELAM. "Jesus didn't call one disciple -- he called a community of disciples. This community of disciples must express the consistency of its faith in the various spheres of the world."


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