If any corner of the globe should bear the imprint of Catholic values, it’s Latin America. Catholicism has enjoyed a spiritual monopoly in the region for more than 500 years, and today almost half the 1.1 billion Catholics alive are Latin Americans. Moreover, Latin Americans take religion seriously; surveys show that belief in God, spirits and demons, the afterlife, and final judgment is near-universal.
The sobering reality, however, is that these facts could actually support an "emperor has no clothes" accusation against the church. Latin America has been Catholic for five centuries, yet too often its societies are corrupt, violent, and underdeveloped. If Catholicism has had half a millennium to shape culture and this is the best it can do, one might be tempted to ask, is it really something to celebrate? Mounting defections to Pentecostalism only deepen such ambivalence.
Hondurans also point to a severe priest shortage as limiting the extent to which Catholicism took hold. With just over 400 priests, the ratio of priests to people in Honduras today is 1 to 13,000.
"At the time of independence from Spain, most of the Catholic clergy were expelled," Rodriguez said. "We had one bishop and 15 priests for the entire country."
That shortage left vast sections of the population with no regular access to the sacraments, and no meaningful catechesis. The few clergy on hand, mostly foreign missionaries, did their best, but dreams of Honduran Catholicism shaping culture in the sense that one associates with Poland under Communism, local Catholics say, was never in the cards.
Ruminating on these explanations, I’m reminded of the famous quip from G.K. Chesterton: The problem is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but rather that it’s been found difficult and never tried. Repeatedly, that’s the story I was told by Hondurans. The problem is not that Catholicism has failed, but that authentic Catholicism has never been tried.
That view would appear to have been more or less endorsed by CELAM, the Conference of Bishops of Latin American and the Caribbean. In the lineamenta for their upcoming Fifth General Conference in Brazil, the bishops flagged inadequate religious formation, a mix of Catholicism and indigenous religious practices, and a lack of coherence with Catholic beliefs among the faithful, as central challenges.