SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Pope John Paul II opened a key Latin American bishops meeting by sounding alarm bells over the phenomenal growth of Protestant evangelical groups in the region, which he likened to "voracious wolves" threatening the Roman Catholic flock.
In his opening speech to the IV Latin American Conference of Bishops, a 17-day meeting that is to set policy guidelines for Latin America's Roman Catholic Church for the next few years, the pope also expressed his hope yesterday that the fall of communism in Eastern Europe would move people in this hemisphere "to make the logical deductions about the ephemeral value of such ideologies."
Reflecting the Vatican's concern over the growing numbers of Latin American Catholics who are defecting to Protestant evangelical churches, the pope called on the more than 250 cardinals and bishops attending the conference to launch a "new evangelism" effort to reverse the trend.
"The new evangelism is the central idea that will be discussed in this conference," Pope John Paul told the leaders of 22 Latin American bishops conferences attending the meeting. Previous CELAM conferences in 1968 in Medellin, Colombia, and 1979 in Puebla, Mexico, had focused mostly on such social issues as the church's commitment to the poor.
Referring to Protestant evangelical groups as "sects," the pope urged Latin American church leaders to "defy the expansion and aggressiveness" of the new religions. He also suggested that the evangelical groups, mostly funded by members in the United States, were following a "clearly defined strategy" to divide Latin American countries by undermining their common Catholic culture.
"Following the example of the Good Shepherd, you should care for the flock with which you have been entrusted and defend it from the voracious wolves," he said. "The sects and pseudo-spiritual movements are, as you well know, cause of division and discord in your church communities."
The pope said the "gains made by the sects" reflected in part a failure by the Roman Catholic Church to reach the people. The "new evangelism" campaign should move priests to get out into the homes of the people and allow a more active participation of the parishioners in church decisions.
In what some bishops interpreted as a veiled criticism of the United States, the pope said, "one cannot underestimate a clearly defined strategy whose objective is to weaken the ties that link Latin American countries, and to thus undermine the strength that is born from unity." He added, "Large economic resources are being spent to fund persuasion campaigns, whose goal is to break Catholic unity."
Left-of-center Catholic groups have long contended that the U.S. government is sponsoring or helping well-funded evangelical groups in Latin America, which tend to be politically conservative. Many mainstream church officials have come to share these suspicions.
"I am convinced that the U.S. government is either directly or indirectly helping these sects," said Monsignor Hector Gutierrez, a Colombian bishop who is the spokesman for the CELAM conference. "The U.S. government has a political interest in keeping Latin America divided and weakened."
Between 25 and 50 percent of the Catholics in some countries such as Guatemala, Brazil and Chile have defected to Protestant evangelical groups over the past 20 years, according to CELAM sources.