Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Happenings in Brazil

First, and more briefly, there's a story about the ongoing struggle of indigenous peoples in Brazil to reclaim land they once held. The article, while brief, hits upon all the issues at hand with the indigenous movement in Brazil - efforts to undo decades-old illegal land seizures, the government's past maltreatment of indigenous rights, farmer/indigenous struggles, use of the environment, racism, everything. Additionally, the story has extra interest, given that the recent reduction of the Brazilian government's environmental agency means indigenous peoples will be one of the most important groups at environmental protection. And for those maybe interested in the historical roots of the selling off of indigenous lands and their efforts to reclaim their lands, I give my HIGHEST recommendation that you check out Seth Garfield's book on the Xavante Indians.

Secondly, I would be slightly remiss to mention, in case you hadn't heard, that the pope is in Brazil. Not surprisingly, controversy has immediately erupted, as he goes after abortion again (nothing new here). In a rather novel idea for many United States politicians, Lula has announced that, while he does not personally "morally" approve of abortion, he is openly aware that it is a health need that the state should protect. While this is far from an open "legalize abortion" campaign on his part (which, to be slightly fair, would be a political disaster for him), it's far more than the Catholic Church will acknowledge, and thus, on day one, church and state have already butted heads here.

Of far more interst from the analytical point is exactly what the pope' s visit means to Brazilians. Ever since the 1960s, when Brazil was at the forefront of the budding liberation theology movement, Brazil has often diverged from doctrinal Catholic practices, particularly in philosophy and in liturgical practices (liberation theology hasn't even gone fully away, despite John Paul II's efforts). Many sectors of the media are covering the story from the aspect of "Pope trying to re-gather the flock in the wake of conversions to evangelicism and more evangelical-based liturgical services in the Catholic Church" (yet another example of the Church's efforts to be flexible and modernize to shepherd the flock. In an aside, the media in Brazil hasn't helped, tending to villify evangelical protestant churches and practitioners instead of actually addressing the shortcomings of the Catholic Church. Look, I'm no fan of evangelical religions, but if some guy in the rural areas finally overcomes his 20+-year bout with alcoholism and both he and his family are the happiest they've ever been, all because of evangelical beliefs, I'm not going to tell him, "sorry, you're wrong and damned, socially and spiritually".)

However, what's the most intersting to me is those individuals who are left out of the discussion altogether - the non-practicing (of any religion) in Brazil. I can't tell you how many people from my generation and younger I've talked to who completely refuse any religion. They almost always attribute this at least partly, if not fully, to their Catholic upbringing. And this isn't some teenage rebellion thing - the strictness, devotion, and fanaticism (I doubt Bill Donohue is going to be coming after little old me anyways) of the church (and sometimes of their family members) has not only driven them away from Catholicism, it's driven them away from religion altogether. Programming and shifting practices to the pious behavior of people like Marcelo Rossi don't help, and sometimes hurt even more the youth's interest in religion ("As if Catholicism weren't bad enough, now it's also looking like evangelicism. Get me out of here!"). Certainly, I have also met many people (some from the same traditional Catholic families that others have fled from) who still participate actively in the Catholic church, or in evangelical processes. Yet the tendency to view the Pope's visit as a mission to reconcile the growing presence of evangelicals in (still) dominatingly-Catholic Latin America ignores the complexity of and problems posed by those who have left the church and not gone to any other church. If Catholicism actually wants to address why its numbers are dropping (and if it doesn't, I don't care - I have numerous problems with the Church myself, to put it lightly), the number of converts to non-believing is one more example that, instead of blaming evangelicals, the church should look inwards a little more deeply.