Proclaiming a “new evangelization,” Latin America’s Catholic bishops have adopted a more Christ-centered strategy to rebuild their flocks and stem the flow of millions of people to nonmainline denominations.

The new approach won approval at the bishops’ historic three-week October assembly in which Pope John Paul II called for stronger missionary efforts. The session issued a report, “New Evangelization, Human Promotion, Christian Culture: Jesus Christ Yesterday, Today, and Forever.”

The long debates over the document’s contents, however, stirred old tensions on several issues. For example, the bishops split on how to observe the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the Americas. Along with the Pope, some saw the commemoration as a chance to repent for abuses committed in converting native peoples and African slaves. Others embraced Catholic triumphalism, symbolized in Santo Domingo’s massive, multimillion-dollar monument to Christopher Columbus. Shaped like a cross, the memorial was built by the government of the Dominican Republic, which evicted thousands of the poor to make room.

A Church In Panic?

Similar contention swirled around ecumenism, signaling the growing potential for conflict between the Roman Church and the “sects,” as many Latin American clerics refer to an assortment of Pentecostal, fundamentalist, and quasi-Christian groups.

“Many people in the Catholic Church are now in panic,” said Ricardo Pietrantonio, a pastor from Buenos Aires and a representative of the World Lutheran Federation. Catholic leaders have had the attitude that Latin America was their “property,” a false assumption, Pietrantonio said.

Pietrantonio and other mainline Protestants accepted a Vatican invitation to come to Santo Domingo as observers, ...

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