Last week, Argentina became the first Latin America country to legalize abortion. The Senate approved the bill two years after it rejected a similar effort two years ago. The bill allows women to legally end pregnancies for any reason up to 14 weeks. After that, it makes exceptions for rape and the health of the women. It also makes abortions free in public hospitals.

Also home of the first Latin American pope, Argentina’s Catholic population has declined in recent years according to a study from the National Scientific and Technical Research Council. In 2019, around 63 percent of the population identified as Catholic, a 13 percent point drop since 2008. The two growing religious groups: evangelicals, who now make up 15 percent of the population, and the nones, or those who don’t identify with any faith, who are now at 19 percent.

Josue Fernandez is based in Argentina and serves as the regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at Overseas Council, a ministry of United World Mission that works to train and educate church leaders around the world by partnering with local seminaries. He has helped pastor Christian and Missionary Alliance congregations in Buenos Aires and Queens. He is also the Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean for GATE, a ministry which supports seminary faculty members.

Fernandez joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen on this week’s episode to discuss the religious future of Argentina, the type of influence the church has on the region at large, and the events that have led to the dramatic decline of the Catholic Church.

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Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee and Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode 246

What makes Argentina very similar to other Latin American countries and what makes it very unique from the others?

Josue Fernandez: Well, with the similarities, there’s the language and history—almost all Latin American countries have Hispanic traditions. Most of our countries were conquered by Spain, and then most of them had to fight for freedom. So that is something very common between Argentina and the rest of the countries in Latin America.

The Latino culture is another very important thing that we share with other countries in Latin American, and, of course, religion—most of our countries have a Roman Catholic background in terms of religion that came with the Spaniard conquest.

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Our history has some uniqueness in the sense that most of our population is integrated by immigration. I mean, you can easily divide Argentina geographically according to the immigration waves that came from Europe.

If you go to the northeast of Argentina, you will find people from Germany, Holland, Switzerland, those kinds of countries. Then if you go to the northwest of Argentina, there's a strong influence from the indigenous group from Bolivia, the Syrian-Lebanese immigration, and Jewish immigration. When you go to the center of Argentina, Spanish and Italian influence is strong, and when you go to the south, you have Wales and British influence. So Argentina is very diverse in terms of its immigration background.

The other thing is the fact that geopolitically- and culturally-speaking, Argentina has always looked to Europe. Most of the rest of the countries in Latin America look to the US., to North America, but for Argentinians, Europe is the ideal—France especially. The French culture has had a lot of influence on Argentina culturally-speaking. Many Argentinians dream about moving to Europe, and many of them are living up there.

Argentina is also a country that has a very strong European influence from the production perspective. It is very strong in terms of its industrial development and agriculture. Just to give you an example, we produce our own cars. We don't import cars. If you go to any other country in Latin America, you will mostly find cars imported from Japan and Korea, but in our case, most of our cars are built here in Argentina. So then that speaks to something very unique about our country.

You mentioned the amazing cultural diversity in Argentina. Was the Catholic church something that helped unified everyone in that diversity?

Josue Fernandez: At one point in history, yes. But it's interesting that in some areas of the country, like the northeast and the south, the Protestant church also has had a lot of influence.

There’s been a significant drop-off of Argentinians identifying as Catholic, however, data has also shown that the identification as Catholic didn’t match church attendance anyway. Have the Protestants had a similar issue of people identifying, but not necessarily attending church and practicing their faith?

Josue Fernandez: Well, one thing is that when you talk about evangelicals in Latin America, you have to understand that almost 90% of evangelicals in Latin America are Pentecostal charismatic. So one of the characteristics, especially of Pentecostals, is that they're high commitment with the church, high commitment with the values of the church, high commitment with the beliefs of the church, commitment with the mission of the church. So considering your question from that perspective, you find that most evangelicals are regular attendants to church.

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Probably in the last year that has changed. I don't have numbers to prove that, but when I see my own church, I can tell you that. I mean, we have 1,200 people as members. Probably 700 of them attend regularly.

But in the case of the Catholic church, in 2008 research made by the government showed that only 9% of Catholics attend church regularly. And that research showed that most Catholics didn't agree with the beliefs, the values, and the teachings of the church, especially when you consider issues like abortion, homosexuality, and things like that.

As more Argentinians identify as Protestant or evangelical, are they typically coming straight from being practicing Catholics, or do they tend to have held a loose association or from the Catholic side? Do you tend to see people move from strong believer to strong believer or are more coming from that “none” space?

Josue Fernandez: I would say most of them have lost any kind of connection with the Catholic church. They have experienced some kind of deception with the church, they have not found what they were looking for in the church, so they decided to abandon the church but then they find themselves in need of something spiritual or they have a problem in which they need help. And in some cases, the Catholic church has not been responsive to that, so they try the evangelical church.

According to some research, people said that they found somebody that listened to them. And they also found that evangelical services are more appealing, [people feel that] they can participate. So those are the aspects that have moved people from the Catholic church. I mean, not be now situation to be involved with the church.

The Catholic abuse scandal has played a role in really disillusioning people in countries like Ireland and the US. Was the abuse scandal as large in Argentina as it was in other parts of the world?

Josue Fernandez: It has had some impact, but that has not been the main one. Historically speaking one of the challenges that the Catholic church has faced is the relationship with the political world. In many cases, the authorities in the Catholic church found themselves making commitments or agreements with political factions in the country political factions that committed crimes and committed abuses.

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From 1978 to 1983, we had a military coup and a military government that had many cases of abuse, and it is known that the Catholic church supported that, even many priests were involved in the illegal detention camps that the army had in different parts of the country.

So I would say that the abuse scandals had some weight, but most has been the political involvement of the Catholic church with different political factions. I mean, even Pope Francis [before his appointment], his position during the military government was not that strong, and many people in Argentina expected more from him during that time.

Did his appointment to Pope have any influence on the growth or vitality of the Catholic church?

Josue Fernandez: At the beginning, we saw it with very positive eyes, and we thought a renewal is coming to the Catholic church in Argentina. Even we evangelicals celebrated that. And there were very positive signs at the beginning, but after a few months, that was diluted and it's like everything came back to what it used to be.

I have been reading some statistics about this historical decline of the Catholic church in Latin America, and when Pope Francis was appointed, everybody said that decline was going to stop, but the latest statistics show that it has not affected at all.

So the decline continues, and the statistics show that Brazil, in the coming years, is going to be the first country that the evangelicals are going to be the majority.

One of the major Pentecostal church groups in Brazil is The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which is very prosperity-gospel leaning and has other teachings other evangelicals would not be very positive about. Is there a lot of crossover between the Brazilian Pentecostals and prosperity gospel groups and Argentinian ones? Or does the Brazilian-Portuguese culture and the Argentinian-Latin culture keep that from happening?

Josue Fernandez: There are big similarities. And that particular church is not the only one in Brazil of this kind, and it is growing here in Argentina. It is growing very fast. We evangelicals tend to question their teachings and beliefs, but their approach in terms of getting closer to people's needs is very important because they respond to what people are looking for.

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Our countries are hit by poverty, by misery, and people are trying to find their way to get out of that. And suddenly on TV, you have somebody preaching to you about how to get out of that, how to change, how to live a different life. You can stop being poor—that's a strong message.

I have traveled all over Latin America, I have been in Haiti, I have been in Jamaica—one of the poorest countries in the region—and you find these groups preaching there. Why do these groups have big churches here in these poor countries? Because they preach about something that people are desperate for: We want to stop being poor. Give us how we can get out of this misery.

It's not that I support what they teach or that I agree with them, but their message is very strong and appealing to a society that is suffering from poverty, from [lack of] justice, and from oppression.

In the case of the evangelical church, the approach is more holistic. They preach about how God can help you get out of your situation, but also the evangelical church is highly involved in social efforts to relieve people—feeding children, feeding the poor, providing job opportunities, trying to help people start businesses, helping women who are abused, things like that.

How do evangelicals in Argentina engage in politics? Has their level of involvement changed over time? And what are evangelicals in Latin America being influenced with regarding their political support? Are they looking to American or European evangelicals for their models on how to handle politics?

Josue Fernandez: Well, political involvement in Argentina is new in the sense of occupying government seats or being involved with political parties. This is new, but it's growing.

What has happened is that the political parties in Argentina in the last years—I would say in the last 10 years—have discovered the growth of the evangelical church. So what they have decided to do is to start coming to the local evangelical churches, knocking on doors, and trying to start some kind of relationship. More in terms of if you join us, if you support us, we will provide you. If you have a feeding program for street children, we will provide you with help for that. If you need to continue the construction of your church, we will provide you with this or that so you can complete your building.

So the political parties are trying to find strategies to expand their influence. So they have seen how the evangelical church is growing and how they need to approach them to gain support.

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So what I would say is that the influence of the evangelical church is not more in terms of what the political parties or the political powers do, but more in terms of gaining support from the political parties to continue doing what they are doing.

In the introduction, we mentioned that there was a bill that had tried to legalize abortion a couple of years ago and it had failed. Can you give us a little bit more context on how long pro-choice advocates have been trying to push for this law and why you think it passed this time?

Josue Fernandez: Well, as you can imagine, this is a difficult issue for me to speak about. You are asking me about this question at a moment that I am feeling high levels of disappointment, of course. As you can imagine, but I’ll try to be as objective as possible with my response and my thinking because you deserve that.

Abortion has been a big issue for many years. This is not new. On many occasions, this same bill was at Congress, but it didn't pass. What is the difference between then and now? Has become a more serious situation in Argentina? No, it has not changed in terms of how many women are dying by abortion. What has changed is the political atmosphere.

We are now under a populous government, and this populous government found abortion was a way for them to get more political support from some highly politically involved groups. That's why our president, when he was in his campaign in 2017, promised that this abortion bill was going to be one of his priorities. So behind all of this is a lot of political opportunity and financial opportunity.

Of course, with that, you will have the decline of the influence of the church in what people believe. People have developed their own thinking towards issues like abortion or any others. So that's also an aspect to consider behind this.

And isn’t there also a growing feminist movement in the country?

Josue Fernandez: Yes, that's very strong. I mean, it's not a big group, but this group has found a very important seat in the agenda of our government at this moment. Many of the feminist leaders are government officials.

If you can read all the decisions that the government made in the first year, the feminist movement is having a lot of influence. I mean, we haven't seen this in the last 20, 25 years in Argentina. Just in two years, it's amazing that what they have come conquered in our country.

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What are some of the new issues that pastors in Argentina are having to deal with in terms of pastoral care or in terms of theology that are unique to the country?

Josue Fernandez: Let me start by saying the evangelical church in general—and probably this is the case of the Catholic church—they have had problems understanding that Argentina is a highly educated country. We have very strong university centers all over the country. Many people from all over the continent come here to study at our universities.

At the same time, most of our universities are controlled by humanistic thinking. So that means that every time that you think about doing ministry, either evangelical or Catholic church, you have to understand that if you want to reach this educated society, you need to be prepared to do that.

If you want to reach the people that influence the country, the highly educated people, you cannot do what the universal church does because this group, this part of the society, they don't feel appeal by a gospel that is only talking about healing and prosperity. They are looking for something more elaborate, more sophisticated, from an intellectual perspective. So pastors in Argentina face that challenge.

The evangelical church faces that challenge because historically our message has been appealing to the poor in the society and not those that are highly educated and probably highly influential in the country. So the main challenge that the evangelical church faces is how to develop the kind of message that would really reach the areas of society that really need to find purpose or significance for their lives but also need to be approached with a different kind of lens.

What type of religious expressions, communities, and faiths are Argentina’s young people attracted to?

Josue Fernandez: It depends. It has a relationship with the question that we were talking about before. The young educated have the tendency to be out of the church. Those that are not educated, most of them tend to be involved with the church.

That’s why we have university campus Christian movements, trying to reach young people inside the university campus for Christ because, in general terms, the youth that are educated tend to be more humanistic and they don't attend churches like the ones that are not educated.

How would you encourage our listeners to pray for the church in Argentina?

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Josue Fernandez: I think that the church in Argentina needs to come back to discipleship, to understand what is real transformation. Of course, we are doing ministry among people that have a lot of financial problems, family problems, and all of that—and I know and agree that we have to address that people are sick, people are drug addicts, involved with violence and crime and all of that—but also, we need to come back to real discipleship and lead people to become like Christ.

The second thing is that the Lord help the church in Argentina to understand what transformation means in terms of society? You were asking me about the political involvement of the evangelical church. Well, I think that the church in Argentina has not understood very well the meaning of being an influence and an element of transformation in society without compromising your beliefs or compromising what you think. The gospel of Jesus Christ in itself has the power to produce transformation in a society and the evangelical church in Argentina needs to understand that and come back to that.