Book Review: Ecumenismo, Sectas y Nuevos Movimientos Religiosos by José Luis Pérez Guadalupe

Pérez Guadalupe, José Luis. Ecumenismo, Sectas y Nuevos Movimientos Religiosos. Lima: Paulinas, 2002. Pp. 445. ISBN: 9972853179.

Reviewed by: Jeffrey Gros, F.S.C.
Memphis Theological Seminary

This important volume on Christianity in Peru includes four quite ambitious sections in one volume. The author, a lay theologian and sociologist, demonstrates both scientific clarity and a pastoral concern in the descriptions and analyses laid out here.

The first section of the book is a primer on Catholic ecumenism, one of the better kept secrets in the Latin American Catholic Church. He surveys the basic Catholic documents, the historic Eastern and Reformation churches with the factors responsible for the divisions, the institutions of the ecumenical movement, ending with a short section on the interreligious mission of the Church. This will be a helpful introduction, though unfortunately it does not treat of the forty years of Catholic dialogues with these churches and ecclesial communities since the Council.

The second and third sections of the book are the most important for an insight into Peruvian Christianity and the pastoral challenge of pluralism. The author is working from the premises that Catholic hegemony is a matter of the past, if it ever existed; that Peruvians are a religious people, so that the secularization that characterizes the north Atlantic churches does not serve as an analytical model; and that non-Catholic religions must be analyzed as religious phenomena, and not merely as sociological aberrations or intrusions from a foreign culture. Careful theological and sociological tools are used in these sections.

Section two provides a four chapter overview of sects and new religious movements in Peru. The author prefers, with the Holy See, the language of “new religious movements” (NRM) to sects for non-Catholic groups, and of “elites” to sects for Catholic lay movements, like Opus Dei, the charismatics, and liberationist groups. The first chapter reviews the definitional and analytical literature from Weber and Troeltsch to contemporary Catholic and Protestant authors, emphasizing the complexity of the problem and outlining his classification.

He concludes that people join these groups, or “change” their religion for the same reason they might join a Catholic lay apostolic movement. Their reasons are religious life-experience reasons, not doctrinal. “si Dios está en este group, quiere decir que lo que ellos piensan tiene que ser verdad” (p. 186). The normal stages of conversion are: 1) the experience of God; 2) the experience of community; and 3) the doctrine taught by the community where God has been experienced.

He organizes the Peruvian non-Catholic groups into the categories: 1) Christian; 2) groups inspired by Christianity (Mormons, Witnesses, etc.); 3) groups with non-Christian inspiration (Unification Church, Hare Krishna, etc.) While one may question where he categorizes some groups, this differentiation is helpful in approaching new religious movements, both those indigenous to Peru and in the wider analysis. The next three chapters in this section provide overviews of movements, organized by the above categorization, from the standpoint of their history, doctrine and situation in Peru.
The pastoral conclusion to section two are four: 1) the positive aspects of these movements need to be taken seriously as a challenge to Catholic weaknesses; 2) objective analysis is more helpful for Catholic pastoral practice than unreflective alarm; 3) the positive aspects are not so much doctrinal, but in the order of life, religious experience and community; and 4) one needs to recognize the distinctiveness of each movement and their attractions to Catholics, and not concentrate so exclusively on doctrinal content.

With only 5% of Catholics ecclesially engaged through regular attendance at Mass or affiliated with active parish life, the author questions whether the majority of the members of these groups have really made a conscious decision to abandon their active Catholic commitment, or rather have found the sort of religious experience that has attracted the 1% of Peruvian Catholics to active lay movements within the Church.

The third section of the book is a careful sociological study of “why the Catholics go.” The author begins with the point that the institutional Church does not necessarily “posses” the faithful, but that these persons must be treated as individuals with a conscience and a personal sense of religion and vocation (p. 291). This section has four chapters, also concluding with pastoral observations.

The first chapter deconstructs the “classical,” oversimplified arguments for the causes of Catholic loss to other groups: poverty and ignorance; external funding; structural crisis in Latin America; and the absence of priests. He then has a chapter surveying what reasons are given by Catholics today, which are a bit more realistic, ending with his own observations.

Chapter three outlines his own analysis in light of the three dimensions (personal, communal, and doctrinal); in terms of the internal process of conversion and the external process of religious affiliation. After explicating this process and paralleling it to Catholic apostolic movement affiliation, he applies it in some detail to five groups: Evangelical Christians, Adventists, the Peruvian Israelitas del Nuevo Pacto, Witnesses, and Mormons. He makes a helpful distinction between evangelization and proselytism in his analysis, though it would be enhanced with the use of definitions produced in the dialogues of the Catholic Church with evangelicals, pentecostals and the World Council of Churches.

Chapter four in this section is the most interesting and useful part of the study, with methodological applications beyond Peru. In it he summarizes a sociological study of Catholics who had joined these five groups. It lays out the data, both for comparison and for instructing the reader with more concrete self reporting on why individuals have “left” the Catholic Church.

The questions were: 1) years of membership in the new community; 2) identification with the Church before leaving the Catholic Church; 3) pastoral support received when Catholic; 4) what was the cause of moving from Catholicism to this new community, options including: a) encounter with Christ; b) testimony of life; c) true preaching and teaching; d) material or spiritual assistance; or e) community life; and 5) would you have stayed Catholic if you had the same experience that you have had in this group?.

The results are reported by community and in aggregate. The detail results are fascinating. Just to share some of the many data: Only 74.7% of the “converts” identified actively with Catholicism before their conversion. Only 83% recorded support from their Catholic Church. The majority report conversion to Christ, or preaching and teaching as their cause for change. Most striking is the 92% who would not have changed had they experienced the same encounter in their Catholic Church. These results makes clear, at least for this Peruvian sample, that the grand theories of “Catholic exodus” are unfounded in the concrete data of the lives of these religious people as they report it.

The author suggests six pastoral conclusions. First, Peruvian people are religious. Those who join a NRM are not necessarily “leaving” the Church, but are filling a religious void. Second, the problem of religious change is not one of secularization, but of a different form of expression than 50 years ago. Official Catholicism is challenged to adapt to a modern, pluralistic society. Third, the classical understanding of “society” can no longer be relied upon to provide the basic structure of “community” for the religious individual. The success of NRMs and new Catholic lay movements rely on personalization of the expression of religious community, and direct experience of God. Fourth, the NRMs and their success among Catholics is a symptom of a lack of pastoral adaptation by the Church and a positive indication of a reality that otherwise could remain hidden. Fifth, it is not a help to demonize the NRMs, or Catholics who have joined them. Rather than avoiding “the other,” Catholics need to be prepared for pluralism, dialogue and a personal experience of their own convictions. Sixth, Peruvian Catholic leadership has traditionally characterized its people as “evangelized but not catechized.” This premise must be questioned. Peruvian Catholicism is challenged to take on a kerygmatic tone in order to Christianize society and not merely to socialize Christianity.

The forth section is the least mature. It treats Peruvian religious identity in categories of “religious and ecclesial informality.” It elaborates the question in three chapters with pastoral conclusions. The pastoral conclusions in this section are two. The author suggests the need for the successful lay apostolic movements, of both left and right, to be more apostolic and world oriented than internally oriented. These “elitist” groups produce the most ecclesial committed Catholics, touching 1% of the faithful. They provide an enormous resource for this kerygmatic challenge of the Church to reach out to the majority of Peruvians untouched by the pastoral support of the Church. The second challenge is to the parish structures which often account for forty or fifty thousand persons, to serve and touch the lives of more than the two or three hundred who may avail themselves of the sacramental life offered. The author contrasts the elaborate community outreach of some of the parishes to the more enclosed traditional parishes that wait on individuals to present themselves for ministry. New community vitality is needed if the direct experience of God is to equip Catholic Christians for coping with the fragmentation of modern society.

Scholars of Peruvian society and pastoral theologians will undoubtedly find much with which to debate in one or another section of this far ranging set of studies. However, the book provides the solid sociological base for analyzing religious pluralism in Latin America and reorienting pastoral strategies from the defensive and reactive to an evangelical and lay renewal that can serve the Gospel amid a changing social climate.