A Transplanted Faith

Catholicism in Latin America

The Catholic Church’s greatest evangelizing project began on January 6, 1494. On that date—the Feast of the Epiphany—a few Franciscan missionaries on the island of Hispaniola held the continent’s first Mass.

That modest ceremony set off a spectacular half-millennium of growth for the church in Latin America: by 2004, there were more than 450 million Catholics in the region (approximately 80 percent of the total population), and Catholicism has proved to be the most persistent religion in Latin America’s five-hundred-year history. Yet at the same time, the future of Latin American Catholicism is more uncertain than ever, thanks to increasing secularization, migration, growing evangelical Protestantism, and other challenges.

Several new books assess that complicated past, as well as the church’s changing present and uncertain future. John Frederick Schwaller’s The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America: From Conquest to Revolution and Beyond (NYU Press, $35, 328 pp.) and John Lynch’s New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America (Yale University Press, $35, 384 pp.) offer valuable and much-needed new surveys of church history. Edward L. Cleary’s The Rise of Charismatic Catholicism in Latin America (University Press of Florida, $74.95, 256 pp.) discusses a relatively recent development that will shape the future of the church in the region.

The focuses of the Schwaller and Lynch books are somewhat different. Schwaller’s is a highly readable and relatively concise narrative, which eschews detail in exchange for clarity and directness. It makes the case that the history of the Catholic Church is central to the history of the region as a whole. Schwaller provides a largely cohesive and authoritative narrative, which offers strong judgments about the church during each period under discussion, and seeks to highlight commonalities over regional differences.

In some instances, this approach results in oversimplification (as when Schwaller claims that the contemporary Latin American church “no longer takes an active role in politics”). Still, this problem seems inevitable when writing on a topic of such scale, and Schwaller himself acknowledges this danger in his preface. Furthermore, he offers invaluable descriptions and explanations of the development of institutional structures (as when he lays out the differences between religious orders, or explains the financial organization of the colonial church). The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America is an ideal introduction to the history of Latin America.

By contrast, Lynch’s New Worlds is perhaps better suited to readers with some prior knowledge of the region’s religious history and historiography. Lynch has a masterly way with primary sources and presents a wide variety of historical scholarship in detail. He also gives consistent attention to the question of the church’s moral legacy. Assessing the morality of the church’s various decisions and actions is a thorny problem, given that its history in Latin America spans five hundred years, colonial and national political systems, and a multitude of different cultures and value systems.

Nevertheless, the moral question is important, and Lynch makes it central to his book. He periodically examines “special subjects” where the church exhibited a “concern for justice and peace” (such as the defense of the Indians by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, the response of some theologians to the African slave trade, and liberation theology). But Lynch’s text is in no way an apology: in highlighting the role of enlightened individual Catholics, he also calls out the institutional church for its moral failings—its acceptance of slavery, its alliance with the Spanish crown during the region’s struggles for independence, and its acquiescence to various authoritarian dictatorships of the twentieth century. To my mind, this assessment of the church’s moral legacy is Lynch’s most valuable contribution to our understanding of the region.

In general, both authors follow the widely accepted periodization of Latin American church history, which they divide into the precolonial, colonial, and modern. The colonial period, which spans roughly three centuries between the arrival of Columbus in 1492 and the achievement of independence in the 1820s, is itself divided into the period of conquest and settlement (from the late fifteenth century through the sixteenth), the consolidation of a colonial order (seventeenth century), and the decline of colonialism after the Bourbon reforms (eighteenth century).

Throughout the colonial period, the church was an inseparable part of the political order. In exchange for furthering the Christianization of the New World, a series of papal degrees (the real patronato) gave the Spanish and Portuguese crowns broad powers over the church in their colonies. During the period of conquest and settlement, then, the main concern of the church was the evangelization and conversion of the indigenous peoples. To this end, missionary orders—most famously, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Jesuits—followed closely behind the conquistadors in order to oversee the expansion of Christianity.

A second concern was the management of vast new resources—raw materials, labor, and land—that were providing tremendous wealth to both Spain and the church. During the sixteenth century, the institutional church supported the encomienda, a forced-labor system that frequently resulted in displacement and misery for indigenous peoples. This was a period of remarkable exploitation and cruelty (and demographic devastation, as Old World diseases and horrific labor conditions took their toll). Furthermore, as Lynch points out, when indigenous peoples resisted the advances of the missionary fathers, they were subjected to cruel punishments: campaigns to suppress idolatry and the Spanish Inquisition were deployed in the Americas. Certainly the church was not responsible for all the avarice of the colonial period, but its participation in the brutality and exploitation of the conquest and settlement of the Americas cannot be ignored.

Yet the Catholic Church during the colonial era also produced some of the most prominent and outspoken advocates for indigenous peoples in the entire New World. Las Casas and Fray Antonio Montesinos were staunch advocates for the Indians in the wake of colonial cruelties, and Fray Bernardino de Sahagún was almost solely responsible for preserving records of indigenous life in central Mexico. The Jesuit father Antonio Vieira preached against Indian slavery in Brazil. Even the Inquisition had its slightly softer side: individuals who were otherwise powerless could occasionally seek justice through its courts.

By the seventeenth century, Schwaller notes, “life [had settled] down into a daily routine”; economic growth had slowed, but at the same time, a more established colonial social order arose. The church underwent a transition from a missionary stance focused on conversion to institutional concerns about maintaining that social order. In addition, the church founded universities and many primary schools, providing some degree of social mobility to certain segments of the population. For women, convents offered an alternative to married life and perhaps even an education; a few nuns would become as erudite as Mexico’s famous poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. For black Christians, however, there was no equivalent mobility. (Holy orders were forbidden to them until the end of the colonial period.) And the vast majority of the hierarchy, clergy, and theologians supported the African slave trade: while a few scholars and missionaries spoke out against slavery, there was no “constant and continuous opposition in church institutions or religious orders,” according to Lynch.

In the eighteenth century, European politics sowed the seeds for the disintegration of the colonial empires. After the Bourbons ascended to the Spanish crown, Spain and Portugal implemented a series of economic and political reforms that helped spur economic growth, but increasingly alienated newly wealthy colonists, many of whom were also enthralled by Enlightenment ideas about liberty and equality. After a series of popular revolts, the colonies began to pursue national independence, and by 1824 most colonies had achieved it.

Once again, the church exhibited a mixed record during the struggle for national self-determination. In many countries, members of the local clergy—most famously, Fathers Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos in Mexico—supported independence and even helped launch rebellions. But the institutional church across the region largely allied itself with the Spanish crown, and this weakened it greatly in the long run. As Lynch puts it, “so close had been the ties between crown and church that the overthrow of one could not fail to affect the other.” Although the church would survive Latin America’s severing of ties with Spain, it would have to reconfigure its relationship to new secular governments.

According to Lynch, the church emerged from some of these wars “more stable, more popular, and apparently more wealthy than many of the new states.” But with independence and the rise of new nations, national histories in Latin America became increasingly divergent. Thus, the history of the Latin American Catholic Church after independence is considerably more difficult to narrate, and this fragmentation is apparent in both books. Nevertheless, each manages to extract coherence by assessing the new nations in regional groupings, and examining overarching trends in conjunction with case histories.

In the wake of independence, the most widespread and enduring conflict that emerged was that between liberals and conservatives, who held opposing views on nearly everything—especially on the role of the church in society. Here, Schwaller’s explanation is notably clear. Liberals—influenced by the Enlightenment—“did not believe that the church should play a central role...in the life of the nation,” and thus advocated the separation of church and state. Conservatives “held that the church should retain its role in all aspects of society...[and] wished to restore the church to the position of authority it enjoyed in the seventeenth century.” While the immediate postindependence national governments were mostly liberal (with the exception of Argentina under Rosas and Brazil, which remained a constitutional monarchy), conservatives gained power in subsequent years in some countries. Conservative-liberal struggles for power would prevent widespread stability and economic growth for much of the nineteenth century, and the role of the church in relation to the state was a constant source of tension.

During the early twentieth century, these disagreements continued to fuel violence and instability. The Mexican Revolution (1910–20) had many causes, but prominent among them was the conflict over the role of the church in society, particularly its ownership of property and its control of the educational system. After the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz was overthrown in 1910, successive revolutionary governments passed increasingly restrictive laws that culminated in a total exclusion of the church from the political sphere. Mexico’s Cristero War (1926–29), a violent popular revolt in support of the Catholic cause, drew support from Catholics across the Americas (and much coverage in Commonweal), but succeeded only in achieving an uneasy peace between the hierarchy and the Mexican government. By 1930, Lynch summarizes, the church across Latin America had “lost the support of the state and ceased to rely on legal and political sanctions for the promotion and protection of religion.”

With the establishment of increasingly secular national governments during the twentieth century, the dynamic center of the Latin American church began to shift toward the laity. Although Lynch and Schwaller both acknowledge the existence of lay Catholic activism, this is one area that merits further examination. The papal encyclical Rerum novarum (1891) had provided both an invitation and a framework for Catholics worldwide to undertake new forms of collective political action. In the social and religious spheres, a hierarchically led lay apostolate called Catholic Action dominated the activities of many Latin American Catholics from 1930 to 1960. Jesuits trained in European Social Catholicism directed the formation of many Catholics in the period, while new devotions united Catholics across continents. Catholic women participated in international youth organizations, traveled abroad on fundraising tours, and helped construct global networks focused on moralization, eucharistic piety, and religious education. This revitalization helped to counter concurrent trends toward secularization, and paved the way for even greater lay participation in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

The second half of the twentieth century presented a host of new challenges, including population pressures, widespread industrialization, new migration, and—perhaps most significantly—increasingly drastic economic inequality. Politically, the 1960s through the ’80s witnessed some of the more horrifying episodes of state-led repression and widespread violations of human rights. Once again, the church’s record was decidedly mixed. In Brazil, according to Lynch, “the church took a firm stand against repression”; in Argentina, it was “institutionally silent.” Conflicts between leftists and military forces in Central America during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s resulted in massive violence, and many heroic clergy, religious, and members of the hierarchy became outspoken opponents of state-sponsored murders, often at the cost of their own lives. (El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Romero, assassinated in 1980 and now on his way to canonization, is the best-known example.)

Over the past four decades, national governments in Latin America have moved toward representative democracy (with a few exceptions, such as the leftist authoritarian regimes in Cuba and Venezuela). Over the same period, the church has struggled to reconcile the reforms made during Vatican II with an increasingly conservative papacy. This tension was encapsulated in the debate over liberation theology, an action-oriented approach that stresses commitment to the poor. Although Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff became an outspoken proponent of institutional reform during the 1970s, he was subsequently forbidden by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to publish or speak publicly about his work. Because of opposition from the Vatican and disagreements between laypeople and clergy over whether it was too indebted to Marxism, liberation theology “receded in Catholic expectations,” according to Lynch, and “its ideas were taken up by Protestant theologians.”

In recent years, the increasingly prominent role of Protestantism—and particularly, Evangelical Protestantism—in Latin America has fueled Catholic concerns. While Lynch and Schwaller both speculate briefly about what might lie ahead, Edward Cleary’s The Rise of Charismatic Catholicism in Latin America takes on the issue in detail. Acknowledging that “the religious landscape of Latin America changed drastically from the monolithic presence of the Catholic Church to a wide and diverse universe that includes African-based, indigenous, Mormon, Pentecostal, and Catholicisms of various tendencies,” Cleary nevertheless asserts that the biggest religious change is a renewal within Catholicism itself.

This renewal is known as Charismatic Catholicism, a movement strongly influenced by Protestant Pentecostalism. It shares with that tradition an intense devotion to the Holy Spirit, as well as a belief that the Holy Spirit gives charismata (“gifts”) to participants, allowing them to pray in tongues, heal, and prophesy.

This Charismatic renewal owes its momentum to Francis MacNutt, a Catholic priest with a PhD in theology whose interactions with Protestant Charismatics in the late 1960s convinced him to “bring healing prayer back to the Catholic Church.” Although MacNutt eventually left the priesthood (and lost influence within the U.S. Charismatic movement), he helped promote the expansion of the movement in Latin America, organizing several dozen retreats during the 1970s. The movement was particularly influential with Dominican priests and sisters in Bolivia.

According to Cleary, there are now some 73 million Charismatic Catholics, two-thirds of whom live in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Columbia—all countries where Protestant evangelization has gained a strong footing. Because Catholic Charismatics have “received far less attention than Protestant Pentecostals” (probably because of the perceived threat to Catholicism in the region), the aim of Cleary’s book is to show how much the Charismatic Catholic movement has grown, both in numbers and influence.

In ten chapters, Cleary provides a detailed accounting of the origins, growth, and current status of Charismatic Catholicism in South and Latin America as well as the Caribbean. He explores the movement’s local variations, comparing it to “a musical genre, say jazz… Chilean Catholic Charismatic rhythm differs from its Brazilian counterpoint.”

Charismatics have met with occasional resistance from more conservative members of the clergy (for example, in Mexico), but have been welcomed by others, who understand that the movement allows Catholics attracted by the heartfelt, emotional practices of Pentecostalism to “retain their Catholic identity and loyalty to the church” while also maintaining local customs and devotions. To Cleary, who was himself a Dominican missionary (he died in November 2011), the Charismatic renewal offers a clear path to a revitalized future for the church in Latin America. Furthermore, the millions of Latin American immigrants who have arrived in the United States since the 1970s have brought these practices across the border, offering a religious renewal here as well. Thus, even after five hundred years and a decidedly mixed historical legacy, the story of the Catholic Church in Latin America may remain one of expansion and evangelization.

Published in the 2012-12-21 issue: 

Julia G. Young is a historian of Mexico and Latin America at the Catholic University of America.

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