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Continent’s Latin religion

by
22 March 2013

David Martin looks at the history behind the Pope from Argentina

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New Worlds: A religious history of Latin America
John Lynch
Yale University Press £25
(978-0-300-16680-4)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT132 )

JOHN LYNCH's latest book is written from a sympathetic but critical Roman Catholic viewpoint, and provides a comprehensive, authoritative, and revisionist review of half a millennium of what has been overwhelmingly a Roman Catholic history up to the mid-20th century.

I cannot imagine its being surpassed, except with regard to changes since then, such as the vast growth of Pentecostalism, of Protestant churches "in renewal", and of the RC Charismatic movement of "New Evangelization".

In particular, Lynch revises our assumptions about the imposition of Catholicism on the "Indian" population. Rather than impose doctrine, the friars saw native populations as already prepared for the gospel, and enacted rituals that "natives" saw as analogous to their own, though endowed with even greater potency. Meanwhile, the newcomers appropriated native values and symbols as embodying a preternatural wisdom.

Lynch goes on to show how, in the 18th century, the Bourbon monarchy used the Church as a power base in a dirigiste and regalist programme of Hispanicisation. This stimulated revolts that utilised Christian themes against the "Christian" oppressors, including millenarian hopes of divine intervention.

Lynch says of the Jesuit experiment among the Guaranis that this "enclave of peace and protection was dismantled and the Jesuits themselves sacrificed for reasons of state with the acquiescence of a dormant Church". This theme of reasons of state and power politics recurs throughout - for example, in the politic abandonment of the Cristeros in the complicated imbroglio of the Mexican Revolution.

In the early 19th century, a Church deeply imbued with royalist sentiment had to deal with the independence movements made possible by the North American example, by the French invasion of Spain, and by an élite appropriation of revolutionary ideas about liberty and utility from both France and England. Simón Bolívar the Liberator remained an outwardly observant Catholic while absorbing the ideas of the Scottish, English, and French Enlightenments, recognising that the Church remained influential with the people.

Eventually, the hierarchy shifted to the cause of independence, partly following its success and the example of the lower clergy, and partly reacting to the anti-clerical revolution of 1820 in Spain itself. It took the papacy far longer to recognise the logic of this change, in this instance providing a nice illustration of the ability of papal "leadership" to limp behind the rest of the Church, doing considerable damage en route.

Lynch argues that the later Romanisation of the Church coincided with the liberalisation of the state in a way that left scant middle ground between liberalism and the alliance of the hierarchy with conservative élites, for whom the Church was a useful tool of their political interests.

This was the main source of violent confrontations - for example, in Brazil and Mexico - marked by genuine hatred. The emergence of a Social Catholicism from the 1890s on eased these negative spirals of conflict to some extent, except that the emergence of totalitarian and sometimes atheistic ideologies in the inter-war years of the 20th century aroused the same fears and reactions as had been previously aroused by liberalism. The result was widespread collusion with right-wing dictatorships, and further reinforcement of the negative spirals.

Lynch suggests that opposition to the Roman Catholic Church was most violent and incendiary where the Church was powerful and had a strong popular base - for example, in Mexico. Lynch concludes with the complicated tussle between conservatives with a strong stake in popular religiosity, such as Pope John Paul II, and the varied strands of liberation theology.

The Revd David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of London.

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