New Worlds: A
religious history of Latin America
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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
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
The Revd David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at
the University of London.