Book traces Catholic Church's historical influence in Latin America - Catholic Courier

Book traces Catholic Church’s historical influence in Latin America

"New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America" by John Lynch. Yale University Press (New Haven, Conn., 2012).404 pp., $35.

Understanding the history of Latin America requires substantive knowledge about the Catholic Church and its complex influence beyond the sphere of religion. Its imprint also runs deep in the political, cultural, intellectual, social and cultural life of this vast region.

"New Worlds" by John Lynch provides this knowledge. The British historian paints with a broad brush, describing general trends, while also offering meticulous details showing the countertrends, divisions and regional differences in the church. The reader gets to see the forest and the trees.

The author cites the values of justice and peace as threads tying together much of the church’s Latin American history "revealing the mind of the church and sometimes its limits." But the book also shows another common historical theme: the institutional church’s important political role starting with the Spanish and Portuguese colonial period and continuing through to the 20th-century challenges presented by military dictatorships, leftist revolutions and guerrilla movements.

While most of the book deals with the Catholic Church, Lynch also devotes a chapter to how Protestantism and Pentecostalism have made major inroads in past decades, garnering significant numbers of converts and gaining political leverage with governments in this once almost exclusively Catholic region. The book, however, does not develop this highly important theme and one hopes that Lynch devotes his scholarship to a follow-up book on this phenomenon.

Lynch is a retired professor of Latin American history at the University of London and has written biographies of South America’s two main liberators from Spanish colonialism: Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin.

The book shows that the implanting of a political role on the church stems from its pre-colonial relationship to Spain. Before the colonial period the Spanish crown had worked out arrangements with popes to giving Spanish monarchs certain powers over the church in Spain. These included naming bishops and establishing dioceses. In exchange Catholicism was the state religion and state funds subsidized the institutional church. Lynch describes this as a union of "throne" and "altar." Basically, the Spanish crown was responsible for administering the church in its territories with Rome responsible for providing doctrine and theology.

This system was readily carried across the Atlantic, often making bishops and priests the only representatives of the Spanish throne in the outer reaches of the colonies. At the same time, it gave the crown control over missionary activities to the point that the monarchy expelled the Jesuits from Latin America in the 18th century, fearing that their power, wealth and promotion of autonomy among Indians threatened crown sovereignty.

The church and state union continued, often uneasily, after independence as governments saw the value of having an ally in the church because of its hold on the people. The church, meanwhile, benefited through state funding and laws supporting church moral values.

The downside was that church people fighting for social justice for Indians, the working classes and the marginalized in the colonial and post-colonial eras often had to feel the wrath of their bosses as well as that of the state.

Lynch shows a clear sympathy across the centuries for church people fighting injustices and promoting peaceful resolutions of conflicts, seeing the struggle for justice and peace as key to the Christian message. Yet he takes a historian’s critical look at some of the theologies and ideologies behind these endeavors. Liberation theology is praised as breathing new life into church thought and giving the church a new relevance in the latter part of the 20th century. But Lynch criticizes some branches of liberation theology for a too rigid reliance on Marxist analysis and for seeming to single out poverty as the sole focus of religion.

His judgments, while open to criticism, evolve from a careful accumulation of facts historically organized to provide understanding of the crucial and nuanced role the church has played in Latin America.

Bono, a retired CNS staff writer, covered Latin American church issues and lived in South America for 10 years.

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