New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America

Article excerpt

New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America

By John Lynch

Yale University Press, 384 pp., $35.00

With this synthesis of the 500-plus-year history of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, John Lynch has furnished an important and intricate piece of the puzzle of the story of global Christianity.

New Worlds is a badly needed book. Latin America, the scene of an epic clash of cultures resulting from the European conquests of the 15th and 16th centuries, is today home to more than a third of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics. For decades, much high-quality scholarship has examined the many facets of the Latin American church, as well as other religious trends. However, only with this book has a scholar from the English-speaking world produced an overview of the complex and controversial topic of Latin American Catholicism.

Although New Worlds is a religious history, Lynch, professor emeritus of Latin American history at the University of London, uses the perspectives of social, institutional and political history to provide a complex view of religion and the church. He practices history at its best, providing a clear explanation of how and why religious institutions and customs evolved after the arrival of the Europeans in 1492. Over and over again, he illustrates how very messy and immoral the state of social, political and religious affairs could become under the aegis of the Catholic Church. He does not apologize for the church's shortcomings.

One of his central themes, buttressed with the latest scholarship, is a critique of the long-held notion of a "spiritual conquest" of the natives by the Spaniards and Portuguese. He emphasizes instead that there was a process of melding. "In the subsequent fusion each side strove to impose or preserve the maximum possible amount of their own culture," Lynch observes. "The result was a certain continuity of Indian religion and survival of ancestral ways within a new Christian structure."

Lynch thus rejects the idea of a zero-sum game for the natives. For instance, in his discussion of the Spanish encounter with the Maya in what is now southern Mexico and Guatemala, Lynch affirms that "Christianity had much to answer for in the ordeal of the Maya." However, he also states that on the "positive side" Christianity "promised to release them from their cyclical prison"--a circular, ahistorical notion of time--"and make them free to accept time and progress and to live as individuals contributing to history and change." This interpretation will surely add fuel to the centuries-old debate over the European conquest of the New World.

After describing the history of the church during Latin America's colonial era (1492-1810) in the book's first three chapters, Lynch spends the next four portraying the creation of a uniquely Latin American church, with significant nation-specific characteristics, in the 19th century. Lynch explores the deep religious conflicts--including wars--that took place in this period largely as a result of the emergence of independent, classical-liberal states that sought to diminish the power of the church by placing restrictions on the clergy and church property and ultimately via disestablishment. Both collaboration and tensions between the church and the state, which have extended into the 21st century, are defining characteristics of Latin American society; they are sharply distinguished from U.S. culture's emphasis on separation of church and state, of the sacred and the secular.

The most detailed and most interesting section--especially for those tuned into contemporary religious affairs--is found in the final five chapters, which focus on the challenges posed to the church by modernity, democracy, revolution and dictatorship in the 20th century. Lynch recounts, for example, the church's deeply divided positions in revolutionary Nicaragua, its clash with the communist state in Cuba and its courageous defense of human rights under dictatorships in Brazil, Chile and elsewhere. …