Progressive Theology and Popular Religiousity in Oaxaca, Mexico

By Norget, Kristin | Ethnology, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Progressive Theology and Popular Religiousity in Oaxaca, Mexico


Norget, Kristin, Ethnology


This article examines the relationship between popular religiosity and the renovation movement taking place within the Catholic Church (the New Evangelization) in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca. A discussion of the interaction between official church discourse and everyday religious behavior reveals Oaxacan popular religiosity, despite some interdependence between the two forms, as a largely autonomous field of belief and practice. In the current context of transformations within the Mexican Catholic Church, popular Catholicism in Oaxaca is addressed as the site of a struggle between a liberation theology-influenced church reform movement and a form of religiosity containing its own logic and resistance to change. (Mexico, popular religion, progressive Catholicism, religious movements, liberation theology)

While transformations within the Catholic Church, and the nature of the articulation between Catholicism and the everyday life of church members, have received fairly thorough study elsewhere in Latin America, they have been relatively neglected in the social science literature on [Mexico..sup.2] Attention to these themes is badly needed if we are to assess the promise of newly emergent progressive, factions of the Mexican church hierarchy to exert a strong influence on popular social thought or to act as agents of social change. This article attempts to clarify the present situation of the Mexican Catholic Church through a careful examination of the relationship between certain strains of the official church reformist campaign and "popular Catholicism" - a form of religiosity linked closely to the official church but existing largely outside its sphere of control.

In the broad scheme, Catholicism in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America is today experiencing a renewal aimed at a consolidation and revitalization of institutional integrity, doctrine, and pastoral direction as it struggles to retain its influence in what have been for the last few centuries unequivocally Catholic- dominated societies. This has been considered part of the global "one true church" campaign of Pope John Paul II (Barry 1992:252), a movement receiving its original impetus from the reforms instigated by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Yet since that time, this reformist push in Mexico has also served as the basis for growing factionalism within the Mexican clerical body.. the division is one roughly between progressive, clergy influenced by liberation theology (who have taken the church's exhortation for social justice and political change seriously in their vocal criticism of the state and their active role in popular organizations) and more conservative (i.e., Vatican-oriented) priests and bishops who, while accepting certain modernizing changes in doctrinal emphasis and pastoral practice, disagree with progressives in their views of the proper role of the church in contemporary Mexican society and of its preferred relation to the [state..sup.3]

Understanding the views of clergy is important since they are the disseminators of official church policy and have a strong influence on the nature of the interaction between the Catholic Church and other public domains. Nonetheless, institutionally oriented or ideology-focused studies of religion generally have limited utility for understanding the relationship of religion to other domains of culture or society, especially those related to sociopolitical and economic power (Asad 1983; Bourdieu 1971). Analysis must move outside the level of official church discourse to see how this discourse intersects with everyday experience. It is in interaction with popular Catholicism, existing near this intersection, that the changing face of the Mexican Catholic Church and the tensions deeply embedded therein are most clearly seen. As the largely unmediated devotional expression of the poor, popular religiosity is seen by ardent liberationists as surging from a pure and authentic faith that speaks to the experience and reality of God's chosen people.

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