The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America: From Conquest to Revolution and Beyond

By Ramirez, Susan Elizabeth | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2011 | Go to article overview

The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America: From Conquest to Revolution and Beyond


Ramirez, Susan Elizabeth, The Catholic Historical Review


Latin American The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America: From Conquest to Revolution and Beyond. By John Frederick Schwaller. (New York: New York University Press. 2011. Pp. x, 319. $35.00. ISBN 978-0-814-74003-3.)

John Frederick Schwaller has taken on a most monumental task in writing the history of the Catholic Church in Latin America from the late 1400s to the present. This overview of an enormous topic provides the necessary information on Iberian religions, including the Jewish and Muslim faiths, and the history of Portuguese and Spanish exploration of Africa as background to the "discovery" of the Western Hemisphere and the Treaty of Tordesillas, which dates to the start of international law. Then, the author leads readers through the intellectual debates over sovereignty and property rights, "just war," and whether or not the native peoples were human and capable of becoming Christians. He rightly notes that despite the many missionaries in Mexico and Peru, many native peoples remained uncontacted and uninitiated for many years. His discussion of church finance, the Bourbon initiatives of the eighteenth century, and the Enlightenment's impact end his discussion of the colonial era.

After Schwaller's discussion of independence, his narrative summarizes the checkered history of the Church. The section on how governments negotiated or not with the Holy See and how agreements could potentially affect everyday life is followed by a fascinating few pages on the role of family politics in Chile, through which one large patrilineage controlled both church and state. The nineteenth century also saw popular religion and uprisings gaining prominence in Brazil; the rise of the "Protestant ethic," especially in Central America; and the conservative First Vatican Council in 1869-71.

Regarding the twentieth century, he retells the history of the Church against a background of revolution in Mexico; "la violencia" in Colombia; and the rise of fascism, socialism, the populists, the Marxists, and Catholic-based trade unions. Throughout, the Church was viewed by many as a stabilizing influence. However, the Church was not a homogeneous institution. It included groups that ranged from those against the reforms of the Second Vatican Council who supported a Tridentine church to progressive liberationists and Catholic socialists. Furthermore, he notes the increasing challenges to the once near-monopoly of spirituality exercised by the Catholic hierarchy, citing popular religion, like Candomblé in Brazil, secularization, and Protestant and Evangelical inroads. …

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