Book Review: New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America

By Fitzpatrick-Behrens, Susan | Church History, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Book Review: New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America


Fitzpatrick-Behrens, Susan, Church History


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New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America . By John Lynch . New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press , 2012. xviii + 404 pp. $35.00 cloth.

Book Reviews and Notes

Engaging a lifetime of research on Latin America and extensive secondary literature, John Lynch provides a sweeping overview of the Catholic Church in the region from the era of Columbus through the twentieth century. This comparative study includes detailed accounts of the Andean region, Mesoamerica, the Southern cone (especially Argentina) and Brazil. It is thus an important general study of Latin America in addition to being a history of religion. Lynch's eloquent narrative style is reminiscent of classic Latin American history books. It also harkens back to traditional approaches to religion, emphasizing relations between church and state, equating the hierarchy with "the Church," and simplifying indigenous and African-descendent culture and practices of faith. Although Lynch identifies his work as a "religious history of Latin America," he focuses almost exclusively on the Catholic Church with the exception of a few references to Protestantism in the nineteenth century, a brief chapter on "The Religion of the People" (161-182) and a slim chapter on "Difference and Diversity" (324-343). Lynch justifies his focus by asserting that "the evidence suggests that for five centuries the defining religion of Latin America has been Catholic and this is the assumption on which the book has been written" (xv).

The book is divided into twelve chapters organized chronologically and thematically. The most detailed analysis of the book focuses on the colonial era, when Lynch argues that the Church was "Roman in faith and morals . . . Spanish in organization and discipline" (xi and 67). Although Lynch cites research by Nancy Farriss, Sabine MacCormack, Anthony Pagden, and others who detailed the ways that indigenous people and culture transformed the Catholic Church in Latin America, he emphasizes European practices and structures. He observes later that "Spaniards preserved their religion without surrendering to cultural relativism, and Indians clung to reserves of their own culture without challenging Christian beliefs" (162).

Throughout the book, Lynch examines points of disjuncture between Catholic law and doctrine and Church practices. Thus in recounting the role of the Inquisition, Lynch observes that it was established in Spain in 1480 primarily to investigate conversos (Jewish converts to Catholicism), suspected of being "crypto-jews." He concludes that the Inquisition's prosecution of conversos created a dilemma at the time and for future researchers: "were the conversos secret Jews and therefore legitimate targets, or were they true Catholics persecuted for other reasons--race, greed, politics?" (5). Lynch describes an analogous dilemma regarding the "legitimacy" of the Inquisition in the Yucatán, where in 1562, Diego de Landa directed the torture of more than 4,500 indigenous people (of whom 158 died as a result of interrogation). He notes that "Landa claimed it was an episcopal inquisition and therefore legitimate, but legal norms and procedures were not followed, simply invented" (39). Lynch does not question the legitimacy of the Inquisition, but instead critiques the application of its laws. …

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