Richard, a liberation theologian, brings to this historical overview of Christianity in Latin America the dual perspectives of a biblical scholar and a sociologist. He seeks to recast the history of the church in his region not from an internal ecclesial point of view but, rather, as the church’s interaction with the larger political and cultural structures. Therefore his periodization is unconventional. The first part, entitled “Colonial Christendom in Latin America,” covers from 1492 until 1808. In it, Richard discusses the Patronato regio; the Jesuit reductions; the Indian, black, and Creole uprisings; and the role of the church in these affairs.
Part two, “New Christendom in Latin America,” covers 1808 to 1960, a period Richard calls the Crisis in Colonial Christendom. By “colonial” he means not only the Spanish and Portuguese colonial regimes, but also the church under liberal oligarchical states between 1870 and 1930 and during the nationalist, populist, and developmentalist movements.
The third section deals with the “Crisis of New Christendom in Latin America.” It scans the church’s relationship to the ruling classes, to the popular movements, and to the emerging new model of domination. One chapter focuses on Argentina and Brazil, which present two starkly contrasting trajectories within the same period. Richard explains satisfactorily why Argentina’s has evolved into one of the most conservative hierarchies in Latin America while Brazil’s has become one of the most progressive. The last part of this chapter deals with the emergence of liberation theology before and after the epochal 1968 conference of the Catholic bishops at Medellín. It traces the maturation and growth of liberation theology in Latin America, and charts the worldwide recognition of this movement. A short section also evaluates the various forms of opposition liberation theology has evoked. In part four, entitled “Church, Authoritarian State, and Social Classes in Latin America,” Richard analyzes right-wing, centrist, and left-wing Social Christian tendencies, and includes an informative discussion of the popular church, the “church of the poor.”
The underlying thesis of Richard’s book is that Christianity in Latin America can best be understood by a methodology that addresses the changing relationship between the church, the state, and the civil society. As a theologian, he obviously wants to reject any kind of alliance between the church and the political society as a mediating factor between the church and civil society. Richard makes clear that the approach of liberation theology must be distinguished from previous theologies of secularization, death of God, or what he calls “messianisms without theology.” His overall method also persuades the careful reader that focusing on the dynamic interaction between religious bodies and the other actors on the historical stage proves to be a far more fruitful approach than that of focusing on the church itself. This book rejects the whole concept of Christendom and opts for a “poor church,” that is, a church that is committed to a kind of civil powerlessness but which—because of that very commitment—may ironically turn out to be more influential in the long run.