This collection of essays is part of a projected three-volume series on the history of the church in the Third World sponsored by the Catholic church’s Commission for the Study of Church History in Latin America (CEHILA). Enrique Dussel, editor of the general series and of this first volume, is a founding member and past president of CEHILA and editor of its 11-volume Historia general de la iglesia en América Latina (1981). His words in this volume, and those of the other contributors, offer an excellent entrée into the mindset of progressive Catholics in Latin America at the end of an era that turned out very differently than they had hoped.
Dussel sets the tone for the volume on the very first page: “If ‘bringing good news to the poor’ was [Jesus’] specific historical purpose and that of his church, this must also be the absolute and primary criterion of a Christian interpretation of the history of that church. . . . The ‘meaning’ of an event, then, is deduced from the effect (positive or negative) it has on the poor, the oppressed, the ordinary people” (p. 1).
Miller makes a sharp distinction between the authentic church of the poor and powerless, whom he defines in Marxist-dependency terms as “peripheral nations and oppressed classes” (p. 2), and “Christendom,” the Constantinian model of the church as an ally of the powers that be. In his view, Christendom has been the dominant model in Latin America. It is represented by the patronato real of colonial times and the papacy-led conservative restoration of the present. The real church, by contrast, is evident in the courageous missionaries who defended the Indians in the sixteenth century and the religious martyrs who defended the poor in the twentieth century. It also appears in the mass of simple believers whose “popular” devotion has survived for centuries despite a dearth of catechetical instruction and a hierarchy largely indifferent to their concerns.
In addition to the introduction, Dussel contributes four essays to the collection. They, along with the progressive bent of several other contributions, lend a degree of thematic consistency to this book that anthologies often lack.
The collection covers its subject in 25 articles, grouped into three overlapping categories: chronological, regional, and topical. As with all anthologies, the contributions vary widely in quality. In their efforts to be comprehensive within tight space limitations (ten pages for most), some authors lapse into encyclopedic coverage reminiscent of college lectures near the close of a semester. Juan Schobinger (“The Amerindian Religions”), Mario A. Rodríguez León (“Invasion and Evangelization in the Sixteenth Century”), and María Alicia Puente (“The Church in Mexico”) display this tendency. Other authors arbitrarily limit themselves to the portion of the topic to which they can do justice. Johannes Meier’s useful essay, “The Organization of the Church,” focuses on the Spanish monarchy’s persistent and ultimately successful efforts to maintain control of the colonial church despite resistance from a succession of popes. Eduardo Hoornaert scants the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in his account of “The Church in Brazil” but offers insightful reflections on the Christianization of Indians and slaves and the character of religious devotion in colonial society. Less happily, Laënnec Hurbon’s essay, “The Church and Afro-American Slavery,” draws most of its examples from the French Caribbean and largely ignores Brazil and Spanish America.
One essay that does not suffer from such tight limitations is Jean-Pierre Bastian’s 35-page “Protestantism in Latin America.” Bastian, a Mexican Protestant, makes the case that just as mainline Protestantism grew in the nineteenth century as the ally of liberal individualism, Pentecostalism is growing in the twentieth century as the ally of populist authoritarianism. Instead of transforming Latin America with a new democratic ethos, Pentecostalism represents a Protestant capitulation to traditional patterns of deference and patronage.
As a whole, The Church in Latin America provides a useful reference source on a vast and important topic and contains stimulating interpretations of particular issues. Ideology occasionally usurps scholarship, as when Ana María Bidegain asserts in “The Church in the Emancipation Process” that Wellington’s peninsular campaign was motivated by Britain’s desire to prevent the modernization of Spain (p. 92). But the book’s overall tone is academic rather than polemical.
The last and, in some ways, most revealing words in the entire volume come from José Comblin in an essay on “The Church and the Defense of Human Rights.” They capture something of the disappointment and loss of confidence progressive Catholics have felt as they have reflected on recent developments in Latin America.
Two years into the 1990s the diagnosis is as follows: failure of democracy, incapable of bringing about changes which are now more urgently needed than ever, failure of economic liberalism, which was responsible for the “lost decade” of the 1980s, and failure of socialism, dealt a mortal blow in 1973 in Chile. At present the remains of the Left are searching for something new in the face of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites. . . . All the evidence is that the Church of the clergy and the clerical powers will become less and less capable of saying anything which is not a repetition of the empty formulas of the past which no one listens to in a new culture. Evangelization will be carried out in the silence of the deep levels of the people; for a generation everything will happen in secret. The only other possibility is a sudden social explosion with incalculable consequences and on a scale which also cannot yet be forecast (pp. 436, 453).
History has not been kind to Latin Americas progressive Catholics, but if the hopes many possessed 20 years ago have been disappointed, is it not also possible that the despair some express today may prove unfounded? In any case, the frustration of Comblin, Dussel, and several other contributors over the current state of the church in Latin America has not prevented them from offering a solid account of its past.