In Los laberintos de la esperanza, Rodolfo Ramón de Roux finds a tenacious kind of hope to be the most remarkable feature in a “Catholic evangelization of the American continent” (p. 18) that continues to this day. He organizes his sweeping study around the human inclination to imagine and seek something better—a utopia, a promised land, a reborn church, and most recently, an alternative society without hunger, suffering, injustice, or violent death. An inclusive notion of utopianism and a playful sense of how different “peripheries” react against their “centers” allow him to link two familiar topics in the religious history of colonial Latin America: the millenarianism of the earliest Franciscans in New Spain and the Jesuit-run reducciones among the Guaranís, and the thought and practice of liberation theologians in Latin America since the late 1960s. Roux’s book describes a succession of frustrated attempts by Catholic actors to realize a better place and to summon into the world a “new man,” a person committed to social justice.
The author avoids most of the rose-tinted temptations that might have attended his project. He looks squarely, for instance, at such matters as the stalling of efforts to educate an indigenous clergy in early New Spain and the devastating effects of reductión on Guaraní patterns of life and thought. And he shows little patience for depictions of the Jesuits’ Paraguayan endeavors as isolated social and religious experiments, as if they were unrelated to wider and longer processes of Christian evangelization in this region and elsewhere. Yet such achievements are about the least to be expected from a serious treatment of these subjects. The book breaks little new ground until the culminating chapter on liberation theology.
Although key texts are occasionally cited for emphasis, the study is built principally on material and interpretations drawn from older secondary sources. More centrally, the author overlooks vast differences between the projects he examines, as if an essential “evangelization” and “utopianism” germinated from a single seed. The isolation of friars and Indians supposedly achieved in the Franciscans’ colleges and in Vasco de Quiroga’s “hospital-towns” in mid-sixteenth-century New Spain is said to equal the “spiritual quarantine” (p. 151) administered by the Jesuits in their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Guaraní reducciones. What is more controversial, these, in turn, lead straight to Latin American fusions of Marxism and an activist Christianity committed to the liberation of the poor in a number of contemporary societies. Many other accretions and emphases in these projects—not to mention the two centuries between 1768 and 1968—are glided over as the book fulfills the author’s vision of frustrated but persistent Catholic seekers of a promised land.
The Franciscans’ early dreams of a return to the primitive church in central Mexico are overcome by disillusionment, impatience with Indian religious error, and the growing (and contradictory) demands of empire. Out on the eighteenth-century Paraguayan periphery, the Jesuits’ ordered environments in the Guaraní reducciones are undermined by imperial rivalries and increasing suspicion of the Society. Two hundred years later, the political and religious dreams of liberation theologians and activists in Latin America since 1968 are thwarted by such actors as the Catholic church hierarchy, Latin American conservatives, and the United States.
For most students of Latin American history, Roux’s leaps through time and between contexts —not to mention his almost complete detachment from the wider issues raised in a burgeoning recent historiography on evangelization and religious change in the colonial and later periods—will make the journey through the “labyrinth” seem more like a direct flight above the fray. As the chronology of events stretching from 1410 to 1992 at the end of the book recalls, this is an “historia conmovedora” (p. 215), intended to stir general readers whose pass through history assembles a backdrop to present social crises.