How Christianity came to Latin America: Extract from ‘New Worlds’ by John Lynch

New Worlds

New Worlds by John Lynch

With unsurpassed knowledge of Latin American history, John Lynch’s New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America sets out to explore the reception of Christianity by native people and how it influenced their social and religious lives, from the Christian evangelists’ arrival in Latin America to the dictators of the late twentieth century. In this exclusive extract, Lynch introduces us to his extraordinary book, the culmination of a lifetime’s research.

Extract from New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America by John Lynch

There are many faces to religion. New Worlds focuses on religious history and historical development rather than theological issues and forms of spirituality, though these are not ignored. Within this framework it studies the life of the Church and the reception of Christianity by the peoples of Latin America and has a social as well as a religious dimension. The works of modern theologians, historians, evangelists, and catechists have enriched the subject in recent years and there is now enough material to make a modern history of religion in Latin America possible, though not enough to make it superfluous. The historian has space to take a new look at old issues, aiming to strike a balance between the long colonial period and the shorter but more eventful modern age.

The narrative of the book follows the course of the subject from the Spanish conquest to recent times. It avoids the concept of the ‘spiritual conquest’ of the New World, an approach no longer favoured by modern perceptions. Spanish evangelists encountered traces of ancient American religions. In the subsequent fusion each side strove to impose or preserve the maximum possible amount of their own culture. The result was a certain continuity of Indian religion and survival of ancestral ways within a new Christian structure. In the conquest and colonization of America the Church played a crucial role, and the evangelization of the diverse regions of the subcontinent was regarded as a Christian duty by priests and friars and a vital means of control by colonial officials. To preach a religion free from political pressures, some missionaries devised an alternative evangelization, such as the peaceful preaching of the Gospel by Bartolomé de Las Casas, the hospital villages of Vasco de Quiroga in Mexico modelled on More’s Utopia, and the reductions of the Jesuits in Paraguay.

Roman in faith and morals, the colonial Church was Spanish in organization and discipline. This model, transmitted through the agencies of bishops, priests, and religious, was implanted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the eighteenth century, however, under pressure from Bourbon monarchs, the colonial Church became unmistakably a state Church. The task of the historian is to trace this process and to identify the two features, wealth and privilege, which made the Church vulnerable to Bourbon policy. The narrative will record not only the religion of clerical elites but also the faith of the people. Priests throughout the Americas made a distinction between morality and piety: their people were believers but sinners. The faith was sound but behaviour imperfect, and adultery, concubinage, drunkenness, murder, and theft were widespread. The gap between faith and morals was an enduring though not exclusive feature of Latin American Catholicism and a source of scorn to outside observers.

The trauma of political independence divided the Church but eventually forced it to disavow the colonial state and to collaborate with national governments. Spain was replaced by Rome as the fountainhead of doctrine and discipline. At the First Vatican Council Latin American prelates adopted conservative positions on matters of faith and morals, and supported the definition of papal infallibility. The Romanization of the Latin American Church coincided with the liberalization of Latin American states. In the second half of the nineteenth century the Church had to accept the loss of temporal power and privilege and the triumph of the secular state. New Worlds will seek to explain the wide variations of Church–state relations in the different countries of Latin America, and will suggest that where the Church was large, in clergy and resources, as in Mexico, it was more likely to provoke anti-clericalism and envy, but was also in a stronger position to defend itself. The ensuing conflict would probably be bitter and lead to wars of religion.

The twentieth century brought further problems for religion. It required the dramatic impact of social conditions and urgent prompting from Rome to alert the Church to the need for change. Mass immigration and incipient industrialization seriously tested the institutions of the Church. Gradually the great cities of Latin America were transformed and often de-christianized. The papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) proclaimed the rights of labour and the injustices of economic liberalism, and advocated a degree of state intervention in favour of workers. It was a cry of alarm as well as a call for justice, and in Latin America the message met with a varied response: in some countries prompt and serious, in others slow and timid; among the lower clergy with some enthusiasm, among the hierarchies less so.

The reaction of the Church to populist dictators, such as Perón in Argentina, is a phase which the book seeks to clarify. More serious challenges to religion were presented by the military dictators of the second half of the twentieth century. Divisions between traditionalists and progressives became more pronounced as the Church had to define its policies towards repressive regimes, speak out for social justice, and make clear its defence of human rights. The historian has to make distinctions not only between traditionalists and reformists but also between younger clergy influenced by their seminary experience outside Latin America who sought to add a social dimension to the Church’s message, and some of their more radical colleagues who advocated a socialist and Marxist version of Christianity.

Further impetus to modernization was given by the Second Vatican Council. The assertion in favour of religious toleration went against many ingrained prejudices of an older Catholicism, while the promise of greater collegiality raised hopes, some of them false, for a more inclusive Church. Liberal Catholics in Latin America were disillusioned by the response of the hierarchies to Vatican II and by the pace of change in its aftermath. While the present narrative does not aim to give equal treatment to every single country, it seeks to include all major issues, and it studies regional differences in religious experience, between the southern cone, Andean America, and the Caribbean; the position of the Church following the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions and its response to the Pinochet regime in Chile are also examined. Ideology was changing. In Brazil, in particular, liberation theology inspired new thinking about social conflict and social change, and basismo (grassroots religion) was regarded by some as a model for future religious development and by others as a deviation from orthodoxy.

In addition to the main narrative the book also studies a number of special subjects which stand out for their singularity and general interest. The Spanish struggle for justice in the conquest of America and the defence of the Indians by Las Casas and others in the face of conquerors and colonists has generated a spirited debate among historians.  The case of slavery and the slave trade was an issue from which the Church did not emerge with its reputation intact, and in the case of Brazil drew the rebuke that ‘our clergy’s desertion of the role of the Gospel assigned to it was as shameful as could possibly be’. The Jesuit reductions and so-called ‘Jesuit state’ in Paraguay are more than a curiosity; they illustrate some of the basic problems of religion in conditions of colonialism. The concept of popular religion distinct from official religion is frequently invoked by historians and sociologists.

But the word ‘popular’ has many connotations. Religion too is notorious for its diversity. Together the terms can cause confusion. Liberation theology, its development, controversies and implications, is a story worth telling, and in the religious history of countries such as Brazil and Nicaragua it cannot be ignored. It may emerge in the course of the book that some of these themes form a thread of continuity in concern for justice and peace running from the Church of the early conquest to that of later times.

Professor John Lynch

Professor John Lynch

Some historians now speak of ‘Latin American religions’ rather than ‘religion’, and it is true that native American, African, and Protestant traditions have all been part of the Latin American experience, while modern evangelical churches have also taken root. These tendencies will not be neglected, nor will the presence of the Jewish community be forgotten. But the evidence suggests that for five centuries the defining religion of Latin America has been Catholic and this is the assumption on which my book has been written.

John Lynch is Emeritus Professor of Latin American History and former director of the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London. He is the author of more than a dozen books on Latin American topics. He lives in London.

New Worlds is available now from Yale University Press.

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