Author: Larkin, Brian R
Date published: June 1, 2012
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Until recently anyone searching for a survey on church and religious history in Latin America would have come away empty handed. Luckily in the past five years three such texts have been published. John Schwaller's book is the most recent addition to this small pool. It is a broad, but concise synthesis aimed at the non-specialist. It focuses primarily on the institutional, political, and economic history of the church in Latin America, providing much detail on shifting church-state relations, ecclesiastical landholding, and the financial practices of various church bodies from the conquest to the present.
Each of three recent surveys of the church and religion in Latin America is valuable. But not surprisingly given the vast area and time covered--two continents and over five centuries--each has a different focus. The first published, Christianity in Latin America , provides a unified narrative of ecclesiastical and religious history (Ondina E. González and Justo L. González, Christianity in Latin America: A History [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008]). It is particularly strong in its coverage of the colonial period and the rise of Protestantism in modern Latin America. The second text, Religion and Society in Latin America , is a collection of essays on broad topics that, as a whole, introduces many themes and issues in Latin American church and religious history (Lee M. Penyak and Walter J. Petry, eds., Religion and Society in Latin America: Interpretive Essays from Conquest to Present [New York: Orbis, 2009]). This work is arranged thematically and offers depth of analysis on those topics that are included. But it lacks a cohesive narrative frame and therefore leaves gaps uncovered. Like Christianity in Latin America , Schwaller's The Catholic Church in Latin America offers a clear, coherent, chronological narrative of church history. It begins in fifteenth century with the rise of the Aztec and Inca states and their use of religion in empire building and continues through Spanish conquest, colonization, evangelization, independence, nineteenth-century church-state conflicts, twentieth-century revolutions and the rise of liberation theology to end in the present day. Given the author's specialty in colonial Mexican church history, the colonial period receives much and well deserved attention. For this period, Schwaller pays particular attention to differences in missionizing practices among religious orders--contrasting the Franciscans' emphasis on setting personal examples of Christian humility and charity for indigenous converts to the Dominicans' approach centered on formal doctrinal instruction--and disputes between regular and secular clergy over the right to administer Indian parishes. Unlike Christianity in Latin America , Schwaller maintains his focus on the Catholic Church in the modern period, only briefly discussing the rise of Protestantism. This focus, however, lets the author expand upon important issues related to the history of the modern Latin American Catholic Church. This is most clear in Schwaller's detailed treatment of the many church-state conflicts that arose in early republican (mid-nineteenth century) Latin America and the rise and fall of liberation theology. Rather than simplify these complex stories, the author examines how each of these trends unfolded in various countries and thus reveals the national differences that complicate smooth narratives.
The Catholic Church in Latin America has two other strengths. First, the author provides a wealth of political, economic, and social context for his discussions of ecclesiastical developments. This thorough grounding of church history in its broader environment will be particularly helpful for those not well acquainted with Latin American history. Second, Schwaller writes in a simple, direct style that many will appeal to many and be intelligible to undergraduates.
Writing a concise survey, however, necessitates choices of what to leave out. In this case, Schwaller excluded thorough discussions of local religious practice and culture. Although in chapter introductions and conclusions he does allude to changes in forms of religious practice and belief, readers will have to look elsewhere for detailed examinations of indigenous and African-inspired folk Catholicisms, baroque religious practice, Enlightenment piety, and the lived experience of membership in ecclesial base communities. Pairing The Catholic Church in Latin America with essays contained in Religion and Society in Latin America would provide readers with both the breadth and depth necessary for a solid introduction to the ecclesiastical and religious history of Latin America.
St. John's University