Spirit level

New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America
John Lynch
2012, Yale University Press
404 pages, hardback

IF IT IS COINCIDENTAL that this magnificent history of religion in Latin America and the Caribbean has been published in the year in which the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the 50th anniversry of the Second Vatican Council, it is also appropriate.

For Vatican II, which began in Rome in 1962 and ended in 1965, represented a response by the church to a region of the world in accelerating secular motion and, more generally, to the forces of modernity everywhere that demanded new answers to old problems.

Moreover, as continuity and gerontocracy remain defining features of Catholic practice and organization, the current Pope, Joseph Ratzinger – the most enthusiastic adversary of Liberation Theology to occupy the role – was present throughout that defining moment in religious history as a theological adviser.

In 2009, Pope Benedict made his hostility to liberationism clear, arguing that the “deceitful principles” of liberation theology, at least in the Church in Brazil, have been “rebellion, division, dissent, offence, anarchy [that] are still being felt.”

Ratzinger began pursuing a personal campaign against Liberation Theology in this period, but it is best articulated in the Libertatis Nuntius, issued in 1984 when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which amounts not just to an effort to drive a wedge between ordinary Christians and the clerics attracted to Liberation Theology per se, but to a critique of Marxist analysis and ideas more generally which, he argued, were simply not compatible with a Christian concept of society.

Some Latin American Catholics voted with their feet, and the ripples that the Chiapas rebellion in Mexico in 1994 sent across the region voiced a cacophonous, if nonetheless garbled, riposte to the Holy See but more importantly to the Church’s ultra-conservative wing, deftly allowing them to be depicted as out of touch with the progressive movement in the region. Evidence of the profound contribution made by Liberation Theology to Catholic thinking but also the ideological development of Latin America and the Caribbean more generally can be found in some of the most important social thought to come out of the region since the 1970s – including the work of Leonardo Boff, Enrique Dussel and Juan Luis Segundo – who have drawn considerable inspiration from the founding father of Liberation Theology, the Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez.

Yet ultimately Rome and the conservatives would get their way, and Ratzinger’s speech in 2009 indicated how his position simply hardened with his accession to the throne.

In New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America, John Lynch explores with accessible candour this theme – inaugurated during what he calls the “springtime of the modern Latin American Church”, and one of the greatest triumphs of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, since the Counter-reformation – and the underlying historical tension that it exposes in the region between a foreign hierarchy deeply embedded in tradition and a more popular, local church shaped by the structural poverty and injustice all around them.

However, the author asks tellingly whether Ratzinger’s message to the Brazilian faithful and his choice of language raise questions about the information the papacy was receiving from Brazil, where a more nuanced position in the effort to reconcile church teaching with social change has emerged.

Lynch also points to a faith that has survived largely because of a peaceful coexistence between these wings, and how the era initiated in 1962 can be interpreted – despite the monolithic facade given to Roman Catholicism by its many critics – within a history of the church in Latin America since Conquest that understands it, primarily, as a dynamic institution, constantly in movement – a counter-motion, perhaps, to the cogs of secular machinery that are driving forward so many other aspects of life. The author writes:

“The liberationists arrived at the ebb tide of religion, a time of agnosticism and denial. Yet they found deeper waters beyond and from these they replenished the deposit of faith and restored it to modern life. While tradition confronts modernity, authority and liberty in the Church have remained indivisible, each a restraint on excess in the other.” [p. 366]

Lynch has mapped out with great precision the rise and evolution of religion in Latin America and the Caribbean – understood, realistically, here as primarily Christianity –according to this underlying dynamic. He examines how the church has adapted and changed in the eras of greatest change, from the Enlightenment and the rise of liberalism to the challenges posed by communist revolution and military dictatorship.

More importantly, he has remained faithful to his own congregation, delivering a topic of such vast breadth and scope that it would test the ability and intellect of most writers with an ease and conviction that is truly rare.