Spirited away

The story of Christianity in Latin America is no longer a footnote to that of the religion’s evolution in other regions of the world


Christianity in Latin America:
A History

Ondina E. González and Justo L. González
2008, Cambridge University Press
331 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IN MEXICO, drug traffickers pray to Jesús Malverde, a nineteenth-century bandit claimed as the patron saint of narcos, and ask his icon to bless their bullets. In Bolivia, meanwhile, many peasants seek the intervention of San Ernesto de la Higuera or even El Cristo de Vallegrande – both forms of sainthood or divinity attributed to the guerrilla fighter Che Guevara.

While both popular saints remain, as yet, unrecognised by the Holy See in Rome, they reveal that from the north of Latin America to the south, Christianity is a highly inventive and syncretic faith that has touched every corner of the region since the Conquest and has been appropriated by the people, away from its institutional foundations, in surprising ways.

But the story of Christianity in Latin America is no longer a footnote to that of other regions – it has also become an integral part of the faith’s history and future worldwide. Liberation theology and Pentecostalism are just two examples of how the influence of Latin American Christianity is now such that it has become an active protagonist in theology, evangelism and has shaped the entire life of the church.

This is amply acknowledged by Ondina González and Justo González in Christianity in Latin America, who make the point that this is why they believe Latin American religious history is so important. They write:

“Latin American culture and religion are no longer confined to the lands south of the Río Grande. Latin American theology is now being studied and discussed by theologians in the United States, Germany and South Africa. This is one of many signs of the impact of Latin American religion on the rest of the world. So is the presence of Latin American missionaries and teachers in various regions of the world… A few decades ago, it was possible to tell the religious story of the United States with very little reference to Latin America and its religion. This is no longer the case.” [p. 10]

Impact of immigrants

Christianity in Latin America gives a valuable insight into how immigrants have had an impact on the religious life of the countries they have settled in, particularly the United States. A staggering half the congregation of the Catholic church in the US today are Hispanic or Latino, and the Virgin of Guadalupe can be found as the object of veneration from California to Hawaii.

The demographic growth of the Hispanic community has changed the way churches do business: since the late 1960s, the US Catholic church has sought to enhance its contact with the Hispanic grassroots, following the lead of what happened in Latin America itself with the establishment of base ecclesial communities or CEBs, a development that, in turn, changed the way priests were trained. A Catholic church began to develop in which laity played an increasing role, with Hispanic worshippers acting as “pastoral agents” to make up for the shortage of bilingual priests.

Hispanics, in particular, brought ideas culled from the “popular church” into US Catholicism but have also taken leadership roles among Protestant denominations that found a promising pole of growth as traditional congregations dwindled, as well as a fresh new source of ministers. Methodists for example, began to adopt strategic approaches towards Hispanics that were not unlike their Catholic counterparts.

Liberation theology became central to theological debate throughout the world in the 1970s, and Latin American Pentecostalism has also shaped dialogues among all Christians over the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The authors write:

“Theology, which for centuries had been translated into Spanish and Portuguese, was now translated from those languages… By the beginning of the twenty-first century, no one could claim to have a grasp of theology – or other theological fields, such as biblical studies or church history – without having some understanding of Latin American liberation theology.” [p. 310]

Similarly, Latin American Christianity has contributed significant leaders – and martyrs – to the Roman Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, and Latin American authors such as José Severino Croatta and Elsa Tamez have also made significant contributions to theological scholarship. Movements inspired by Christian beliefs, such as the Costa Rican aid agency Alfalit, have also expanded internationally.

Accessible religious history

Christianity in Latin America provides a balanced and accessible religious history that makes it clear this is by no means a linear narrative, with its multi-layered character explaining a unique diversity, and will be a valuable work of introduction and reference for students in several disciplines.

The authors do not just look at the institutionalised faith of the church, but aim to provide a social history of Christianity – how it determined the lifestyle and practices of ordinary people. They are candid in their recognition that actual religious life often does not match or express official church teaching and in Latin America – like anywhere else in the Christian world – the latter fused with pagan and ancient rituals and beliefs.

They argue that Christianity in Latin America was often ambivalent on matters of justice, freedom and the social order – a product of the close relationship between the church leadership and the royal policies of the colonial era. This gave it “two faces”, a bipolarity that has been reflected throughout Christianity’s evolution in the region: from the tension between those who gave the conquistadors religious sanction for their atrocities and those who defended the indigenous people such as Bartolomé de la Casas; to the divisions within Pentecostalism between those who eschewed engagement with social problems and those whose contact with the poor led them into social action. These tensions and divisions have, in fact, hindered the influence of Christian religions on society, and fuelled the case for ecumenism.

The authors point out that, throughout its history, Latin American Catholicism has lacked sufficient clerical leadership, a situation worsened by tensions with the hierarchy and the Vatican. One result of a lack of priests on the ground was the emergence of a church often led by the laity and, in turn, alternatives to the mass such as the public recitation of the rosary. This also ensured that the role of women in religious life was prominent, one early example of which was provided by the Mexican nun Sor Juana, who was able to persist in her intellectual pursuits despite the opposition of the church leadership. Even today in Latin America there is strong support for the ordination of women.

Ondina González and Justo González are also realistic in their assessment of the most significant challenges facing all Christian denominations in Latin America, one of which is the revival in some areas of ancient native religions as indigenous peoples struggle to recover their identity. Ancient Mayan ruins once considered only tourist attractions are being reinstituted as places or worship and traditional rituals are being revived in former Inca areas. This creates real dilemmas for Christians committed to the recovery of indigenous identity and raises the question – given the past tolerance of church authorities of native practices – of the degree to which elements of those religions can, or indeed should, be incorporated into Christian worship.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books