From ............. National Catholic Reporter
May 6, 1994
THE CHURCH IN LATIN AMERICA, 1492 -1992
Edited by Enrique Dussel ....... Published by Orbis Books
Review by GARY MacEOlN
Historians of Latin America long identified three forces as determining the nature of the society: the oligarchy, the army and the Catholic church. Then they proceeded to describe the first two in detail while touching on the third superficially and with minimal scholarship.
Francois Houtart, Louvain-based sociologist, set out to remedy this defect in the 1950s as editor of a 48-volume survey published in Spanish in Madrid and never translated. It was a gigantic pioneer effort, producing some excellent volumes and others that revealed the scarcity of reliable data.
Latin Americans themselves took up the task with the foundation in 1973 of CEHILA, the Commission for the Study of Church History in Latin America, headed by Enrique Dussel, an Argentine who studied in Spain, France and Germany, with doctorates in philosophy and history. CEHILA's first major project was an 11 volume General History of the Church in Latin America, many of whose authors are contributors to the present work.
In the introduction Dussel sets out the guiding principle: Jesus identified the specific historical purpose of his mission as bringing the Good News to the poor. The meaning of the historic presence of the church in Latin America is found in its impact - positive or negative - on the poor. The criterion for the historian "is not the triumphalism of the great cathedrals or the splendor of papal coronations or emperors, but the mutual love in the 'breaking of bread' in persecuted, poor missionary, prophetic Christian communities."
The work consists of three parts: a chronological survey on a continent-wide scale, a regional survey and eight special subjects. It concludes with an extensive description of sources and a monumental bibliography. In the regional survey, Moises Sandoval contributes a fascinating account of the church among Hispanics in the United States, starting with the Easter celebration in 1513 by Ponce de Leon of "La Gran Pascua Florida," the Spanish name of the feast. He traces many of today's problems for the institutional church to the elimination of indigenous church leadership in the Southwest after it became part of the United States in the l9th century. While major efforts have been made in recent years to treat Hispanics as first class church members, gaps remain that help to explain the rapid growth of Hispanic Protestants. In 1990, they numbered 4 million, one-fifth of all Hispanics.
Equally fascinating is the treatment of Protestantism in Latin America in the "special subjects" category. The author, Jean-Pierre Bastian, a Protestant, is the coordinator of the Protestant sphere for CEHILA. The traditional Protestant churches, he argues established themselves and survived in a hostile climate because they provided a structure for democratic radical liberals.
The contemporary forms of fundamentalist Protestantism that are making enormous inroads derive instead, he says, from a popular, corporative and authoritarian religious culture. They are collection of new non-Roman Catholic religious movements with characteristics of the messianic movements of the 19th and early 20th century. Rather than Protestant, they are a kind of autonomous popular Catholicism set over against the church, syncretistic, with autocratic leadership in the tradition of the caudillo.
Given the initial commitment to write history "from the underside," it is hardly surprising to find a recurrent criticism of the prevailing Vatican policy of increasing Roman control of all church activities.
"Its aggressive centralizing control is paralyzing the clergy at the time they most need creativity and freedom,"
says Jose Comblin in a survey of the church's attitude to human rights.
Disillusionment with a church that continues to identify with oppressive regimes and with the sham democracy of the new world order, he suggests, is a major factor in the growth, not only of Pentecostalism; but of African and indigenous religions and practices.
"The church is losing control over the religion of the masses," Comblin writes.
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