The historical role of the Church in Latin America


The historical role of the Church in Latin America


The Catholic Church in Latin America began with the Spanish colonization of the Americas and continues up to the present day.

In the later part of the 20th century, however, the rise of Liberation theology has challenged such close alliances between church and state. Pope Francis has embraced many elements of liberation theology, especially the dedication of the Church to the poor and marginalized. In comparison to Europe and other Western nations, the Catholic Church still has a major influence in Latin American society.

The Christian era began in the New World in 1492. The Spanish introduced a different moral code, baptism, the Mass, new concepts of good and evil, the idea of Heaven and Hell, the Virgin and saints, a new constitution of the family and the concept of the crucified Christ. The arrival of the Church in the New World terminated human sacrifice and cannibalism. Christian concepts suffused native art, Indians were forced to occupy a secondary position in the social structure and eventually became servants of the Spanish king and members of the Church’s “flock.”

The historical role of the Church in Latin America

It is important that students recognize that the history of the Catholic Church in Latin America was not merely an adjunct to the conquest or a side issue in the later independence movement but, rather that the history of the conquest and the history of the Church, itself are completely intertwined. The Inquisition in Spain became a reign of terror in the New World. Temples were razed and idols were destroyed as aboriginal cultures were viewed as manifestations of the devil.

An examination of the history of the Church in Latin America is necessary for today’s student to understand liberation sympathy in Latin America since the 1960’s. The student must understand the long history of the Church in that area. He must understand the role of the Church in the eras of the conquest and independence. He must be familiar with some of the dominant personalities of those periods, the treatment of the Indians during and after those periods and why the Church is so heavily involved in liberation today.

The historical role of the Church in Latin America

The purpose of this unit is to provide the teacher with a course outline and a narrative extrapolation of one unit within the course outline. The outline provides a chrolological overview of the history of the Catholic Church in Latin America. This course outline which details the history of the Catholic Church in Latin America before and after Independence and the effects of liberation theology. This outline will enable any teacher to teach a course using the organized information in the outline. An annotated bibliography for each section has been provided so that teachers and students can explore further any aspect of the course. The narrative provides an in-depth look at one aspect of Church history in Latin America, the Jesuit experience in Paraguay. This enlargement can be expanded to produce a coherent teaching unit. One cannot understand Latin America without understanding the history of the Catholic Church in the region. Catholicism has been predominant in Latin America and it has played a definitive role in its development. It helped to spur the conquest of the New World with its emphasis on missions to the indigenous peoples, controlled many aspects of the colonial economy, and played key roles in the struggles for Independence.

The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America offers a concise yet far-reaching synthesis of this institution’s role from the earliest contact between the Spanish and native tribes until the modern day, the first such historical overview available in English. John Frederick Schwaller looks broadly at the forces which formed the Church in Latin America and which caused it to develop in the unique manner in which it did. While the Church is often characterized as monolithic, the author carefully showcases its constituent parts—often in tension with one another—as well as its economic function and its role in the political conflicts within the Latin America republics.

The historical role of the Church in Latin America

Organized in a chronological manner, the volume traces the changing dynamics within the Church as it moved from the period of the Reformation up through twentieth century arguments over Liberation Theology, offering a solid framework to approaching the massive literature on the Catholic Church in Latin America. Through his accessible prose, Schwaller offers a set of guideposts to lead the reader through this complex and fascinating history.

Religious trends

Roman Catholicism continued to be a powerful force in the second half of the 20th century. Its influence could be seen in the continuing prohibition, almost everywhere, of abortion and in the tendency to play down official support (which nevertheless existed) for birth control campaigns. Relations of the Roman Catholic Church with the state and with society at large were meanwhile affected, however, by new currents within the church itself. The movement of renewal and reform undertaken by the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) favoured mainstream Catholic teaching and practice at the expense of popular “folk Catholicism” yet led to a somewhat more tolerant approach toward other denominations. In addition, coinciding as it did with the impetus given to leftist movements by the Cuban Revolution, the call for renewal inspired an influential minority of priests and nuns to seek a synthesis of religious faith and political commitment under the banner of liberation theology.

The historical role of the Church in Latin America

Some priests actually joined guerrilla bands, while others laboured to “raise the consciousness” of their flocks concerning social injustice. This brand of activism met with general disapproval from Latin American governments, especially military regimes, some of which brutally persecuted the clergy involved. It also divided the church, and without gaining the widespread popular allegiance that “liberationist” clergy had hoped for. In the late 20th century the principal religious development was a rapid expansion of Protestantism, especially the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. With a primary emphasis on individual spiritual improvement and salvation and a closeness between ministers and laity that neither traditional nor renewed Catholicism could match, the Protestants rapidly increased their numbers throughout Latin America. In countries as diverse as Brazil and Guatemala there were by the end of the century more Protestants than actively churchgoing Roman Catholics. Protestantism was not strong among traditional elites or in intellectual circles, but its adherents were beginning to attain positions of influence. One of them, General Efraín Ríos Montt, briefly served as military dictator of Guatemala (1982–83).


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