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A comprehensive history of the church in Latin America faces the problem of any history of Latin America: with Independence in the early nineteenth century, the story splits into eighteen or so national experiences. Moreover, historians in Latin America research the history of their own countries, and are unlikely to step away from their own country to write a work on the region. An exception is the Argentine Enrique Dussel, who has edited a multivolume history of the church and written at least two survey histories, which have been translated. Latin Americanists who came of age in the 1960–1990 period often assumed that the countries of the region were in the midst of a revolutionary process and that tended to color their work. Not surprisingly, there has been no recent satisfactory general history of the Catholic church in Latin America.
Schwaller, a historian of the church in colonial Latin America, especially Mexico, has opted to provide a framework for considering broad themes and issues in this history. The first five chapters consider colonial society: the pre-1492 roots, the nature of the conquest, and contrasts between the seventeenth-century Baroque and the eighteenth-century Bourbon reforms, which helped set the stage for independence. Three chapters cover the nineteenth century, from independence and the struggles between liberals and conservatives and implications for Catholicism. The twentieth century [End Page 100] is likewise covered in three chapters, starting with the Mexican Revolution.
Almost all chapters begin with a sketch or anecdote of the church in one country and discussion of its significance, followed by similar situations elsewhere in the region. The chapters are essays rather than encyclopedic accounts overloaded with detail. The accent tends to be on traditional issues of church and state, and hence of several pages of political developments before considering the implications for the church. Only modest use is made of the results of recent work in social history.
I find the earlier sections more satisfactory than the treatment of developments since the mid-twentieth century. The last two chapters seem to cover much of the same territory, e.g., telling the story of liberation theology twice. Schwaller seems to have little sense of the trauma wrought by the military regimes that practiced massive torture, murder, and disappearance. In dealing with Chile and Central America he is perhaps primarily dependent on written sources and is unable to distinguish what is most significant. Sometimes he simply gets it wrong, e.g., as when he states that when the Latin American bishops met at Puebla in 1979 the region was beginning economic growth that would sustain it. In fact the 1980s were universally called the “lost decade,” and for most countries sustained growth did not begin until after 2000.
Those reservations aside, Schwaller provides a competent account of developments before the contemporary period.