The second half of the 20th century saw monumental changes in both the political landscape of Latin America and the global institution of the Catholic Church. Maya and Catholic Cultures in Crisis is an ambitious book that seeks to document how the encounter between local Maya communities and the pastoral agents of the Catholic Church contributed to these changes and the implications that this encounter had for the practice of Catholicism in Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala. As an anthropologist with long-standing interest and experience in Mesoamerica and a former Catholic priest, John Early is well situated to examine the ideological, social, and religious shifts that have taken place in the region since the 1940s.
Early's previous book, The Maya and Catholicism: An Encounter of Worldviews (2006), examined Mayas' encounter with Catholicism from the colonial period through the early Republican period. In that book, Early argued that a Spanish ideology of social purity tempered direct colonial control of indigenous communities, giving the latter a modicum of social autonomy through which they developed a uniquely Maya vision of Christianity that retained key elements of their pre-Colombian worldview, the chief of which was the idea of sustaining a covenant of mutual reciprocity between the realms of humanity and of the divine. Maya religiosity further flourished during the 19th century when Republican policies severely curtailed the Catholic clergy's activities in Mexico and Guatemala.
If they had largely been left to their own devices until then, by the middle of the 20th century changing economic and political conditions forced rural Mayas into newly volatile national landscapes. The cumulative effect of population growth, state policies promoting modernization, and [End Page 651] an economy that increasingly emphasized export commodities was that Maya communities began to experience a severe economic crisis precipitated by the loss of control over land. As this crisis came to a head in the 1940s and 1950s, Catholic clergy were once again permitted to take an active missionary role in Maya communities, and in doing so, came to face numerous social and theological challenges. Maya and Catholic Cultures in Crisis focuses on how non-Maya Catholic clergy and Maya laity responded to the political, social, and spiritual crises that followed this renewed contact.
The book is divided into nine sections (30 chapters) that document various aspects of this encounter. Parts I and IX offer a general introduction and conclusion to the research, respectively. Part II lays out key aspects of the Maya worldview, argues for why its core elements were retained despite colonial domination, and contextualizes the crises Maya communities faced due to the land crisis. Central to Early's argument is the notion that by mid-century, material conditions were such that people's faith in the sustaining "Maya covenant" (20) had been shaken, leading to a "crisis of culture" (82) which prompted some to seek out alternative understandings of the world and their place in it. This coincided with the Catholic Church's renewed evangelizing efforts, which are the subject of Part III. The Church initially sought to (re-)introduce orthodox Tridentine Catholicism, but its missionaries soon found that this approach was untenable due to the material problems that their target communities faced. Thus, they began to couple their missionary efforts with development projects in what came to be called Catholic Action. These programs also instituted the framework for increased involvement from a Church-sanctioned lay leadership (catechists) that could counter the influence of traditional Maya priests.
The experiences of Catholic Action's pastoral agents fed into larger shifts within Catholic theology. Part IV traces how these theological changes were discussed and instituted globally (the Second Vatican Council), regionally (the Second Latin American Bishop's Conference in Medellín), and locally (diocese and parishes). Early frames these shifts as resulting from a series of ideological crises within Catholicism itself. In Latin America, this led to the development of liberation theology, which proposed that social justice was an integral part of spiritual development. Specifically, it meant that any evangelizing efforts should also lead to Mayas' economic...