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Reviewed by:
  • Religious Pluralism, Democracy, and the Catholic Church in Latin America
  • Virginia Garrard-Burnett
Religious Pluralism, Democracy, and the Catholic Church in Latin America. Edited by Frances Hagopian. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. Pp. xxix, 498. Figures. Tables. Index. $45.00 paper.

This edited volume helps to fill a lacuna in the growing literature about religious competition in Latin America, as it focuses specifically on the Roman Catholic Church, not on the evangelical churches that have attracted so much scholarly attention in recent years, nor on the secularization debates that have long preoccupied theoreticians in the field. At nearly 500 pages, this work, much of it data-dense and theory-driven, can be a hard slog, but it is well worth the effort. In all, the volume offers a careful and well-argued case for enduring Catholic vitality.

The central questions raised by this work stem from several key premises, most importantly that, although half of the world's Catholics live in Latin America and the region has not yet fallen to the tide of secularization that has swept across most of Europe, today's Latin American Church is seriously challenged by greatly increased religious pluralism [End Page 116] and competition. The challenge is a serious one indeed to an institution known for its slowness to react and an internal decision-making process that is based in many ways on conflicting priorities—the need to balance evangelization and moral authority while assuring the Church's institutional security, for example. As Frances Hagopian writes in her introduction, "Today, Latin America stands at a crossroads between the decaying core of Roman Catholicism and its vibrant pockets of growth and hope, between a Catholic past and an uncertain future framed by religious and political pluralism" (p. 1). Yet, the contributors to this rich volume, built around both quantitative and qualitative case studies, clearly illustrate that the future of the Church is not uniformly bleak, as evinced by the nimbleness of local bishops to adapt and sort out Church priorities within local contexts, and of the willingness of the institution, within reason, to permit the strategic management of local options. As contributor Daniel Levine underscores, pluralism indeed offers challenges, but it also offers opportunities.

The contributors to this volume represent some of the most distinguished scholars in the field of religion in Latin America. To this reviewer's eye, the case studies by Roberto Blancarte and Soledad Loaeza on Mexico, which discuss not only the erosion of the Catholic Church's social authority but also the rise in its moral authority as a public institution, are especially provocative. At the same time, strong chapters by Cristián Parker Gumucio (Chile), Catalina Romero (Peru), and Mala Htun, who writes on reproductive issues, greatly expand and nuance our understanding of the Church's role in the twenty-first century public sphere—a role that is much diminished from its historic strength, and which yet retains a vitality and responsiveness to local conditions that one might not initially expect. While the specific case studies are each useful in their own right, the greatest value of the book is its overarching argument, which is this: the Church, at its most effective, responds to challenges such as pluralism, competition, and secularization through its status as an "embedded church," that is, through the nature of its connections to civil society.

In her chapter on social justice, which is one of the centerpieces of the book, Hagopian argues that given the common order of (conflicting and overlapping) priorities and preferred positions that the Church at large supports, it is up to each national episcopate to respond to its own strategic dilemmas. The degree to which each national episcopate is successful in responding is dependent on: its capacity to mobilize the faithful for the goal of protecting the Church's institutional interests; the directions in which local Catholics can exert influence on and pull the local bishops; and the nature of political risks that the Church faces. Against this matrix, local bishops must also try to prioritize and achieve larger Church goals: defending and expanding the institution of the church, keeping the flock, maintaining public financial support for...


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