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  • The Jesuits in Latin America, 1549–2000: 450 Years of Inculturation, Defense of Human Rights, and Prophetic Witness
  • Sabine Hyland
The Jesuits in Latin America, 1549–2000: 450 Years of Inculturation, Defense of Human Rights, and Prophetic Witness. By Jeffrey L. Klaiber, S.J. Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2009. Pp. viii, 463. Maps. Bibliography. Index.

In this work, Klaiber, a highly respected scholar of the Peruvian church whose previous work has focused on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, expands his focus to include all of Latin America from the colonial period to the present day. To compile this impressive survey of the Jesuits in Mexico and Central and South America over 450 years, Klaiber researched archives in the Jesuit Historical Institute in Rome, the Pius XII Library at St. Louis University, and the Woodstock Library at Georgetown. To chronicle the modern period he visited almost every province of the Jesuits in Latin America, where he interviewed local historians, both Jesuit and lay. The result is a uniquely thorough exploration of how the Jesuits in Latin America promoted inculturation, defended marginalized groups, and creatively adapted native cultures to Christianity.

Certainly, the Jesuits garnered impressive successes in Latin America. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Society founded dozens of missions in what are now Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay, creating Christianized Indian societies with vernacular music, drama, and catechesis and defending these natives against Portuguese and Spanish settlers who wished to enslave them. Jesuit scholars, such as the missionaries José de Acosta and Anello Oliva, wrote detailed accounts of indigenous culture and customs. In the twentieth century members of the Society of Jesus played a leading role in championing the rights of workers, peasants, and indigenous groups. Jesuits such as Juan Luis Segundo and Manuel Díaz Mateos played major roles in the development of liberation theology, while other priests, such as Miguel Pro in Mexico and Ignacio Ellacuría in El Salvador gave their lives in the defense of the poor and oppressed.

Klaiber’s writings about the twentieth century form the most valuable section of the book, providing a narrative of relatively recent events based on the recollections of those directly involved in the Jesuits’ political and theological activities. One of the most interesting aspects of the latter part of the book are Klaiber’s summaries of the work of leading Jesuit intellectuals in Latin America. In addition to the thought of theologians like Ricardo Antoncich and José Luis Idígoras, he succinctly presents the ideas of “anthropologists and multiculturalists” like Marcello de Carvalho Azevedo, Manuel Marzal, Bartomeu Meliá, Xavier Albó, and Enrique Jordá.

Readers should be warned, however, that Klaiber’s vision of the role of the Jesuits in colonial Latin America is a particularly rosy one. Anything that might cast the Spanish American Jesuits in a negative or critical light is left out of Klaiber’s account. For example, the fact that the Jesuits in colonial Peru practiced a policy of strict racial exclusion, refusing to accept men of mixed Indian descent into the Society, while the Franciscans and Mercedarians actively promoted mestizo vocation in their orders is never mentioned. Likewise, Klaiber downplays the predominant and continuous role of Jesuit [End Page 150] advisors in the large-scale and brutal colonial campaigns to extirpate idolatry, in which native peoples were stripped, flogged, and imprisoned for practicing their native customs. Outside of these limitations, however, The Jesuits in Latin America, 1549 – 2000 is an informative, lively, and well-written book, one that will be of interest to Latin American historians, anthropologists, and interested lay people for years to come.

Sabine Hyland
St. Norbert College
De Pere, Wisconsin


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