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  • New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America by John Lynch
  • Lee M. Penyak
New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America. By John Lynch. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2012. 384 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

Spain’s golden age, Habsburg colonial administration, the intendant system, Bourbon reforms, Spanish-American wars for independence, Bolívar and San Martín, caudillaje, liberals and Amerindians in nineteenth-century Argentina: Professor John Lynch’s publications on these topics have informed historians of Latin American history for over forty years. Lynch’s latest work on religious developments in Latin America represents another significant contribution to the field and complements a host of recent publications on this topic, such as those by Justo L. González and Ondina E. González (2007), Lee M. Penyak and Walter J. Petry (2006 Lee M. Penyak and Walter J. Petry (2009), Anna L. Peterson and Manuel A. Vásquez (2008), and John Frederick Schwaller (2011).

Lynch’s work consists of twelve chapters that examine the religious history of Latin America since the Spanish conquest: “Religion and Empire,” “Christianity in the New World,” “Religion in the Age of [End Page 451] Enlightenment,” “Independence: A Sinful Revolution,” “Creating a Latin American Church,” “The Religion of the People,” “Church and State in a Liberal World,” “New Century, New Challenges,” “The Church and the Dictators,” “Religion and Revolution,” “Difference and Diversity,” and “Between Liberation and Tradition.”

Lynch’s attractive writing style makes his lengthy study eminently readable. He raises provocative questions, justifies his responses, and unhesitatingly, in the manner of the early great modern historians, makes strong moral judgments. When treating African slavery and the Church, for example, he comments, “until Popes Pius VII and Gregory XVI the slave trade was not condemned in any [Papal] document . . . .” He then asks, “Why was this? Was it prudence and caution on a controversial subject? Was it pressure from the Spanish state . . . ? Was it a reflection of the mentality of the time? Whatever the answer, it was not a good record from an institution which should have been a defender of justice and freedom” (p. 57).

His forceful statements, sometimes debatable, keep the reader refreshed and alert. The lead sentence to his chapter “Religion in the Age of Enlightenment,” for example, reads, “The Enlightenment was not a friend of Christianity” (p. 64). When treating the Romanization of the Latin American Church in the nineteenth century, he characterizes Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors as “a crude and uncompromising compendium . . . a burden which damaged [the Church’s] prospects of peaceful growth in Latin America” (p. 148). In his deft chapter titled “Creating a Latin American Church,” Lynch summarizes the [Argentine] Desert Campaign of 1880–1885 thus: “The military solution to the presence of the Araucanian Indians in Argentina . . . did not arouse disquiet on the part of the Church, whose leaders, echoing the debates of the sixteenth century, assumed that pacification was necessary and was a precondition of evangelization” (p. 155).

Lynch’s superb treatment of the Church and liberalism in the nineteenth century focuses on Peru, Colombia, and Argentina, and not on Mexico, which is privileged in standard histories covering this topic. His analysis of the Church in Argentina post-independence is particularly rich. The author demonstrates convincingly how the conservative establishment and the church hierarchy forged an alliance to protect and promote their mutual interests. He states, “The Argentine elites felt threatened by class conflict . . . and sought to recruit the forces of law and order to their side . . . while Catholics, or some of them, saw the opportunity to make themselves useful to the state and better appreciated by the ruling classes” (p. 236). Later, when assessing [End Page 452] the Argentine Church during the “Dirty War” (1976–1983), Lynch describes “the conditions in the southern cone—poverty, injustice, oppression—[that] made these dilemmas more acute and the tests for the Church more demanding. The Argentine Church, a prisoner of its history and character, failed the tests” (p. 286).

New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America has several shortcomings. The significance of the title is elusive. A more appropriate title would be “The Catholic Church in Latin America from Conquest to...


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