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  • Reforming Catholicism:Papal Power in Guatemala during the 1920s and 1930s
  • Bonar L. Hernández (bio)

“The status of Catholicism in Guatemala is truly deplorable,” remarked one Vatican diplomat as he gathered information about the Catholic Church in Guatemala in the 1920s. Its sorry condition, another papal representative contended, originated from the Liberal reform of the 1870s.

In Guatemala, Liberals had implemented an anticlerical project that stripped the Catholic Church of its corporate privileges. The program resulted in the separation of Church and state, the abolition of religious orders, the expulsion of foreign clergy, and the expropriation of church property. By the early twentieth century, there remained in the country about 80 priests for a population of 2 million, with the consequence that vast rural areas remained out of the doctrinal influence of the Church.1 The Guatemalan Church, in other words, had lost its ability to influence the economic, political, and moral direction of the nation.

Yet, by the second half of the twentieth century the Catholic Church had reemerged as an important social, and oftentimes political, actor in Central America. Beginning in the middle decades of the century, the Guatemalan Church underwent an institutional expansion in many ways reminiscent of its [End Page 255] growth during the sixteenth century.2 The resurgence, which largely rested on the arrival of foreign clergy and economic resources from the United States and Europe, allowed the Church to assert its presence among the Guatemalan population and to take part in the major social debates of the period. In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) in particular, Catholic clerics and laypeople began to take public positions regarding the most pressing socioeconomic problems facing the country. The Catholic Church had surfaced as a key religious and social institution in modern Guatemalan society.3

The historiography of Guatemala has greatly advanced our understanding of the growth of the Guatemalan Church during the second half of the twentieth century. A number of scholars have examined the influx of foreign priests and nuns between the 1940s and 1960s that left the Church largely dependent on foreign resources.4 Others have studied the emergence and evolution of Catholic lay associations such as Catholic Action, as well as the impact of these organizations on Mayan communities in the Western Highlands.5 Still others have documented the “radicalization” of Catholic pastors and laypeople, particularly in the context of Vatican II and the highly charged political climate of Guatemala’s long internal armed conflict (1960-1996).6 [End Page 256]

Even so, historical scholarship has shed only partial light on the roots of Guatemalan Catholicism’s twentieth-century expansion. Recently declassified Vatican archival sources and official publications by Guatemalan priests allow historians to begin to chart the foundations of the institutional revival of the Guatemalan Church. This material, which corresponds with the papacy of Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), suggests that the Vatican provided the impetus for the resurgence of Guatemalan Catholicism during the twentieth century.7 It did so by moving on various fronts. During the 1920s and 1930s, the “deplorable status” of Guatemalan Catholicism prompted the Roman Curia to extend and consolidate its religious authority over the Church in Guatemala. Under the aegis of a network of career papal diplomats, the Holy See spearheaded a new era of Church-state conciliation. This renewed political relationship allowed Church leaders to envision and put in motion a program intended to reform the Guatemalan Church and bring about, in their own words, a “re-Christianization” of Guatemalan society.

This article calls attention to the centralization of papal power, the “Romanization” of the Guatemalan Church, and the evolution of Church-state relations. In so doing, it complements the existing historiography on the Vatican and its activism during the papacy of Pius XI. These scholarly works have underscored the rise of a Church-state rapprochement during the so-called age of dictatorship of the 1920s and 1930s.8 The discussion below seeks to relate the institutional growth of Guatemalan Catholicism to the broader history of papal activism during the interwar period. It calls attention to the continuing [End Page 257] influence—or more precisely, the dominant influence—of the Church of...


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