- The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity by Todd Hartch
Pundits and scholars frequently note the rise of Protestantism, especially Pentecostalism, in Latin America. One of the most influential examples was David Stoll’s Is Latin America Turning Protestant? (Berkeley, 1990). Todd Hartch’s new book documents the Pentecostal advance as well as the ongoing competition for adherents between Catholics and Protestants. But Hartch also contends that “Protestants proved much better at conversion that at retention” (p. 55), underscoring that Protestants also struggle to retain members who are attracted to other Protestant denominations, to Catholicism, to other religions, or to no religious practice. Thus, although proportionally Protestant gain and Catholic loss has marked the recent history of Latin American Christianity, the overriding dynamic is the advent of a religious culture of choice that impels all religious groups to engage their adherents actively. Indeed, the rising Protestant tide “served as a catalyst [End Page 964] to Catholic revitalization” (p. 56). It animated numerous Catholic pastors and lay leaders to fortify the cultural Catholicism of previous eras with apostolic initiatives that foster Catholicism as an intentional way of life.
Hartch notes that Catholic revitalization movements have reached the full range of Catholics, from the poor to the rich, the politically progressive to the conservative, the ordained and religious to the laity. These new developments include the emergence of a prophetic Christianity associated with liberation theology, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Catholic Action, base ecclesial communities, and new ecclesial movements like Focolare, the Sant’Egidio Community, and Opus Dei. Although the noteworthy influence of liberation theology has rightly garnered much attention, Hartch accentuates the simultaneous impact of other initiatives. He notes, for example, that as of 2000 some 75 million Latin American Catholics were participating in the Charismatic Renewal, outnumbering the 66 million Latin American Pentecostals and composing what the late Dominican scholar of Latin American affairs Edward Cleary deemed “the most important religious movement in Latin America” (p. 113). In fact, despite many ongoing challenges, the renewal of Catholicism in Latin America has resulted in an unprecedented global influence of Latin American theologies, religious practices, and lay and ordained missionaries.
The major critique of this reviewer regarding this book is the treatment of popular religion. Echoing a widespread judgment of popular Catholicism, Hartch contends that “in focusing on saints, rituals, and holy days, many Catholics lost sight of (or never knew) the radical nature of their religion, such as its calls for justice, charity, and world evangelization” (p. 167). It is not clear how this claim corresponds to Hartch’s subsequent and overwhelmingly positive summary of the influence of devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe beyond Mexico and Latin America. Moreover, while not denying the limitations of popular Catholicism, many scholars, pastors, and popes since Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) have noted how popular religion often fosters evangelical virtues, a sacramental worldview, a communitarian ethos, and hope and endurance amidst intense suffering. Hartch is not alone in his criticism of popular religion, but his assessment would be stronger if he responded to these counterarguments.
Nonetheless, this is a superb book that provides a highly readable introduction to Christianity in Latin America over the past half century. Hartch deftly inter-weaves broad analysis with concrete case studies that illuminate his major theses. He examines both the efforts of ecclesiastical officials as well as grassroots leaders and movements, particularly the often-underemphasized role of local lay leaders. The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity is strongly recommended for graduate and advanced undergraduate classes on Latin American or world Christianity, as well as for anyone interested in the seismic shift of Christianity to the global south. [End Page 965]