Rendering Unto Caesar: The Catholic Church and the State in Latin America
By Anthony James Gill
University of Chicago Press, 1998, 224 pp
Religious Politics in Latin America: Pentecostal vs. Catholic
By Brian H. Smith
University of Notre Dame Press, 1998, 126 pp
Gill has written an original, challenging, and controversial book that investigates the evolution of the relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America since the 1960s. Starting in Brazil, the church began criticizing not only the human rights violations of the ruling military regimes but also their underlying authoritarian systems. Gill rejects the argument that Vatican II and the famous 1968 conference of bishops at Medellen made a critical difference. Instead, he argues that the grassroots competition facing the church framed larger church-state relations; Marxism was not the only challenge. Both Protestant fundamentalism and spiritism gained adherents among the poor but were seen as less of a threat to the state. In Chile, where Pentecostalism was growing in popularity, the Catholic Church (which initially supported General Pinochet) became a stern critic of the regime and expanded its pastoral work for the poor. The Argentinean Church, in contrast, did not face a major challenge from below and found no trouble legitimizing the military governments in the 1960s and 1970s. In the more pluralistic religious and political landscape today, Gill sees new challenges: conflicting pressures of democracy and authority within the church, growing demands of its parishioners, and a continuing loss of popularity among its base.
In a broader overview of religion and politics in Latin America, Smith finds that a new generation of conservative bishops has continued to preach the social doctrine of the church while denouncing unfettered capitalism -- despite Vatican efforts in the 1980s to curtail the intense social and political involvement of churches. Pentecostalism has become a significant force, especially among the poor, and even expanded its involvement in politics. Smith contends that Catholic-Pentecostal relations in issues such as church-state relations, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and contraception actually complicate democratic politics by exacerbating tensions between both Catholic and fundamentalist Christians and the secular majority that seeks a more liberal social agenda. An excellent introduction to one of the most important but understudied aspects of contemporary Latin American life.