Saturday, February 1, 2014

Todd Hartch's "The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity"

Todd Hartch is Associate Professor of History at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky. His first book, Missionaries of the State: The Summer Institute of Linguistics, State Formation, and Indigenous Mexico, examined the role of the Wycliffe Bible Translators in Mexico.

Hartch applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity, and reported the following:
In looking at Christianity in Latin America over the past 60 years, I wanted to highlight both the desperate situation of “business as usual” Catholicism and the vibrancy of Protestant and Catholic reactions that have developed in recent decades. This page, which outlines the crisis of rapid urbanization and the Catholic Church’s inadequate initial response, describes the rings of shantytowns that grew up around major cities:
The institutional Catholic Church, unprepared for what amounted to the creation of entire new cities over the course of just a few years and suffering from both a priest shortage and a growing panic about the superficiality of the faith in places that did have priests, responded weakly. The hierarchy sent few priests to the shantytowns and built few churches and virtually no schools in these areas. In effect, most of these new urban areas had to fend for themselves as far as religion was concerned. From the migrants’ perspective, this institutional neglect proved more damaging than might have been expected. Since rural folk Catholicism had a strong local element that revolved around local patron saints, specific sacred places, and festivals infused with local customs, it did not transfer well to the new urban environments where people came from different regions of a given country, where the sacred caves and springs were only a distant memory, and where people from other regions had no familiarity with the rituals and distinctive calendars of their neighbors. Consequently, even devout migrants faced a religious dilemma: how could they keep the faith in the new environment?
This is the question that The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity seeks to answer. In a nutshell, many did not keep the Catholic faith, but rather turned to Pentecostalism. Even those who did stay in the Catholic fold rarely practiced the same kind of Catholicism. Base ecclesial communities, in which small groups prayed and studied in the Bible, often in ways influenced by liberation theology, provided one popular option. The Catholic Charismatic movement gave others the opportunity to speak in tongues while continuing their devotion to Mary and the saints. New ecclesial movements, lay Catholic groups characterized by specific charisms and emphases, offered another way to be Catholic in the challenging urban environment. The Focolare movement, for example, has over one million members in Latin America.

Early Catholic failures prompted some scholars to ask “Is Latin America Turning Protestant?,” but the story I tell is one in which the challenges of urbanization and Pentecostalism (and also military dictatorships and secularization) served as catalysts for the revitalization of Catholicism. Today, in fact, a Latin American is pope and the region is sending Catholic missionaries to Europe and the United States.
Learn more about The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue