The Modern Period

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The Modern Period

The Catholic Church was the most important colonial institution to survive the Wars of Independence. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the church was the principal symbol of tradition and stability in the midst of political and social change. It touched the lives of everyone, but its influence was felt most deeply among the lower classes and the rural peasantry. Religion not only offered consolation, but Sunday morning Mass or the patron saint's feast day were natural occasions to socialize or sell wares in the village plaza. But this most traditional of all institutions, after undergoing a series of prolonged crises in the post-Independence period, experienced a profound transformation in the 1960s. Since that time the church has emerged as an advocate of human rights, democracy, and social change.


The Wars of Independence produced internal cleavages within the ranks of the clergy. The upper clergy (which consisted of six archbishops, thirty-one bishops, and other dignitaries), most of whom were Spanish, remained loyal to the king, whereas large sectors of the lower clergy, most of whom were creoles, supported the insurgent movement. When independence was finally achieved, most of the bishops and many priests and religious were obliged to return to Spain. The church also contributed much of its wealth, sometimes unwillingly, to both sides.

In spite of these difficulties, the church as a whole came out of the wars relatively intact. In Mexico, Miguel Hidalgo, José María Morelos, and other priests who fought and died for the independence of their country were considered patriots and heroes. Liberal clergymen such as Francisco Javier de Luna Pizarro in Peru and Deán Gregorio Funes in Argentina helped to write the constitutions of their respective nations and played important roles in politics. Most of these liberal priests belonged to the secular clergy.

The religious clergy, which unlike the secular clergy included many Spanish missionaries in colonial times, fared less well. The liberals associated the religious orders with the old regime, and in many countries they confiscated monasteries and enacted laws severely limiting membership in the orders. Impoverished national governments saw the extensive lands and possessions of the church as a potential source of funds with which to support their governments. For liberals especially, diminishing the power of the orders fulfilled both a political and an economic goal. As a result, the religious way of life for both men and women underwent an institutional crisis from which it did not recover until the end of the nineteenth century, when more cooperative regimes took office.


The major post-Independence crisis, however, concerned the episcopal vacancies. The new republican governments attempted to assume control over the church by creating a national patronage in place of the old Patronato Real, or royal patronage. But the Holy See refused to recognize these claims of the new governments. As a result, most dioceses of Spanish America remained vacant for lengthy periods. Finally, the different governments and the Holy See entered into formal agreements (concordats) or arrived at informal arrangements by which the state could name bishops, who in turn would have to be approved by Rome. By the middle of the 1830s, the episcopacy had been restored in most countries of Spanish America.

In the process, however, the Latin American church also became "romanized." If before the church was principally a Spanish church, now it became a Roman church, reorganized and centralized under the pope. Although all the new bishops were Latin Americans, Rome preferred men who were obedient to the papacy, and that implied not being sympathetic to liberalism. But overdependence on Rome also limited the church's ability to deal creatively with Latin American realities.

The bishops reopened the seminaries and standardized them according to criteria laid down in Rome. In 1858 a seminary (known as the South American College) for Latin Americans was founded in Rome. The majority of Latin America's bishops have been drawn from priests who have studied there. At the same time, liberal clergymen were marginalized in the church. Rome's ties to Latin America were further strengthened when the Latin American bishops participated in the First Vatican Council (1869–1870) and again, in 1899, when the bishops attended a special plenary council for Latin America, convoked by Pope Leo XIII.

Brazil and Cuba

For different reasons Brazil and Cuba escaped the general pattern for the church that emerged elsewhere in Latin America. When Brazil achieved its independence in 1822, the monarchy assumed control of national patronage of the church. As a result, the Brazilian church did not fall under Rome's direct jurisdiction until the end of the monarchy in 1889. Also, liberal clergymen such as Diogo Antônio Feijó, who served as regent of the empire (1835–1837), enjoyed greater freedom from Rome than their counterparts in Spanish America. The otherwise harmonious relations between Pedro II and the church were interrupted by the "religious question" between the years of 1872 and 1875. The emperor imprisoned two bishops when they followed papal orders that forbade Catholics from participating in Masonic activities. The provisional republican government separated the church from the state in 1890. For its part, Cuba remained under the church in Spain until its independence in 1898. After that, as in Brazil, it came under Roman jurisdiction.


After 1850 the liberals enacted more laws to curb the church's influence in society and to transfer its wealth and lands to the state or to private hands. The church reacted by organizing the laity into associations such as the Catholic Union and by publishing periodicals defending its positions. The church also sought out the protection of conservative caudillos and parties, a factor that further alienated it from the progressive middle classes. The persecution against the church was especially severe in Mexico as a result of the Reform Laws and the liberal struggle for power in the Reform Wars (1857–1860) and in Ecuador under the Eloy Alfaro Delgado regime at the turn of the century.

In the midst of the struggle with liberalism, the church suffered another, more serious crisis. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, the number of vocations to the priesthood declined considerably, especially in countries with a small middle class or with a large indigenous population. The reasons for the decline are varied. The liberal governments cut off economic support to the church, and the conservative image the church projected did not attract vocations from progressive sectors of society. Also, the church required that candidates for the seminaries be able to read and write, a factor that disqualified the Indians and most peasants. In Central America in particular, the number of clergy declined precipitously in the late nineteenth century as a result. In Peru, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, among other countries, close to 60 percent of the clergy remains foreign born.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the church, concerned over its waning influence in society, brought over many different religious orders and congregations from Europe. The Daughters of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters, and similar congregations established many hospitals and charitable institutions for the poor. The Jesuits, the Sacred Heart nuns, the Ursulines, the Salesians, the Marists, and other teaching orders and congregations founded numerous schools, usually for the middle and upper classes, throughout all of Latin America.

Popular Piety

Liberalism made many inroads among the middle classes, but it did not touch the lower classes. The church continued to exercise considerable influence among the Indians, peasants, blacks, and mestizos who made up the lower classes, especially through the many local devotions that nourished popular religiosity. Some of the more famous popular devotions are Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, the Lord of Miracles in Lima, the Virgin of Luján in Argentina, Our Lady of Copacabana in Bolivia, and the Dolorosa of Ecuador. As a result of the spread of liberalism, many middle- and upper-class men ceased to practice their religion. The women, who did continue to practice, virtually became the mainstay of Catholicism in that social milieu.

Catholic Action

At the behest of Pope Pius XI, nearly every local church created a national branch of Catholic Action in the 1920s and 1930s. Catholic Action was an association of laypeople committed to the task of bringing new life to the church, defending it against its critics, and spreading the church's doctrine of social justice. In Brazil, Archbishop Sebastião Leme of Rio de Janeiro became the leading promoter of Brazilian Catholic Action. In Chile, Eduardo Frei Montalva in 1938 helped found the National Falange (National Phalanx), which drew together many young Christian intellectuals who were dissatisfied with the traditional church. Although not an official church organization, Frei's party (which became the Christian Democratic Party) contributed to the social awareness of Chilean Catholics. Mexico represented a unique case of Catholic Action in response to official government persecution. In reaction to the harsh anticlericalism of the Plutarco Elías Calles regime (1924–1928), many peasants led by middle-class Catholics, known as Cristeros (from their cry, "Long live Christ the King!"), took up arms against the central government in the Cristero Rebellion. But the church disavowed the movement and the Cristeros were forced into submission.

Most members of Catholic Action came from the urban middle classes. Some, such as Jackson de Figueiredo in Brazil and José de la Riva-Agüero in Peru, harbored integralist and authoritarian solutions to the problems of political unrest and the spread of socialism. But others, such as Frei in Chile and Victor Andrés Belaúnde in Peru, looked to the Western democracies as models for Latin America. Many of the leaders of Catholic Action became founders of the Christian Democratic parties.


Although the Latin American church in general continued to be very conservative in the post-World War II period, frequently legitimizing anti-Communist dictatorships, it was nonetheless influenced by the same tendencies and intellectual currents that had begun to affect the church in the developed world. In response to the priest shortage, Pope Pius XII and his successor, John XXIII, called for missionaries from Europe and the United States to work in Latin America. Hundreds of priests, nuns, brothers, and lay volunteers from the Western democracies flocked to Latin America in the late 1950s and early 1960s, bringing with them progressive attitudes and plans for development projects. The Maryknoll Fathers and Sisters, the best-known American missionary society, had already arrived in Latin America in 1942.

Certain churchmen were especially influential in awakening other Catholics to the need for change. José María Cardinal Caro, the archbishop of Santiago (1939–1958), fostered many social works for the poor. Juan Landázuri Ricketts, the cardinal-archbishop of Lima (1955–1989), built parishes and medical posts to aid the dwellers in the growing shantytowns. The massive migrations of the rural or mountain peasants to the big cities spurred church planners to be more innovative and creative. Other socially progressive churchmen were Dom Hélder Câmara of Recife, who won fame for his work among the poor; Bishop Leonidas Proanño of Riobamba, Ecuador, who was noted for his support of the peasants; and Bishop Manuel Larraín of Talca, Chile, who played a key role in preparing the way for the Medellín conference. In 1955 the bishops founded the Episcopal Latino Consemerricano Conselho Episcopal Latino Americano (CELAM), the permanent Conference of Latin American Bishops, for the purpose of coordinating the church's pastoral activities.

The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) was also instrumental in changing the mentality of many Latin American Catholics. The nearly six hundred bishops of Latin America who attended the council, though they contributed little to the theological discussions, acquired a deeper sense of identity as Latin Americans.

In the wake of the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the church felt the urgency of finding social solutions to Latin America's poverty, preferably by democratic means. In 1966 Camilo Torres Restrepo, a Colombian priest, joined a guerrilla movement and was killed shortly afterwards. His action dramatically underlined the fact that practicing Catholics were being subjected to the same dilemmas over the use of peaceful versus violent means that were causing divisions among Latin Americans in general in those years.

Medellín and Liberation Theology

In 1968 in Medellín, Colombia, 130 bishops attended the second general assembly of the Latin American episcopate. The bishops gave the church a mandate to foster social justice and to work in solidarity with the poor. The Medellín conference constituted a dramatic change for the traditionally conservative Latin American church. The bishops were especially influenced by liberation theology, which called for the church to help the poor in their struggle to free themselves from unjust social structures. Some of the principal liberation theologians included Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, Juan Luis Segundo, and Jon Sobrino. Also, the ideas of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire on education as a tool of liberation influenced many church groups. The basic nucleus in which liberation theology was put into practice was the base ecclesial community. A pastoral innovation created by the Brazilian bishops, a base ecclesial community consists of a small group of people who apply the lessons of the Bible to their everyday lives and to society in general. In the wake of Medellín, base ecclesial communities sprang up throughout Latin America. By 1991 Brazil alone had more than 150,000 of these communities.

Both Vatican Council II and the Medellín conference encouraged greater lay participation in the church. Besides forming base ecclesial communities, the laity also exercised leadership by becoming adult catechists, or delegates of the word. Other lay movements that flourished after Vatican II were the Cursillos de Cristiandad (Christian short courses: weekend retreats geared originally for men), the charismatic movement, and Encuentro Matrimonial (Marriage encounter). Religious women also changed their lifestyle and diversified their pastoral activities. Before Medellín, most religious women taught in schools or worked in hospitals. After Medellín they expanded their activities to include work in the shantytowns, the Andes, or the Amazon jungle as catechists, community organizers, and chaplains in prisons as well as health and social advisers. The church also diversified its educational presence. While it continued to administer many colleges and a few universities, it also opened up numerous schools for the poor and sponsored specialized short courses for working adults. The Fe y Alegría (Faith and Joy) schools founded by the Jesuits in many Latin American countries are among the more notable of these popular educational centers.

These radical changes led to conflict between the church, on the one hand, and on the other, dictators, the political right, and most of the military regimes that came to power in the 1960s and 1970s. In sharp contrast to the past, when it supported the military and conservative groups, the church, with few exceptions, took a leading role in denouncing violations of human rights and in encouraging democratic popular participation. Relations between the military, its right-wing sympathizers, and the church were very tense, and many bishops, priests, nuns, and laypeople were executed, tortured, or imprisoned in retaliation for their critical stance. Peru and Argentina were exceptions to this rule, for different reasons. In Peru, the military under General Juan Velasco Alvarado, was reformist and thus was supported by the church. In Argentina, where a right-wing military government (1976–1983) suppressed basic liberties and tortured and killed dissidents, the church hierarchy either sympathized with the military or maintained neutrality.

But the situation in Brazil manifested the general pattern more exactly. During the period of military rule (1964–1985), the national bishops' conference fully supported the movement to return to civilian government. Hélder Câmara, Cardinals Pablo Arns of São Paulo and Aloisio Lorscheider of Fortaleza, and Pedro Casaldáliga, a bishop in the Amazon, stood out especially for their denunciations of police and paramilitary brutality. In Chile, under the Augusto Pinochet regime (1973–1990), Raúl Cardinal Silva Henríquez of Santiago created the Vicariate of Solidarity, an organization intended to protect victims of political persecution and to search for missing persons. He and his successor, Juan Francisco Cardinal Fresno Larrain, were instrumental in organizing civilian opposition to the government. The church played a similar role in Bolivia, especially during the Hugo Bánzer Suárez and Luis García Mesa governments, and in Paraguay under Alfredo Stroessner.

In Central America and in the Caribbean, Catholics also stood out for their progressive positions. Nicaragua provided the most dramatic example of Catholic participation in a revolution. Early on, a moderate sector led by Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua took a critical stance regarding the Anastasia Somoza regime, and more radical Catholics from the base ecclesial communities, including many priests, actively fought with the Sandinistas to overthrow the dictator. After the revolution, however, the church was sharply divided. A few priests, notably Ernesto Cardenal, Miguel D'Escoto, and Fernando Cardenal, held important posts in the Sandinista government, much to the displeasure of the pope and Miguel Cardinal Obando. In 1980 unknown assassins shot and killed Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Romero, a leading critic of the military's excesses, became the most celebrated martyr bishop in Latin America. In Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest influenced by liberation theology, was elected president of the country in 1990. After the Cuban Revolution, the church vehemently opposed the Castro regime, and many priests went into exile. The government in turn marginalized the church's role in public affairs. After Medellín, however, the church sought to end its isolation by becoming a part of mainstream life on the island. By the middle of the 1980s, the state and the church had arrived at a mutually acceptable modus vivendi.

During the third general meeting of the bishops in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, tensions surfaced between progressives and conservatives. Pope John Paul II, elected in 1978, inaugurated the Puebla conference, and during the next decade he visited nearly every Latin American country. Everywhere he was received by enthusiastic crowds. He lent support to the bishops who were critical of liberation theology and other changes in the church. As a result, progressive-conservative tensions have loomed over church discussions since the Puebla conference. Over the last decades of the twentieth century, the church in Latin America became less clearly aligned with reformist politics and more focused on purely ecclesiastical issues and conservative social issues in keeping with papal teachings.


The percentage of Catholics in Latin America averages between 80 percent and 90 percent. In most countries, however, only about 10 percent of Catholics regularly attend church services. In 2004 there were 792 Catholic dioceses in Latin America, with 40,277 diocesan priests, 124,685 female religious, and 42,293 male religious (of whom 23,885 were priests). The average number of Catholics per priest is approximately 7,750. At one extreme is Panama (1 to every 4,542), at the other Honduras (1 to every 13,884).

See alsoAlfaro Delgado, José Eloy; Aristide, Jean-Bertrand; Belaúnde, Víctor Andrés; Boff, Leonardo; Calles, Plutarco Elías; Câmara, Hélder; Cardenal, Ernesto; Catholic Action; Chile, Political Parties: National Phalanx; Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM); D'Escoto Brockmann, Miguel; Feijó, Diogo Antônio; Figueiredo, Jackson de; Frei Montalva, Eduardo; Freire, Paulo; Fresno Larraín, Juan Francisco; Funes, Gregorio; Guadalupe, Virgin of; Gutiérrez, Gustavo; Hidalgo y Costilla, Miguel; John Paul II, Pope; Landázuri Ricketts, Juan; Leo XIII, Pope; Liberation Theology; Morelos y Pavón, José María; Obando y Bravo, Miguel; Patronato Real; Pedro II of Brazil; Pius IX, Pope; Proaño Villalba, Leonidas Eduardo (Bishop); Riva Agüero y Osma, José de la; Romero, Oscar Arnulfo; Silva Henríquez, Raúl; Wars of Independence, South America.


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                                                 Jeffrey Klaiber

                                              John F. Schwaller

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The Modern Period

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