Catholic responses to the crisis of everyday life in Lima, Peru.

Author:Williams, Philip J.

Since the end of the 1980s, Peru has undergone a dramatic political and economic transformation. The failure of traditional political parties to solve the country's deepening economic crisis and political violence led Peruvians, especially poor Peruvians, to turn to a former university rector and political unknown, Alberto Fujimori, in what some saw as a last desperate attempt to stave off total breakdown. In 1990, Fujimori took over the reins of government in the context of hyper-inflation and a growing threat from the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla movement. In his first year of office, Fujimori implemented a draconian shock therapy program, despite having campaigned against such policies during the elections. Like his counterparts elsewhere in the region, Fujimori jumped on the global bandwagon of neo-liberal economic reforms.(1) Feeling increasingly frustrated by political opposition parties in the legislature, Fujimori shut down the Congress in April 1992 and suspended the constitution in a coup d'etat that undermined the country's fragile democratic transition.(2) The move opened the way for implementation of his structural adjustment program and his stepped up offensive against Sendero Luminoso. By the end of 1992, inflation was brought under control, and, in the following year, the economy began to grow again. The market-oriented reforms seemed to bear fruit as the country experienced some of the highest growth rates in Latin America between 1994-95. Finally, the capture of Sendero's top leader, Abimael Guzman, in September 1992 resulted in a significant decline in political violence, especially in Lima, where Sendero had established a firm foothold. Not surprisingly, Fujimori was re-elected in 1995 with overwhelming support. Despite the government's apparent economic and political success, an economic downturn in 1996-97 and political missteps by Fujimori made his government look increasingly vulnerable by 1999.

The period of the 1980s and first half of the 1990s produced significant social dislocation in the country. The political violence in the highlands fueled massive migration to urban areas. In addition, Peruvians in growing numbers began leaving the country as a result of the high levels of economic and political uncertainty.(3) By the early 1990s, Lima's popular districts were bursting at the seams. The increasing influx of migrants stretched the city's already inadequate infrastructure to its limits. Life was characterized by growing levels of violent crime, deteriorating infrastructure, lack of basic services, high levels of unemployment, housing shortages, pollution, and a rise in the spread of infectious diseases.

For poor Peruvians, the traditional strategies for confronting the crisis of everyday life were no longer adequate. Clientelist strategies that may have worked in the past were complicated by the demise of traditional political parties that once dominated patron-client networks. More radical strategies adopted by popular movements in the 1970s and 1980s were undermined by the disintegration of the Izquierda Unida (United Left), which had provided essential support and protection for such movements in the past.(4) Many have increasingly resorted to more individual strategies of action. Some have looked to their local church, be it Catholic or evangelical, for direction and support,(5) while others have drawn on their own religious resources to make sense of the challenges confronting them

This essay explores the relationship between religious beliefs and practices and the public and private involvements of poor Catholics in Peru. In particular, the focus is on the process by which Catholics in two popular districts in Lima draw from their religious "repertoires" to make sense of and develop strategies of action in response to dramatic social, economic, and political changes. Building on the work of Ann Swidler(6) and Rowan Ireland,(7) religious "repertoires" refer to sets of "symbols, stories, rituals, and worldviews, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems."(8) These religious repertoires are experiential constructs "which at once enunciate a cosmos and shape the conduct of everyday life."(9) Since people use these repertoires to make sense of the world around them, our approach takes off from a phenomenological perspective.(10) First, in addition to religious doctrine and its institutional manifestations, we are interested in the practice of religion as expressed in narrative, ritual, and symbols. Second, we try as much as possible to work "with the categories people use in ordinary discourse,"(11) paying attention to the meaning or set of meanings that people attach to their actions.(12) Lastly, we highlight how personal experiences, together with structural factors, shape people's religious beliefs and understandings, and their actions.

Catholics in Lima engage in two main strategies of action: PUBLIC (those that seek to advance the public interest and include citizen involvement in civic or community affairs) and PRIVATE (these involve introspective acts such as prayer or engaging in public activity to improve one's own personal material interests, such as working for wages).(13) Religious repertoires can influence the choice of strategies as well as set boundaries that limit their scope. Some repertoires encourage a mix of private and public action while others emphasize one to the disadvantage of the other. The role of religious repertoires in sustaining existing strategies of action and constructing new ones can vary, depending on what Swidler(14) refers to as "settled" vs. "unsettled" periods. During "settled" periods, people living within a given structural condition are likely to resort consistently to the same strategies of action. Even within an enduring structural condition such as poverty, however, changes can occur either within people's personal lives or within social institutions; such changes may then encourage people to choose from their religious repertoires in ways that emphasize one form of action over others, depending on the situation. Moments of intense personal crisis and seeming-helplessness, for example, may encourage people to resort to personal actions such as prayer. "Unsettled" periods marked by major social transformation, on the other hand, may encourage people to communally develop public strategies of action to resolve their needs. During "unsettled" periods, personal crises may be exacerbated, forcing people to return to their religious repertoires to establish new strategies of action, both public and private. However, the very nature of "unsettled" periods makes it unlikely that new strategies of action will persist once conditions have stabilized into a predictable, "settled" pattern. In the particular case study presented here, we argue that changes--in national and local structures, parish institutions, and people's own personal experiences since the late 1980s--have encouraged poor Catholics in Lima to draw from their religious repertoires in ways that de-emphasize public, largely political strategies of action in favor of more private, "self-help" strategies.

The changes in Peruvian Catholicism documented in this article reflect broader trends in the region. Earlier studies of Latin American Catholicism adopted a largely institutional focus, exploring the role of bishops' conferences, clergy, and pastoral agents in promoting opposition to military authoritarianism and denouncing human rights abuses and social injustice.(15) With the transitions to civilian democratic rule and electoral politics in the 1980s and 1990s, the Catholic Church became just one voice among many. In this new political landscape, most church leaders preferred to adopt a position "above politics" so as to "allow parties, unions, and voluntary associations to serve their legitimate functions."(16) Others, however, favored continued political involvement. In the context of growing confusion and division, scholars became more skeptical about the church's ability to influence national politics.(17)

At the same time that the political arena was becoming more contested, scholars turned their attention to growing pluralism within the religious arena and to the religious motivations of ordinary believers. Early studies of the growth of evangelical Protestantism contrasted the political involvement of the "progressive" or "popular" church with the supposedly "apolitical" nature of evangelical churches.(18) More recent literature has moved beyond this problematic dichotomy to focus on the ambiguity of evangelical Protestantism(19) and the declining political influence of the "popular" church,(20) emphasizing the growing convergence of Catholics and evangelicals alike to focus on the needs and challenges presented by "local" or "everyday" life.(21) Nowadays, proponents of liberation theology are just as likely as evangelical leaders to embrace pastoral approaches that focus on local community issues: drugs, gang violence, street children, family disintegration, domestic abuse, and inadequate local services. This study not only supports this finding, but also reveals that Catholics may emphasize private strategies of action instead of--or in addition to--public actions.

The research for this essay was carried out in the municipal district of Comas between May and August 1996 and in the "self-managed" community of Huaycan between October 1996 and June 1997.(22) One Catholic parish was selected in each of these locations for research purposes. In Comas, we will call the parish La Resurreccion, and in Huaycan, San Pablo. In the two parishes combined, we administered questionnaires to a total of eighty-four active lay members and conducted in-depth interviews with thirty active laypeople, as well as with clergy and religious.(23) In each parish, we attended numerous religious services, meetings of various...

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