Globalization, civil society and religion from a Latin American standpoint.

Author:Romero, Catalina
Position:Statistical Data Included

Catalina Romero (*)

Religion in Latin American is Catholic and is becoming universal, ecumenic and global. Since the 16th century, the people of Peru have fought to retain their cultural identity despite Western encroachment. This paper explores three particular issues: (1) the interplay of the local and the global in the recent history of the Catholic church, (2) the emergence of a theological thinking which is grounded in the practical world and in the consciousness of the poor and middle class citizens, (3) the expansion of civil society with the diversification of the elite and the incorporation of the rural and urban masses. Finally, the impact of these internal changes and how they relate to globalization in religion and culture is examined.


The convergent topics of globalization and the Christian millenium provide a framework to the following introductory notes on the relation of religion to civil society in Latin America, in the new global context.

Jose Casanova's presidential address to the ASR (1) introduced us to the phenomenon of globalization in the new millenium, while offering a comparison to the millenium of 1000 A.D. Casanova reflected on the way culture affects the definition of time. In Latin America we have our own notion of time, and as a Peruvian I experienced a sense of emptiness when looking back a thousand years when Christianism was not present.

Millenium, Time Milestones and Territory

In 1992 the Catholic world celebrated the fifth centennial of Christianity in Ibero America -- a most controversial event. As a result, the focus of many articles and manuscripts during that year was related to the role of religion in the first wave of authentic globalization which took place in the 16th century. Catholic church history in the Americas (2) begins at a crucial point of European Catholicism. Jose Casanova (this issue) reflects on the epoch in relation to the territorial dimension of the Catholic church in Europe:

The dissolution of Western Christendom undermined the role of the Papacy as the spiritual head of a universal Christian monarchy. The Papacy lost, control of the national Catholic churches to caesaropapist Catholic monarchs and it itself became territorialized into the Papal States, reduced to being just another marginal and increasingly irrelevant sovereign territorial state. One by one, most of the transnational dimensions of Medieval Catholicism receded or disappeared altogether. It is not surprising therefore that the Catholic church remained for centuries adamantly anti-modern and developed a negative philosophy of history.

A consequence of the Catholic church's movement to America was a recreation of a "universal" Christian monarchy in America. Under the caesaropapist dominion of the Spanish Crown, colonial Catholicism established a vast territorial domain and a historical extension of Christendom, this time as a Catholic monopoly. The universe encompassed more than Europe -- it now incorporated areas of the globe which were previously unknown. The Papal domain was reduced to a small state as notions of territory changed in Europe. These notions translated to America, where the whole Andean universe became Spanish territory, and the indigenous nations became a "pariah" (3) people (Weber 1978:493) in their own lands. The small Papal state in Rome was powerful enough to legitimate, by Papal decree, the colonization of the new territories by the Catholic Iberian monarchies. Today, the Pope, as the only representative of the universal Catholic Church, can sign international agreements with particular national states which provide special status to the Catholic Church in each context (Ruda 2000; Marzal 1998).

In America, a continent far distant from European modernity, religious self reflection produced a historical perspective, if not a philosophy of history. The debate between Bartolome de Las Casas and Gines of Sepulveda on the perception of American Indians as "others," and on the injustice and illegitimacy of removing their right to self determination and governance (Gutierrez 1993) is an example. A human rights perspective (4) appears in Las Casas' work as he defends the right of Indians to self governance and to organize their lives according to their culture and traditions. This argument has been re-examined by Latin American theologians, (5) most of them Catholic, but also became of interest to Protestants when modernization started changing the post-colonial structures around the continent.

Conflicting emotions are elicited by reflecting on history, particularly that of Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Paraguay, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil, where indigenous populations are integrated in society. After all, five hundred years are not long in world history, and the millennium takes place at another critical moment of transformation of the notion of universe itself. But the new millennium introduces a fresh perspective and a sense of the urgent need for optimistic reflection on contemporary and future issues from the perspective of those "below and behind" the rest of the world. The many modern advances of the world have shifted attention toward issues of human relations, social action, culture and identities. Not only has communication technology opened the world for access by most people but the old strategy of social mobility through migration continues to offer people the expectation of progress. Descendants of Aztecs, Mayas, Incas, Huancas, Collas, Mapuches, Guaranies, Charruas, and other nations that mixed their cultures with Navarres, Basques, Castillians, Aragons and Andaluzians, find new opportunities to blend their ideas and traditions with modern notions of self and identity, power and negotiation, success and failure, progress or exclusion.

In this new context, religious revivals of indigenous beliefs and practices are picking up fragments of religious rituals left behind: coca leaf readings, Pachamama (or mother earth) cults and rituals, Apu (mountain divinity) and Illa spirits (spirits of well-being providing goods and wealth) are being rediscovered in the Andes. The chamans and other religious healers are gaining new legitimacy in their leadership in the Amazon where indigenous nations are many in number and greatly dispersed, yet they are minorities in absolute numbers. As well, grassroots religion or popular Catholicism provides an opportunity for the re-creation of religious bonds amongst the migrants in cities. Cultural backgrounds become intermixed and paths blended when people migrate to towns and cities (Marzal 1988).

Beliefs and practices are being reconstructed in several ways -- in building a new sense of community after emigration, as a method of cultural reflection to make sense of everyday life, as a commodity in generalized market relations, or as folklore or examples of local ethnic flavor for tourists. But they can also be a source for theological reflection -- an opportunity for individuals to analyze traditions and beliefs in terms of their personal lives and their communities. This reflective mode and the critical knowledge it generates reconstitutes a religious sphere of social action that may contribute to the creation of a more universal world.

Global Processes and Local Life

As a second introductory note, I would like to comment on the relation between global economic and political processes on one hand, and local life experiences and processes of reception, on the other. Globalization in the religious sphere underlines the importance of the "situation" for "action" and of "context" for "interpretations." What happens when the church in Rome thinks locally but the message is global? Or, when Europe, both east and west, becomes the reference for discourse or action meant to be universal? How will directives regarding discourse and action received in Peru, in America, or in Africa depend on time and context? These factors influence the outcome such that it may be quite opposite from that envisioned by the objectives that motivated the message. Religious globalization, as a cultural phenomenon embedded in the lifeworld, operates differently than market globalization, and also in a different dimension than the religious system, (6) unless religion and culture become commodities or in dustries for trade.

To substantiate this argument I offer examples of three different situations to aid in understanding the interplay of the global and the local in religion. The first example involves the Second Vatican Council, which was organized as a response to the established European modernity and for the aggiornamiento of the Catholic church. When the message of the Council was delivered to Latin American Catholics at the Medellin Conference of Bishops, it was reinterpreted to 'fit' contemporary Latin American culture. As the global became local, the change in time and context altered the meaning and impact of the message. Thus, the message was timely and has impacted positively on the philosophy and theology of history. Religion is present in the Latin American process of modernization, accompanied in the process of self-reflection by both Christians and non-believers, by life experiences.

The Pope's support for Lech Walessa and the union workers of Solidarity in Poland offers a second example of a local response. In Peru, at the same time, the Pope offered unexpected support for a wave of national strikes against Liberal reforms. This Papal outreach offered reinforcement to Catholics whose religious beliefs led them to become involved in social issues, but who felt they were being restrained by the local Catholic hierarchy. Convergence of time in different contexts can produce very different outcomes.

Finally, the Jubilee and the Millenium -- a time of celebration in the Catholic church -- has a main theme of liberation and justice and a central message of...

To continue reading