Guatemala’s Catholic Revolution is an account of the resurgence of Guatemalan Catholicism during the twentieth century. By the late 1960s, an increasing number of Mayan peasants had emerged as religious and social leaders in rural Guatemala. They assumed central roles within the Catholic Church: teaching the catechism, preaching the Gospel, and promoting Church-directed social projects. Influenced by their daily religious and social realities, the development initiatives of the Cold War, and the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), they became part of Latin America’s burgeoning progressive Catholic spirit.
Hernández Sandoval examines the origins of this progressive trajectory in his fascinating new book. After researching previously untapped church archives in Guatemala and Vatican City, as well as mission records found in the United States, Hernández Sandoval analyzes popular visions of the Church, the interaction between indigenous Mayan communities and clerics, and the connection between religious and socioeconomic change.
Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, the Guatemalan Catholic Church began to resurface as an institutional force after being greatly diminished by the anticlerical reforms of the nineteenth century. This revival, fueled by papal power, an increase in church-sponsored lay organizations, and the immigration of missionaries from the United States, prompted seismic changes within the rural church by the 1950s. The projects begun and developed by the missionaries with the support of Mayan parishioners, originally meant to expand sacramentalism, eventually became part of a national and international program of development that uplifted underdeveloped rural communities. Thus, by the end of the 1960s, these rural Catholic communities had become part of a “Catholic revolution,” a reformist, or progressive, trajectory whose proponents promoted rural development and the formation of a new generation of Mayan community leaders.
This book will be of special interest to scholars of transnational Catholicism, popular religion, and religion and society during the Cold War in Latin America.
Part 1. Foundations
1. Papal Power and Church-State Relations
2. The Romanized Church
Part 2. Expansion
3. The Resurgent Church
4. The Missionary Church
Part 3. Transformations
5. The Reformist Church
6. The Progressive Church
Bonar L. Hernández Sandoval is assistant professor of history at Iowa State University.
"I found Hernández's book to be an insightful study of changes in the Catholic Church in Guatemala during the middle decades of the twentieth century. His work provides a base for reflecting on the importance of institutional decision making for future generations of religious adherents who find themselves trying to make sense of what it means to act in social and political affairs."—Matt Samson, Davidson College
"As an anthropologist of Christianity in Guatemala with some fifteen years of research experience, I learned a tremendous amount from this book and am excited to teach the book in graduate courses on Latin American Christianity. The book blazes new trails with a careful, creative, and original analysis of Guatemala's Roman Catholic Church in the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. It is an obvious and necessary contribution to the field and will certainly find a readership among Latin Americanists concerned about Christianity."—Kevin Lewis O'Neill, University of Toronto
“Bonar Hernández Sandoval’s historical analysis of Guatemala’s Catholic revolution demonstrates the capacity of religion and religiosity to generate social change over time. Using Catholic correspondence from both archives within Guatemala’s Catholic Church and Vatican City archives, Hernández demonstrates how priest and parishioner jockeyed to transform the Catholic faith from a 'Romanized church' to a reformist, even revolutionary church over a crucial fifty-year span in Guatemala’s turbulent, twentieth-century history. This artful analysis sheds light on many of the internal dynamics within the faith between parishioner and priest, missionary and lay leader, that would provoke state censorship and repression, and encourage insurgent mobilizations.” —Douglass Sullivan-González, University of Mississippi
“Hernández Sandoval convincingly shows that the move towards a progressive Catholicism was not straightforward, but rather the result of how distinct strategies of missionization aggregated over time to produce a vision of Catholic religious life that emphasized the agency of the laity.” —Reading Religion
On December 21, 1967, the Guatemalan government expelled from the country four Catholic missioners. The four clerics – Sister Marian Peter, Blasé Bonpane, and the brothers Arthur and Thomas Melville – were members of the U.S.-based Catholic Mission Society of America, better known as Maryknoll. During the preceding months, the Maryknollers had joined a small number of radicalized laypeople that concluded that the solution to Guatemala’s longstanding history of political exclusion, social inequality, and institutionalized racism resided in the formation of a Christian-inspired revolutionary movement. A new generation of socially committed clerics and lay activists, they believed, would lead this armed revolution. These revolutionary Christians planned to join the incipient Marxist-inspired insurgency that had emerged earlier in the decade in the eastern part of the country while at the same time retaining their “Christian identity.” This radical Catholic movement did not materialize in the late 1960s, for news of the missioners’ radicalized posture soon reached Maryknoll authorities and officials at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. Shortly thereafter the four American missioners were forced to leave the country and boarded a plane headed for Miami.
The expulsion of the Maryknollers took place against the background of an emerging progressive religious and social movement within the Catholic Church, which received much inspiration from the theological opening inaugurated by Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) and his call for an ecumenical international council. This Church meeting, collectively known as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, brought together Church leaders, prominent theologians, and laypeople from around the globe in a series of gatherings between 1962 and 1965. Vatican II marked a theological shift within the global Church, for it encouraged clerics and lay Catholics to engage modernity and people’s spiritual and social realities. In Latin America, these transformations coalesced during the second meeting of the Conference of Latin American Bishops (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano, CELAM), held in 1968 in Medellín, Colombia. This gathering gave Latin American Catholics the religious and social perspective for adapting and applying Vatican II’s conclusions to the social and political circumstances of the region. It equipped them with the language to articulate a new set of pastoral priorities, in the process leading many Catholics to denounce socioeconomic inequality, political exclusion, and other forms of oppression. Thus, a new generation of Catholic activists emerged as advocates of a progressive religious trajectory, which partly was encapsulated by Liberation Theology and its accompanying “preferential option for the poor” posture. During the 1970s, this socially conscious generation of Catholics became radicalized by the violence brought about by the Cold War and oftentimes joined various local and transnational social and political movements.
This narrative about Latin American Catholicism serves as a reminder of the transformative effects of Vatican II and the Medellín conference. It highlights how Catholics, inspired by global and regional developments, took an active role in advancing a variety of social causes. In addition, it has given scholars a framework for situating the Latin American Church within the context of increasingly polarized and militarized societies. For, as they have reminded us, the proponents of Liberation Theology carried out their pastoral work in the midst of – and oftentimes in opposition to – state-sponsored violence during the Cold War. Sister Marian Peter, Bonpane, the Melville brothers, and other socially committed Catholics were not an exception in this respect. Their progressive pastoral position and subsequent radicalization was part and parcel of the religious and political changes affecting the Guatemalan and, more broadly, the Latin American Church in the aftermath of World War II.
Despite its interpretative value, this Vatican II-centric canvas – which posits Vatican II and Medellín as watershed moments – sheds little light on the historical circumstances that nurtured the religious and social environment that fostered a progressive Catholic ethos. It fails to clarify why national churches whose leaders espoused patently conservative and anticommunist positions and generally supported military regimes eventually produced a grassroots generation of Catholics who challenged Latin America’s religious, social, and political traditions and structures. Thus, as Daniel Levine reminded us twenty-five years ago, “common impression that Vatican II was the sole source and spark for change in the Latin American churches requires modification.” In the case of Guatemala, a perspective that considers Vatican II and the Medellín conference as turning points at the expense of other historical narratives obscures the long-term context that explains why clerics and lay Catholics alike became committed to transforming their societies through the lenses of a Christian-inspired religious position. It does not fully illuminate, moreover, how and why not an insignificant number of Catholic missioners and laypeople surfaced as active participants in the Cold War, pushed forward a progressive brand of Catholicism, became advocates of a new social order, and threw their support behind or joined armed revolutionary movements.