Latin American Catholicism is quite different in its history from North American Catholicism. The form that Catholicism took in Latin America contributed to a widely diffused Anglo-Saxon stereotype of the black legend: an evil authoritarian church exploiting the peasants, in league with the landowners and the military. This stereotype, in turn, was spawned by earlier religious rivalries between Catholics and Protestants.
The Protestant view of Catholicism as a completely authoritarian church in which all power is concentrated in its infallible pope was reinforced by the reaction of the Catholic Church to the Reformation and to the Enlightenment. That view is a stereotype and, in fact, I will argue—I have often argued in my own writing in the last 40 years—that there are many currents in Catholicism and that those currents help to explain the dramatic changes in Latin American Catholicism which one sees today. Those changes are reflected in the Vatican II Declarations on Religious Freedom. In the recent book by Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave of Democracy, he argues that there was a 19th century democratic wave, a post World War II wave, and then a third wave in Latin America and Eastern Europe which was substantially assisted by support for democracy and human rights by the Catholic Church.
How did we get from an authoritarian, hierarchical, exploitative and repressive church to a defender of human rights and supporter for democracy? It seems to me that there are some historical reasons and there are some contemporary reasons. The historical reasons are that within the Christian tradition there has always been a kind of affinity between the Christian religion and a belief in human freedom, an affinity that began in the pre-Constantinian times in the church of the catacombs.
I was in Rome a few weeks ago and went through the catacombs and the excavations under Saint Peter’s, of the tombs of the martyrs and the early popes. All the earlier popes were martyred, starting with Saint Peter. His grave now excavated started out in a cemetery on the outskirts of Rome. One can actually see in the catacombs and churches of Rome, the first example of a separation between the official state religion and an active dynamic religious group that began in house churches, small groups working together to evangelize, and to make it possible for people to choose their religion and transform their lives.
After the period of the catacombs the Church was legalized by the Roman Emperor Constantine. The Church of the Middle Ages has been characterized as a feudalistic and powerful institution, which fostered inequality and persecuted heretics. To some degree, that is true. There are, however, other currents and elements in the medieval tradition that I, among others, have been studying, particularly the period from the 11th century on. This period begins with a struggle between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire (we would say church and state). Through this struggle theories of popular sovereignty evolved and the canon law system developed, which recent scholarship relates to modern ideas of human rights. The beginnings of human rights discussions are now seen as going back to the 14th, 13th, and even to the 11th century.
In the writings of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) he defended the rights of the Jewish parents to bring up their children in accordance with their religious beliefs. That was a right that contravened the right of the Church to take the children and convert them. He recognized a primary right of parents that overrides the rights of the church in terms of the education and religious upbringing of their children.
Similarly, on another point, Aquinas talks about the obligation that someone in a religious order has to disobey their superior if their superior commands them to do something he thinks is against his conscience. So rights of conscience are already anticipated in the Middle Ages. The beginnings of these rights are present, even if they don’t triumph. It took a long time for those rights to develop and it was not just the Reformation or Enlightenment that brought those rights to the fore.
I have written several books on the Conciliar Movement at the end of the Middle Ages. This movement was an effort to constitutionalize the church and limit the Pope. To trace the theories of human rights and representative government is a complicated process, but one can see how that theory developed among the concilitants in France and was brought by Scottish exiles under Queen Mary back to England. These ideas in turn eventually affected the discussions that England had in the 17th century during and after the civil wars leading ultimately to the theories of popular rule and human rights developed by John Locke.
In the Catholic tradition there were theories of human rights and democracy, but they were de-emphasized with the reaction to the Reformation. That reaction was one of panic and of the use of every means possible including simply handing over to the Catholic monarch’s control over the church in return for their enforcement of religious uniformity.
It is that Counter-Reformation Catholic Church that came to Latin America. It was also a Spanish church that had been on a crusade against the Muslims, who were finally expelled from Spain in 1492. The conquistadors were people who had been carrying on a religious war. That kind of religious motivation continues to be very important. So you have the development of colonization under the auspices of the cross and the sword. The conquistador, with the missionary at his side, converted the Indians sometimes by force and justified the conquest in terms of spreading religious truth.
There was a link between political authorities and church authorities and it was very close, especially through an institution, which survives until today in Latin America, the patronato. The patronato was the right of those who gave the money to establish a church, to name the priest that would run the church. A generalized right of patronage or patronato was given by the Pope to the Spanish monarch in 1510. Basically, the collection of church taxes, the tithe, the naming of bishops, the creation of dioceses, the authorization of religious orders—all of these which we think of as church responsibilities—were in fact part of the responsibility of the government of the Spanish Crown.
When the ideas of liberalism and democracy came to Latin America in the late 18th century and early 19th century, mainly from France, they were linked closely to the idea of breaking this type of union of throne and altar. So, the story of church-state relations in Latin America in the 19th century is one of struggle between anti-clerical liberals who were trying to break the power of the church, and conservatives who were closely allied to Catholicism and who felt that they were obliged to support all of these rights that were exchanged for the patronato. Land was given to the church to support it. There were special legal rights, "fueros," exemptions from civil courts. The Church had a monopoly over cemeteries. It also had authority over education, marriage and even registration as a citizen since you were registered through your parish.
The story of church-state relations in the 19th century is one of liberals taking back or taking for the first time areas that we think are appropriate to government: control of cemeteries, some role in the marriage and education, and the civil register. Some of those involved very brutal actions and wars that moved very far to control the church in places like Guatemala and Mexico. We think of the anti-clericalism in the Mexican Revolution in 1917 and the Mexican constitution as well as the kind of persecution is portrayed in Graham Green’s book, The Power and the Glory. In fact its roots go back to the 19th century, to the reforms of Benito Juarez and Simon Bolivar and to Mexico City and the reform of 1857,which were strongly anticlerical in character.
In the 20th century, you have a new development. There is no longer a polarization between liberalism and conservative Catholicism. You have new strains—developing before the Vatican Council but reaching fruition after it—such as the development of ideas of a strong Christian Democratic movement. In Latin America, Christian Democrats sometimes become the governing party. This is the case today in Chile, Venezuela, and Costa Rica, as it was formerly in Guatemala. In this view, Christianity is allied with democracy and human rights, including the right of religious freedom.
The Christian Democratic movement was largely a Catholic movement in Europe after World War II, except in Germany, where it included leading Protestants such as Ludwig Erhard. In Latin America as well, you did not have to be Catholic to be a Christian Democrat but simply support its reform program.
The 20th century also witnessed the development of a more radical strain, Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology entered into alliances in Central America with Marxists but it also included the promotion of basic Christian communities, as here in Brazil. These activities were justified in terms of the Good Book using biblical phrases. It became known as "the preferential option for the poor" and emphasized the Bible’s support for the poor.
The Church’s commitment to human rights, religious freedom, and democracy was fixed in a way, in Catholic doctrine by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The Catholic commitment to human rights and democracy, was a change for official Catholicism, which had been battling anticlerical liberalism all through the 19th century. That new strong commitment to human rights and democracy became very important in the period of military rule in Latin America which except for Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico. Costa Rica was under military rule for varying peri