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The Catholic Church and Democracy in Chile and Peru.

By Michael Fleet and Brian H. Smith. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997. 378p. $45.00.

Philip J. Williams, University of Florida

These two books add to the growing literature on religion and politics in Latin America. Fleet and Smith's comparative study of the role of the Catholic church in the process of democratic transition and consolidation in Chile and Peru examines both the efforts of national church leaders and local clergy and activists. Sabia's work traces the emergence and evolution of the popular sector of the Catholic church in Nicaragua, focusing on the political and religious differences that fragmented the popular church after 1979. The two books represent distinct approaches to studying the church and politics in Latin America. Whereas Fleet and Smith adopt a more institutional perspective for understanding the church's evolving role, Sabia views the church as a "community of faithful" and focuses primarily on the grassroots level.

Fleet and Smith provide a fairly comprehensive treatment. Their theoretical approach, while not particularly novel, considers the effect of both religious and secular forces on the church's institutional development in each country. These include the church's traditional core concerns; the dominance of the institutional church model; secular challenges; and new political roles. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the historical evolution of the church in Chile and Peru, testing a series of hypotheses based on the theoretical framework. Chapters 4 through 7 examine the church's role in the transition and consolidation phases in both countries. This is followed by a comparative analysis of the two cases and a brief discussion of possible future scenarios.

The strength of the study is its examination of the role of national church leaders in the periods of democratic transition and consolidation. In the Chilean case, Fleet and Smith provide convincing evidence that church leaders played a vital role in moving the transition forward. The Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Fresno, was especially instrumental in creating opportunities for dialogue between opposition leaders and the Pinochet regime. According to the authors, "the hierarchy was most influential when it was least prophetic, when it worked behind the scenes on behalf of compromise instead of denouncing evils and abuses publicly" (p. 272). Local Catholic activists also played important roles in the transition, participating in a range of social movement activities while exerting a moderating influence on the opposition movement. During the consolidation phase, the church's influence has been "modest and at times obstructive" (p. 274). The hierarchy's inflexible position on moral issues, such as divorce and abortion, has done little to cultivate democratic debate on issues of national import, while local activists have provided only "residual support for consolidation" (p. 193).

In Peru, the authors argue, the church had much less influence on the democratic transition. This had to do in part with the very different nature of the military regime in Peru, which was much less repressive than its Chilean counterpart. During its initial phase, the Velasco regime implemented a number of significant social and economic reforms intended to benefit lower-class Peruvians, some of which were supported by church officials. Moreover, divisions with the hierarchy limited to church's ability to speak with a unified voice. Likewise, local Catholic activists, while participating in opposition movements, were more fragmented along political lines than in Chile. During the consolidation phase, the church's role was even more limited. The bishops did little to contribute to the strengthening of democratic values and processes, and local lay activists received little encouragement from the hierarchy. As Fleet and Smith point out, the church's ability to contribute positively to the consolidation phase in Peru has been complicated by the political violence of Sendero Luminoso, the collapse of traditional political parties, and successive economic crises.

Although the study makes an important contribution to our understanding of the institutional development of both churches and their role in recent political transformations, the authors do not do justice to processes within the churches at the local level. The data from surveys of Catholics in Santiago and Lima are limited in their usefulness. In the Chilean case, the survey was conducted during the transition phase, but the authors provide no comparable data for the consolidation period. In the Peruvian case, the data were collected during the consolidation phase, and there is none from the transition period. This makes it difficult to compare the role of local Catholic activists from one period to the next and complicates any cross-national comparisons. Moreover, the data could have been brought to life by providing more detailed discussion of parish-level developments and including more "popular voices" in the analysis. Except for presenting excerpts from interviews with clergy and pastoral agents, the voices of "ordinary heros" are almost entirely absent. As Daniel Levine has made clear (Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism, 1992), popular religious groups can instill in their members the development of new norms, values, and leadership skills that support democratic development.

Sabia's study of the popular church in Nicaragua is a much less ambitious undertaking. Chapters 1-5 cover familiar territory. After first discussing the effect of changes in Latin American Catholicism on the Nicaraguan church, Sabia traces the emergence and evolution of the popular church, including its conflicts and tensions with the Catholic hierarchy. Most of this discussion is based on earlier studies (Michael Dodson and Laura O'Shaughnessy, Nicaragua's Other Revolution, 1990; Joseph Mulligan, The Nicaraguan Church and the Revolution, 1991; and Philip Williams, The Catholic Church and Politics in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, 1989) and adds little new insight. More interesting are chapters 6-9, in which Sabia examines the popular church as "a community of faithful made up of four distinct ideal types" (p. 5): Marxist, revolutionary Christian, reformist Christian, and alienated Christian. The ideal types are derived from interviews by the author with members of three different Christian base communities in Managua. Drawing from her interview data, the author tries to show how political and religious issues contributed to the growing fragmentation of the popular church along the lines suggested by her typology. One of the most interesting insights of the book is the relative weight of revolutionary Christians within the popular church. According to Sabia's findings, reformist Christians, who exhibit moderate views on both political issues and their relationship with the church hierarchy, clearly outnumber the revolutionaries. Consequently, the overwhelming majority of base community members are much less partisan than once thought and are more likely to exert a moderating influence on the popular sector of the church. These findings are similar to those of Fleet and Smith concerning the political and religious views of local Catholic activists in Chile and Peru.

Two of the ideal types used by Sabia are particularly problematic. Marxists, for example, no longer consider themselves Catholics. Some participate in the social projects of local base communities but are not practicing Catholics. If this is the case, then how can members of this group even be considered part of the popular church? The alienated Christian type is too broad and diffuse to be a useful analytic category. This group includes rich and poor, some who support the archbishop and others who do not, charismatics and recently converted evangelicals, ardent anti-Sandinistas, and those who have withdrawn from politics altogether. What becomes clear in Sabia's discussion of alienated Christians is the growing importance of new religious movements in Nicaragua. Whereas the popular church has been in a long period of decline, the charismatic renewal movement and evangelical Protestantism have experienced a boom in recent years.

The scant attention paid to new religious movements is a weakness of both these studies. As other scholars of religion in Latin America have argued (John Burdick, Looking for God in Brazil, 1993; Rowan Ireland, Kingdoms Come, 1991), the religious arena has become increasingly contested of late. Even within the Catholic church, an incredible explosion of new religious lay movements has added to the complexity of the church. The challenge for future studies of religion and politics is to make sense of the growing religious diversity of Latin America and its potential political significance for the region.
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Author:Williams, Philip J.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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