Four Churches in One: Latin American Catholicism

by Robert Jones

Mr. Jones is pastor of the Buerneville and Monte Rio Community churches in California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 22, 1984, p. 199. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There are four churches of Catholicism in Latin America: 1. The escapist faith of nonhuman magical ritual. 2. The traditional church. 3. The progressive church of Vatican II. 4. The church of the liberation theologians: José Míguez Bonino, Juan Segundo, Gustavo Gutiérrez and the rest — the church of the poor and the dispossessed.

In Latin America the Roman Catholic Church, though officially a single institution, actually takes four forms. As I learned about Latin American Christianity during two stays at the Cuernavaca Center for International Dialogue on Development (CC1DD) and during a trip to Nicaragua, I felt that I was also gaining insight into North American Christianity -- Protestant as well as Catholic. By paying attention to these four expressions of the church, we can all better understand some of the personal and institutional struggles Christians are experiencing during these times of global change.

For the masses of people in Latin America, the church consists of a popular religion embedded in the culture and history of the region since the time of the Spanish conquest. Popular religion features fiestas and holidays, as well as huge gatherings in honor of various statues of the virgin, or of patron saints. The celebrations take place near small parish churches or in the courtyards of fine old cathedrals. Many festivals can only be described as religious, cultural and commercial bashes, made up of drinking, dancing. buying, selling, weeping, crassness and devotion Such festivals are still common in Nicaragua, as well as in other Latin American countries where the revolutionary process has not gone as far.

I experienced one of these celebrations outside of Managua, on the road past the home of the United States ambassador. I found myself in a crowd that seemed to be made up of at least half a million people, crushed between the walls on either side of the road as they made their way to the Church of the Black Virgin. Some cried and prayed. Some crawled on their knees all the way up the hill to the church -- a distance that seemed close to a mile. Many people were covered with a dark grease, perhaps as a way of emulating the blackness of the Virgin. Those who walked on their knees left trails of blood on the rocky pavement, though their friends spread towels before them to make their way a trifle easier. Explosions, firecrackers and rockets added to the din. Ambulances blared their sirens in all but futile attempts to rescue those who were overcome. Vendors hawked beef, rice, beans and beer. Next to the church, down a little swale, young people were bopping and grinding in a tent set up for disco dancing. A huge enclosure contained a bullring, where frenzied men taunted the darting bull. The church itself was packed with bodies. People pressed forward, gave an offering, received a blessing and then tried to get back through the crowd and out the door.

The religious focus of the celebration was not easily apparent. Surely it provided for a great release of energy, an expression of some kind of longing or desire, an outpouring of something deep in the Latin heart. Part of its significance lay in the manda, the concept of command or obligation that may be at the heart of popular religiosity. The idea is that if I do something for God, God will do something for me. If I say prayers for 20 days, my daughter will pass her examinations. If I crawl on my knees to the temple, my mother will be healed of her sores. That the daughter may be too tired to study because she has to work for two dollars a day to help feed the family, or that the mother can’t afford medicine, are not things taken into account in popular religion. What is hoped for is a miraculous intervention.

Obviously, this form of religion does not question the political or social system. It does not look for human causes or human answers to problems. but projects the issues of life into a nonhuman, magical realm where ritualistic performances are believed to have influence. It is escapist religion -- an opiate for the people, and an economic boon for vendors and other opportunists. It is a way of faith that does not challenge the status quo, for it does not take the elements of human life seriously.

The second expression of Latin American Christianity is the traditional church. This is the church of the Council of Trent, that series of meetings in the 16th century which, in reaction to the Reformation, declared the Roman Catholic Church the sole vehicle of salvation, defined the nature of the seven necessary sacraments, approved prayers to the saints and set down the requirement of attending mass. In short, the concept of the church is limited to what happens inside the church building. The mass is central to salvation. and there is a sacrament for each stage of life, linking its great moments to God through holy rites that communicate wholeness. For many of Latin America’s older and somewhat wealthier Christians, this powerful and comforting expression of faith is what the church is all about.

The theology of this type of faith makes strict distinctions between body and soul, history and eternity, politics and religion, this world and the next. The goal of faith is to extricate oneself from worldly realities so that the soul can enter the heavenly realm. The sacraments are the means by which this is accomplished. Thus, although the church is highly institutionalized,, the emphasis is on personal salvation. Again, there is little motivation for addressing social, political or economic problems because they are seen as tainted worldly concerns. As a result, the traditional church also buttresses the status quo. Like popular religion, it does not recognize the validity of a secular historical process. In more sophisticated ways, it also encourages people to withdraw from the crises of their time.

Third. there is the progressive church, the church of Vatican II, which attempts to bring traditional Christianity into contact with the contemporary world. The mass is celebrated in the languages of the people, guitars and mariachi bands enliven the liturgy, the Bible is studied and brought into the center of celebration, Surely there are Latin American services of worship that are among the most stimulating and uplifting in the Christian world. Through color, word and sound the senses are focused, the mind is challenged and the heart is warmed. The progressive church is a relevant and vital form.

Many scholars, younger priests and even some bishops are found in this expression of faith. Discussions of birth control and other formerly taboo subjects are part of the program. Progressive theologians find that they have much in common with their Protestant counterparts, and an ecumenical spirit grows. Good will, a respect for differences, and intellectual integrity are valued. Serving humanity is considered a main purpose of the Christian community, and a number of excellent service enterprises find their source in the new energy that this progressive church has tapped. This is the church of the somewhat younger; somewhat better-educated Latin Americans -- Catholics who know and live fully in the contemporary world. Aware and concerned, the progressive church moves beyond itself in word and deed, but it tends to stop, short of an analysis-of and actions-against the strictures of injustice, even while it promotes programs to alleviate misery.

In the midst of its own struggle, Latin American Christianity provides a vital fourth option that I like to call the new church. It has also been called the radical church, the revolutionary church and other, less-gracious. names. This church focuses on the reality that the overwhelming numbers of people in Latin America live in day by day. The litany of the injustices that oppress those living south of the border has been recited many times -- hunger, disease, lack of education, repression. torture, and on and on. What one can learn in even a short visit to most Latin American countries is that there is no necessity for the abject poverty one sees. One finds a rich continent made poor by long-standing patterns of exploitation. The wealth of the land and the work of the people make others rich and powerful. To be aware of that and to work against it can be dangerous, but a significant part of the Latin American church is aware and working and accepting the risks entailed. Christian brothers and sisters have learned that to work peacefully for change brings violent repercussions. In this predicament, faith and life become fused, as do the individual and society. This fourth form of the church fully engages the structures of evil.

This is a church of the poorest of the poor. Bringing Bibles, people meet in a little shack in a shantytown or out in a field or under a tree. They also gather in churches and parish houses for exciting and heartrending celebrations. Often there are new martyrs for whom to give thanks, Always there is music of the most relevant and powerful kind. There is a sense in which everybody leads. At the very least, everybody has a chance to offer an interpretation or reflection. Commenting on a famous text in the letter from James, a peasant says, it is a good thing to take care of widows and orphans, but I would like to know why we have so many widows and orphans here and why their numbers seem to be growing day by day.” People without schooling are able to understand the structural implications of lessons and texts because they can see that their situation is the result of forces transcending individual piety or morality. Time and again, heard peasants comment on texts in ways that our most sophisticated northern Christians never think about. It is both thrilling and troubling to hear.

The main purpose of this fourth church is to encourage the liberation of the oppressed. Social and economic justice is its primary value. Important church councils have declared that the suffering of the people in Latin America is caused by “structural sin” and that to follow Christ the church must “exercise an option on behalf of the poor.” The broad outlines of these positions have not been contradicted by later popes or councils. Thus, while the fourth form of the church may represent a minority of Christians in Latin America, it operates within the framework of official Roman Catholic documents. In terms of spirit, prophetic force, depth of faith or just sheer courage, this church is gigantic, and its influence is everywhere significant.

The theology of the fourth church is, of course, being formulated by the liberation theologians of the southern continent -- José Míguez Bonino, Juan Segundo. Gustavo Gutiérrez and the rest. These theologians tend to agree with the progressive church’s attitude that no political or economic system is divinely sanctioned. However, whereas progressive Christianity interprets this to mean that the church must remain aloof from involvement with political parties and economic interests, the fourth church, at the urging of its forceful thinkers, supports the best systems available. Its social, political and economic analyses are often admittedly Marxist, but I found no one among its leadership, at least in Nicaragua, who wished to baptize Marxism or to merge Christianity and communism. “We are first of all Christians,” they will say. “We support the revolution here so long as it continues to carry out its program for the poor.”

Although the Sandinista revolution and the fourth church are related in various ways, they are certainly not identical. Given the “miracle” Nicaragua already is and could be -- a Latin American nation where the hungry are being fed, the sick are being healed and the homeless are finding homes, where schools and parks are being built and faith is being put into practice as well as proclaimed in temples -- it is hard to deny the reality expressed in a common slogan one hears there: “There is no contradiction between Christianity and the revolution.” Nicaragua is attempting to organize a nation in the interest of those who have been held down for generations -- 80 per cent of the people. They have suffered immensely from a regime that kept itself in power by brute force. Their struggle has made them free of one of the worst oppressors on the continent. Christians of the fourth church are involved at all levels of this struggle.

On the way to the village of Yalapa near the border between Nicaragua and Honduras. the group I traveled with paused to assess the dangers. We had heard that people were being killed here every day by U.S-backed forces that bomb, mortar, kidnap, massacre and otherwise terrorize the villagers of the area. Deciding to have communion, we found an old hot dog roll and a bottle of green soda pop, and though the only two clergy among us were Presbyterians who had not received permission to labor outside the bounds of their own presbyteries, we consecrated these elements as the body and blood of Christ. For a moment, we felt something of the poverty and powerlessness of our fellow Christians whose lives were daily in jeopardy.

Later that day we met with a group called the Mothers of the Martyrs, women who had lost sons and daughters to the revolution and to the continuing struggle along the border. I took away with me a piece of shrapnel from a mortar shell that had killed a four-year-old girl just two weeks before. Her mother was one of those who spoke to us. Broken by grief, these were still women of faith. Their sense that their young ones had lived important lives and died important deaths was staggering. “Now Nicaragua is a land where the poor have a chance to live,” they told us. “For this we must make sacrifices, even as Christ sacrificed himself for us.”

The new church is made up of people who live in dirt-floored stick houses. They work incredibly hard for just the necessities of life: they carry water; they travel by foot, by horse, by oxcart; they eat rice, beans and bananas. They know that they will probably always be poor, but they also know that there is no good reason for their misery. The land around them is rich, and the weather is conducive to growing good things. Left to organize and operate their land in their own interests, they would have plenty. And so out of poverty, out of struggle, out of the worst kind of oppression, a new form of the ancient church is being born. Here in North America, we may not feel called to be a part of that church, but we must not hinder it. This church working for liberation may be the single best hope for Latin America’s poorest of the poor and for bringing peaceful change to the continent.