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GUATEMALA’S CATHOLIC REVOLUTION A History of Religious and Social Reform, 1920–1968

B O N A R L . H E R N Á N D E Z S A N D O VA L

University of Notre Dame Press Notre Dame, Indiana

University of Notre Dame Press Notre Dame, Indiana 46556 www.undpress.nd.edu Copyright © 2018 by the University of Notre Dame All Rights Reserved Manufactured in the United States of America Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data to come

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Illustrations  ix Acknowledgments  xi Introduction  1 P AR T O N E .   F O U N D AT I ONS CHAPTE R ONE.  Papal Power and Church-State Relations  000 CHAPTER TWO.  The Romanized Church  000

P A R T T W O .   E X P AN SION CHAPTER THREE.  The Resurgent Church  000 CHAPTER FOUR.  The Missionary Church  000

P A R T T H R E E .   T R A N SF O R MAT IONS CHAPTER FIVE.  The Reformist Church  000 CHAPTER SIX.  The Progressive Church  000

Epilogue  000 Notes  000 Works Cited  000 Index  000


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 Foreign Mission Society of America, better known as Maryknoll. During the preceding months, the Maryknollers had joined a small number of radicalized laypeople who concluded that the solution to Guatemala’s long-­standing 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 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 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.1 The expulsion of the Maryknollers took place against the background of an emerging progressive religious and social movement within the Catholic Church that took much inspiration from the theological opening inaugurated by Pope John XXIII (1958–1963) and his call for an ecumenical international 1


council. This 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 Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano (Conference of Latin American Bishops), 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 was partly 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 often joined various local and transnational social and political movements.2 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.3 Sister Marian Peter, Bonpane, the Melville brothers, and other socially committed Catholics were no exceptions in this respect. Their progressive pastoral position and subsequent radicalization were 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

Introduction  3

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 H. Levine reminded us in 1992, “the common impression that Vatican II was the sole source and spark for change in the Latin American churches requires modification.”4 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 a not-­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 supported or joined armed revolutionary movements. In this study, I take a broad transnational approach that spans the five decades from the 1920s to the 1960s and moves beyond, but does not discount, national boundaries—in the process reconstructing the ideological and institutional connections between Rome and Guatemalan Catholicism— as a way to uncover the origins of progressive Catholicism. A transnational history, as Stephen J. C. Andes and Julia G. Young have recently argued, “emphasizes the interconnections, shared symbols, and intertwined mobilization that characterized the Catholic activist movements in Latin America, even before Vatican II.”5 A transnational lens is particularly relevant for the study of Guatemalan Catholicism, for, as Susanne H. Rudolph has reminded us, “religious communities are among the oldest of transnationals.”6 I argue that the aforementioned transformations within the Guatemalan Church were propelled by the institutional renewal of rural Catholicism, which dates back to the interwar period when a reconfiguration of national and international politics created new spaces for the Church’s resurgence. This changing landscape, largely spurred by Vatican activism, paved the way for the transnational movement of foreign missionary groups such as Maryknoll, the formation of a myriad of lay Catholic associations, and the crystallization of a grassroots progressive religious spirit in the countryside. In tracing this history, I emphasize the multilayered and oftentimes contentious interaction between Church authorities, clerics, and laypeople both within and beyond the context of Guatemala, and I contend that religion—that is, religious institutions and the lived experiences that sustain them—must be understood as both a reflection of societal processes and a force of change (and social reform) in the modern period.


Research on these themes has taken place within fairly limited discussions about Guatemalan Catholicism during the twentieth century. Generally speaking, the existing historiography has moved into two divergent trajectories. One group of scholars has taken an institutional approach, focusing on the history of Church-­state relations, and the anti-­liberal, anti-­secular, and anticommunist rhetoric espoused by Church leaders before and during the Cold War. These studies, which have examined Guatemalan Catholicism through the lens of national politics, have described the rise of the Church as a conservative force that generally opposed political democracy and left-­of-­ center social and political ideologies.7 From this analytical vantage point, Guatemalan Catholicism emerges as a static, if not reactionary, institution invariably trapped in its own conservative past, and, as a result, the progressive Church of the postwar period appears as an unexpected occurrence. A second interpretative framework, mostly taken by anthropologists, has focused on the history of Catholicism at the local level. Interested in examining religious change among indigenous communities, these scholars have traced the rise of a multireligious landscape inhabited by conflicting groups, particularly Maya traditionalists, a new cadre of Church-­sanctioned lay Catholic associations, and a small yet expanding number of Protestant converts. They attribute these religious transformations first to increased political activity during the Cold War and second to a series of modernizing trends that affected the nature of social and economic relations among Maya communities. These factors set the stage for the erosion of traditional religious and political hierarchies and the “modernization” of indigenous people.8 Yet this scholarship, which provides important local perspectives of Catholicism and gives prominence to the history of conflict at the parish level, tells us little about how religious ruptures at the community level related to national or global developments, what conditions gave rise to a generation of progressive-­minded Catholics in Huehuetenango for whom the spiritual realm mattered as much as daily material realities, and why the postwar Church became a major religious and social force in the countryside before and after Vatican II.9


This study pivots on the argument that we cannot understand religious change at the national and community levels, and, for that matter, the origins

Introduction  5

of progressive Catholicism prior to the 1970s, without first employing a transnational approach, one that forces us to look at the historical links between the Church of Rome and Guatemalan Catholicism. The rebirth of Catholicism and the roots of the aforementioned progressive religious trajectory began not in 1962, with the opening sessions of Vatican II, nor in 1968, with the beginning of the Medellín conference, but in the interwar years. In 1920 the Guatemalan Church was a frail institution. It had lost most, if not all, of its political and economic clout as a consequence of the triumph of Liberalism in the late nineteenth century. Led by Justo Rufino Barrios, Liberals saw the Church’s power as an impediment to the material progress of the nation and as contrary to their vision of a secular nation-­state. During the 1870s they implemented an anticlerical program that effectively put an end to the prominence Catholicism had enjoyed since colonial times. Liberals nationalized Church property, suppressed religious orders, expelled foreign clerics, created a secular educational system, and enshrined the separation of church and state. In the wake of this program, the Church became a ghost of its former self. By 1925, there were only ninety-­four Catholic pastors for a population of two million inhabitants. Nowhere was this institutional weakness more evident than in the countryside, where a small number of clerics attended to the spiritual needs of communities scattered across extensive terrain. As a result, the rural population, particularly Maya indigenous peoples, embraced vastly localized sets of religious beliefs and practices, so that by the turn of the twentieth century numerous expressions of popular religiosity had developed almost autonomously from the Church’s sacramental life.10 During in the interwar period, Church officials undertook a reform program intended to regain control of this unsanctioned religious landscape. They embarked on an era of expansion and renewal, primarily by establishing closer and often cordial relations with the Guatemalan state. The fruits of this Church-­state rapprochement became most evident during the 1930s and 1940s, when religious leaders—particularly Luis Durou y Sure (1928–1938) and Mariano Rossell y Arellano (1939–1964)—implemented a series of reforms aimed at redefining the priesthood, promoting a sacrament-­driven form of Catholicism, expanding the number of clerics in the country, and creating lay associations as a way of integrating the laity more fully into the structures of the Church. By the end of World War II, a number of initiatives meant to spur the Church’s institutional growth and revitalization were in place. The major force behind these reforms came not from the Guatemalan Church or Maya communities in the countryside, but rather from the Vatican.


With few exceptions, the historiography of Guatemalan Catholicism remains silent regarding the dimensions of papal influence prior to Vatican II. Hubert J. Miller, in a 1996 article, documented the presence of papal representatives and their interactions with Guatemalan religious and political leaders. He attributes these contacts to a “softening” or decline of anticlerical politics during the interwar years.11 This book builds upon Miller’s article but goes further by situating the history of the Guatemalan Church within the context of the centralization of papal power. I contend that Vatican activism stood at the center of a Church-­state rapprochement during the interwar period and the subsequent resurgence of Catholicism. Papal authorities had long viewed Latin America as “evangelization” area, where the Church had to work to reclaim the religious and social spaces it had lost as a result of anticlericalism, the dissemination of secular values, and the appearance of leftist political doctrines. During the first decades of the twentieth century Vatican officials, inculcated in the doctrine of papal infallibility, sought to spur a revival of Catholic culture in Guatemala and expand the pope’s power over the national church. Pius XI (1922–1939) and Pius XII (1939–1958) spearheaded a religious campaign designed, above all, to forge a new political pact—a modus vivendi—between the Church and the Liberal state. This policy culminated in 1936 with the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the dictatorial regime headed by Jorge Ubico (1931– 1944). This political reconfiguration had long-­lasting effects. For one, it turned the Church into an apolitical actor that generally favored political cooperation with government officials and thus remained silent about the social and political matters of the day. This explains why Archbishop Rossell, an ardent anticommunist crusader who espoused a hierarchical social order, became one of the most reliable ideological supporters of the status quo as embodied by Ubico’s dictatorship. This period of Church-­state convergence gave papal officials and Guatemalan clerics the freedom to actively support the resurgence of the Church. They did so by promoting the immigration of European and Ameri­ can missioners who were summoned to expand a Romanized vision of Catholicism, one that placed sacramentalism at the core of the Church’s life. Romanization—and the Church’s resurgence—was both an ideological and an institutional process, for it gave the Church of Rome greater control over the institutional growth of Guatemalan Catholicism and brought Catholic practice closer to a Romanized (and Europeanized) practice of religion.12 Thus, beginning in the 1940s, a small contingent of foreign missioners,

Introduction  7

including the members of Maryknoll, began to arrive in the western highlands. Historically, this rural region, which consists of a series of mountain ranges extending from the central to the western part of the country, has been inhabited by the majority of the country’s indigenous Maya population and a small population of mixed descent, popularly known as ladinos.13 The presence of foreign clerics in the highlands meant that the main force behind the twentieth-­century revival of Catholicism came from the outside. It stemmed from the centripetal nature of papal power. Using recently declassified and previously unexplored archival documents located in Vatican City and Guatemala City, I examine the ideological and institutional ties between Rome and Guatemalan Catholicism. I seek to uncover the process by which the pope’s diplomats emerged as key religious figures during the 1920s and 1930s. These officials formed part of an expanding network of international envoys who became the face of a Romanized religious vision. They advanced a hierarchical and sacrament-­based worldview, which, as we shall see, became the driving force behind the institutional revival of the Guatemalan Church. This is not to say that Guatemalan clerics (and lay Catholics) passively accepted the dictates of Rome or that Romanization did not have its limits. The first two chapters of this study examine the rift that developed between Vatican diplomats and Guatemalan clerics. This conflict, which revolved around alternative definitions of Catholic practice, brought to the fore long-­established divisions within the Church. Yet, perhaps ironically, the weakened condition of the Church assured the ascendancy of papal power and the Romanization of Catholicism. In focusing on the effects of Vatican influence, this book joins an expanding scholarship on the transnational dimensions of Catholicism. Church historians have called attention, to borrow Peter R. D’Agostino’s phrase, to the “transnational networks” that linked Rome and national churches and the concomitant centralization of papal power in the context of anticlerical, secular, and materialist movements.14 The celebration of the First Vatican Council (1869–1870) and the subsequent proclamation of the so-­called social encyclicals, particularly Rerum Novarum (1892) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931), signaled the hegemony of the Church of Rome.15 Such development sparked a revival of Catholic culture, which in the case of Latin America resulted in the expansion of the clergy, the creation of a new generation of lay associations, and a more public—although not always political— role played by the Church. In the process, the Latin American Church increasingly became a Romanized Church, that is, an institution that closely


mirrored the sacramentalized religious vision put forward by papal authorities.16 Papal envoys, this study contends, were at the heart of the Romanization of the Latin American Church. A transnational approach sheds light not only on the roots and impact of Romanization, but also on the history of Church-­state relations. Papal officials stood at the center of the emergent modus vivendi. They acted as intermediaries between government officials and Church leaders, thus surfacing as religious and, in certain cases, political interlocutors, although they generally opposed political activism. Vatican diplomats supported engagement with the state, which resulted in a triangular relationship whereby the pope’s representatives interacted with religious and political authorities. In the process they worked to create amicable relations between national churches and dictatorial regimes.17 The impact of papal diplomacy on the Church-­state rapprochement of this period was not unique to Latin America, for during the 1920s and 1930s the Vatican also spearheaded a new period of Church-­state collaboration in Europe.18 Seen from this vantage point, the history of Church-­state relations emerges as part of a regional and global trend and, more precisely, as invariably tied to the centralization of papal power in Latin America. The first part of this book examines how these transnational connections came into existence in Guatemala prior to Vatican II.


Whereas a transnational framework illuminates the political and ideological landscape that linked Guatemalan Catholicism to the Church of Rome, it also provides a new window into the relationship between clerics and laypeople. In Guatemala, this relationship evolved in the context of a Romanized identity adopted by religious leaders. During the 1930s and 1940s, they organized periodic religious congresses that brought together thousands of Catholics, many of whom joined a series of lay Catholic associations animated by Rome’s sacramentalized religious vision. These public events took place inside church buildings and often extended into the streets, thus reflecting the rise of a “neo-­Christendom” model prior to World War II. In Guatemala, as in other countries, this meant that Church authorities often projected both a collaborationist strategy with regard to the state and a unitary religious imaginary as a way to “re-­Christianize” Latin American societies, particularly by promoting cordial Church-­state relations and integrating

Introduction  9

lay Catholics, in a hierarchical manner, into the sacramental life and structures of the Church.19 In Guatemala this policy of engagement with modern society manifested itself most concretely in the Romanization and revitalization of rural Catholicism. Beginning in the 1930s, Vatican diplomats promoted a Church-­ state modus vivendi and a Romanized vision, Guatemalan clerics expanded sacramentalism through religion-­inspired mass events, and lay Catholics began to play a more active, if not subservient, role in the Church’s institutional life. Catholicism now gradually resurfaced as a religious and social force in the countryside. One of the most enduring effects of the centralization of papal power, therefore, was the twentieth-­century resurgence of the highland Church. By the middle of the century, the highlands had become the epicenter of an institutional expansion reminiscent of the early colonial period.20 The foreign missioners who arrived in the highlands during these years stood at the center of this revival. The first major and arguably most prominent foreign religious group was Maryknoll, whose members established a mission system as a way to advance sacramentalism among the Maya through a variety of religious and social projects.21 This book investigates the roots and expansion of the Maryknoll mission in the highlands. Relying on mission records and previously unexplored Church documentation (particularly correspondence), I contend that this mission territory became a point of contact between the “official” Church and Maya communities. Grounded on studies of popular religiosity in modern Latin America, the second part of this study incorporates the perspectives of clerics and indigenous people at the parish level and, following the lead of José Andrés-­Gallego, interprets the history of the Church as that of a complex, diverse, and constantly evolving institution consisting of the ideas and actions of bishops, parish priests, and laypeople.22 Such an approach transcends historical accounts that reduce Catholicism to an analysis of the theological and/or ideological pronouncements and political positions of Church leaders and analyses that limit themselves to the history of Church-­ state relations. An examination of the experiences and interactions between Maryknollers and Maya parishioners in the context of an expanding rural Church has allowed me to construct a historical narrative that weaves together both institutional and noninstitutional voices. This approach takes the mission as a basic unit of analysis. It focuses on what Erick D. Langer has termed the “mission life cycle,” namely the process by which missioners establish mission territories, create strategies to

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Excerpt of "Guatemala's Catholic Revolution"  

"Guatemala’s Catholic Revolution" is an account of the resurgence of Guatemalan Catholicism during the twentieth century. By the late 1960s,...

Excerpt of "Guatemala's Catholic Revolution"  

"Guatemala’s Catholic Revolution" is an account of the resurgence of Guatemalan Catholicism during the twentieth century. By the late 1960s,...

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