Rendering Unto Caesar: The Catholic Church and State in Latin America
Book Excerpts


"Anthony Gill has extended the testing of the rational choice approach to the study of religion, particularly to the behavior of the Catholic Church in South America.  This illuminating and satisfying book provides a critically important extension of the theory and shouldn't be missed by anyone involved in the social scientific study of religion."  -- Andrew M. Greeley


Conflict between church and state is nothing new.  Tension arises from the fact that each institution draws its fundamental authority from a different source -- religion from some divine mandate, government from the secular need to maintain order and ensure economic growth.  although attempts have been made to separate the two realms as the biblical passage above indicates, the nature of each makes separation difficult to obtain in practice.  States frequently enter the domain of personal morality and seek transcendental justification for their actions.  And, for religions, the moral proclamations of spiritual leaders often have the effect of either legitimating or challenging power relations in secular society. (p. 1)

While examining the dimensions of church-state relations in general, the principal goal of this book is to answer the following question: Why did some national Catholic episcopacies in Latin America actively oppose dictatorial rule, while others did not?  The focus is on the Catholic Church's official political strategy during the 1960s and '70s.  "Official" implies that the primary unit of analysis is the national Catholic episcopacy.  Bishops represent a vital intersection between the Church's pastoral agents (e.g., parish priests, lay activists) and the state.  Frequently, they must choose between the often contradictory goals of supporting progressive pastoral agents who work in radically politicized settings and promoting the institutional interests of the Church in the political arena.  The choice is not easy nor automatic since carrying out the Church's evangelical mission and preserving its institutional strength may entail some rather unholy alliances with unsavory political actors. (pp. 4-5).


Understanding the present means, in large part, understanding the past.  Despite the fact that church-state conflict dates back to the initial period of colonization, most scholarship on this subject has focused on contemporary times (circa 1965-present).  it is interesting to consider why conflict prior to 1965 garnered so little attention compared to the most recent wave of conflict.  First, the sequence of events as played out in Latin America until the 1960s appeared to confirm the predictions of secularization theory. ...Second, despite sometimes tumultuous relations between Church and state following Independence, the Catholic Church remained a static institution.  (p. 17)

Vatican II undeniably played a role in shaping episcopal political attitudes [for or against authoritarian regimes], but that role was more a catalyst than a determining factor; bishops who were in some way predisposed to denounce injustice found that Conciliar reforms gave them the added institutional latitude to pursue their own programs.  Bishops who were not so inclined could simply drag their feet or ignore the Council's recommendations altogether.  (p. 46)


Since church-state accommodation has been the norm throughout history, it seems appropriate to begin a study of church-state relations by examining the underlying incentives each entity has to cooperate.  A cooperative church-state arrangement will be conceived here as "establishment," wherein a given religious organization receives special financial or legal privileges from the state.  These privileges could include, among other things: designation as the official state religion; subsidies for clerical salaries; religious education in public schools; state assistance in the construction and maintenance of church buildings; lower tariffs for goods imported by the church; favorable communications rights; preferential tax status; direct subsidies for religious programs; or prohibitions on alternative religious movements.  Although "establishment" often connotes a dichotomous situation, it is best considered a continuum where the amount of governmental assistance a church receives can vary over time and space.  In other words, churches can be more or less established. (p. 49)

Conceptualize establishment as a bargain wherein two autonomous institutions strike a deal to cooperate.  Neoclassical economics, the foundation for rational choice theory, posits that economic exchanges occur under the expectation of mutual benefit.  If one actor benefits only at the expense of another, the losing partner has no incentive to participate in the exchange.  When either partner in the bargain believes that the costs of the bargain outweigh the benefits, defection (in this case disestablishment) occurs.  For this study, the crucial issue becomes what both the church and state gain from establishment and what conditions would place strain on this bargain. (p. 49)


Today, evangelical Protestants pose one of the greatest challenges ever faced by the Catholic Church in the Western Hemisphere.  Although the Catholic Church continues to be the region's largest single supplier of religious services, the collective force of evangelical churches rivals Catholic influence in many countries. ...As a consequence, the amount of attention paid to this phenomenon by Church organizations, personnel, and scholars has skyrocketed in recent years.  Even prior to the 1980s, evangelical Protestantism was a major concern in several parts of Latin America.  The intensity of Protestant growth in some countries provoked a change in episcopal thinking with regards to its evangelizing mission.  At a minimum, competitive pressure by Protestants from below persuaded bishops to rethink their traditional neglect of the popular classes.  In many cases, Protestant influences actually  helped shape the Church's new preferential option for the poor.  given the Church's major presence in the Latin American political arena, this shift in pastoral method had important political ramifications, notably a growing opposition to policies and regimes that hurt the interests of the popular classes. (pp. 79-80).

It would be myopic to say that the need to compete with Protestantism was the only factor affecting the bishops' decision to oppose military rule. Growing poverty and repression, reforms promoted at Vatican II and Medellin, courageous decisions on the part of individuals, and martyrdom catalyzed the new attitude toward military rule.  However, religious competition was a key component in explaining the variation in responses throughout the region.  Competition furnished the wake-up call the Church needed to realize that poverty and repression were serious problems that demanded more than temporary acts of charity.  More than just a wake-up call, however, Protestant advances also provided the motivation to do something about these problems.

OK, now you read some excerpts.  Now get off your duff and buy the book !  And don't buy it used; used books have all the knowledge sucked out of them.