Guatemala's Catholic Revolution

A History of Religious and Social Reform, 1920-1968

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Bonar L. Hernández Sandoval
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , November
     254 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Two high-profile expulsions of Catholic clerics accused of inciting political unrest in rural areas book-end the historical period covered by Bonar L. Hernández’s Guatemala’s Catholic Revolution: A History of Religious and Social Reform, 1920-1968. The first was the exile of Archbishop Luís Muñoz y Capurón, along with six other Guatemala-born priests in 1922, and the second was that of four US-based Maryknoll missionaries—Marian Peter, Blasé Bonpane, Arthur Melville and Thomas Melville—in 1967. These events highlight the fraught position that the Catholic Church occupied vis-à-vis the Guatemalan state through much of the 20th century (and indeed dating back to the 19th century, when the newly formed nation adopted policies meant to circumscribe the Catholic Church’s ability to influence politics). More importantly, as Herández Sandoval argues, these expulsions frame the story of how the socially conservative Catholic Church of the 1920s gradually opened up spaces for the progressive social action that would lead to liberationist Catholicism in the 1960s.

Guatemala’s Catholic Revolution makes an important contribution to the religious history of Latin America by giving us new insight into the groundwork that allowed the progressive social reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and CELAM’s articulation of a “preferential option for the poor,” at its second general conference in Medellín to take root in the local churches whose leaders tended to hold conservative political views and support military regimes. As Hernández Sandoval rightly points out, although Vatican II and Medellín can be considered watershed moments of Catholic reform, they are, in and of themselves, insufficient explanations for how and why a progressive Catholic ethos emerged in Latin America. Rather, we need to examine the slow process through which both transnational and local Catholic bodies paved the way for them. 

This book is divided into three sections, each of which traces distinct strategies that the Catholic Church adopted to bolster its position within Guatemala between 1920 and 1968. The first two chapters focus on Vatican diplomats’ efforts to improve church-state relations in the 1920s and ’30s after a protracted period of institutional weakness, and a church-state crisis that culminated in the expulsion of the Archbishop Muñoz. Following from the First Vatican Council’s vision of increased Papal authority, the Vatican sent envoys to oversee local churches in Latin America. In Guatemala, as elsewhere, they sought to “Romanize” Catholic practice—that is, foster a more sacrament-based set of practices that would supplant the heterodox and heterogeneous practices, which characterized rural Catholic life due to the shortage of priests that resulted from the anticlerical laws of the late 19th century. Implementing Romanization required foreign missionaries to make up for a deficit in national clergy, as well as increasing the role that institutionally-sanctioned lay leaders played in maintaining religious life in neglected parishes. In many communities this led a struggle over religious authority between partisans of the Romanized practices and those of more syncretic Maya-Catholic costumbre. Nonetheless, the pattern of clergy-led lay-involvement would set the stage for the next several decades of Guatemalan Catholicism. 

This book’s middle chapters focus on how these Romanization programs gradually paid off with a resurgent Catholic Church in the 1940s. Under the guidance of US-based Maryknoll missionaries, the organizational infrastructure set up to spread sacramental Catholicism began incorporating socioeconomic development projects alongside the catechism. The Maryknollers were initially concerned with extirpating local “superstition,” and stemming the growth of communism—a concern they shared with the US State Department as it sought to undermine the presidencies of Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Árbenz, collectively known as Guatemala’s “Ten Years of Spring” (1945-1954). They would pragmatically combine policies of limited religious accommodation with economic development projects as a means of gaining a foothold in Maya towns and advancing their main goals. 

The final two chapters examine the social and religious transformations that came in the wake of the Maryknollers’ increasing concerns for Mayas’ socio-economic development in the 1960s. Agrarian development projects that could be used as incentives for rural Mayas to affiliate with Romanized Catholicism gradually transformed into a more deliberate “social pastoral” program that advocated for joining spiritual and social concerns in ministering to rural parishes. This, in turn, led to calls for collective action to demand rights from the state, and eventually, into a vision for a “Christian Revolution” that would fundamentally transform the social order of the country. In the context of the Cold War, this final call was read by the militarized state as political subversion, and widespread political repression followed. 

Hernández Sandoval convincingly shows that the move towards a progressive Catholicism was not straightforward, but rather the result of how distinct strategies of missionization aggregated over time to produce a vision of Catholic religious life that emphasized the agency of the laity. This book offers an important reminder that “the Catholic Church was (and has been) a constantly evolving and diverse institution” (163), and that to understand its workings we need to examine the ways in which the ideas and practices of a range of actors—from Papal nuncios to rural laypeople—articulate to produce Catholicism. 

The author’s fresh analysis of correspondence between the Vatican and its diplomats in Latin America as well as the diaries and letters of the Maryknoll missionaries provides new insight into the transnational workings of Catholicism. However, as Hernández Sandoval fully acknowledges, the voices of Maya Catholics are not as prominent in the narrative as they might be, especially since it was ultimately in their communities that liberationist Catholicism had its greatest impact for both good (the socio-economic development it fostered), and bad (the state repression that followed). Unfortunately, documentary sources telling that side of the story are not available, but Hernández Sandoval does manage to mitigate this problem by using the work of anthropologists who conducted field research in the highlands during this period. Readers who know the ethnographic literature will find interesting new angles on the larger story of Catholic engagement with Maya communities, and be able to fill in some of the gaps in the narrative for themselves. Nonetheless, the absence of those voices is noticeable and serves as a reminder that the important work of collecting the oral histories of the Mayas, who worked both with and against the progressive Catholic missionaries, remains to be done.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Hoenes del Pinal is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bonar L. Hernández Sandoval is Assistant Professor of History at Iowa State University.


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