The Politics of Religion and the Rise of Social Catholicism in Peru, 1884-1935

Faith, Workers and Race Before Liberation Theology

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Ricardo D. Cubas Ramacciotti
Religion in the Americas
  • Boston, MA: 
    , November
     297 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Peru has long been profoundly impacted by the hegemonic position of Catholicism in its religious and social sphere. By the turn of the 20th century, the progress of secularization provoked tensions between Church representatives and political actors who formed part of a growing secularist movement. Facing scrutiny and anticlerical sentiment, the Catholic Church in Peru had to respond to political debates and legal reforms that sought to limit ecclesiastical influence.

The Politics of Religion and the Rise of Social Catholicism in Peru (1884-1935) seeks to shed further light on the complex politics of secularization during the period between the end of the War of the Pacific and the years immediately after the fall of Augusto B. Leguía’s regime. Drawing on research conducted for his PhD thesis (Cambridge, 2011), Ricardo D. Cubas Ramacciotti contends that the process of state secularization and the political, social, and economic changes in the period under consideration “allowed the Church to promote various pastoral, social, educational and political initiatives that … were instrumental to preserve and expand Catholic presence in Peruvian society” (4). To defend this argument, Cubas Ramacciotti has structured the book in three different parts that address, respectively, the political and legal dimensions of secularization, clerical and lay activism, as well as Social Catholicism.

The first four chapters chronologically discuss the church-state relationship from the Catholic Monarchy to the Constitution of 1933. The author contextualizes the legal reforms targeting the Church in the late 19th and early 20th century by focusing on some of the most important developments, such as legislation on civil marriage and religious tolerance that shaped the progressive secularization of the Peruvian state. Following in the footsteps of distinguished historians like Jeffrey Klaiber and Pilar Garcia Jordan, Cubas Ramacciotti also discusses the Catholic response to regime change and the leading role of intellectuals like Manuel González Prada, Victor Haya de la Torre, and José Carlos Mariátegui in doctrinal debates on church-state relations. 

In contrast to previous studies on the period of secularization, Cubas Ramacciotti aims to reconstruct the social history of the Peruvian Church from the perspective of its main religious and lay actors. The second part (chapters 5-7) shows how this approach can provide interesting insights into developments occurring within the ecclesiastical hierarchy, as well as in affiliated Catholic organizations. Instead of focusing on specific case studies, as historian Jesús Ara Goñi did in his dissertation on archbishop Emilio Lissón and female religious congregations (Universitat de Barcelona, 2015), the author presents a more comprehensive analysis that includes selected examples from different Peruvian dioceses. What Cubas Ramacciotti frames as a “Catholic revival” was notably manifested in the formation of both male and female lay associations and the strengthening of Church-led educational system and media outlets.

By this point, the curious reader might be left wondering why the subtitle of the book, Faith, Workers and Race before Liberation Theology, has thus far not been subject to discussion. It is indeed only in the last two chapters, respectively dedicated to Catholic labor movements and ecclesiastical indigenismo, that the author thoroughly treats two aspects of Social Catholicism. As Cubas Ramacciotti rightly points out in the introduction, the very concept of Social Catholicism itself can be criticized, for all religious phenomena are, by their very nature, also social phenomena (13). His discussion of Catholic unions and ecclesiastical indigenismo exemplifies how the concept, despite its ambiguities, can be used to describe Catholic responses to social and political change in a determined context. As in the second part of this book, the main strength of the analysis in chapters 8 and 9 lies in illustrating how the Church responded to the loss of its hegemonic status through a myriad of new pastoral and social projects. Rather than just preceding liberation theology, as the subtitle suggests, these initiatives paved the way for the Catholic Action movement after the 1935 Eucharistic Congress, whose history in Peru has attracted even less academic interest than the period under consideration by the author.

What these Catholic initiatives and movements have in common, however, as Cubas Ramacciotti acknowledges, is that they were far from uniform, subject to regional disparities, and dependent on the religious and lay actors involved (239). In discussing these heterogeneous developments, he has difficulty meeting his aim of inscribing his research within global history. This is because localized actions in Peru—despite obvious global and transnational influences—are still analyzed according to the framework of the secularization of the Peruvian state. Rather than attempting to analyze how “changes in global Catholicism manifested themselves in the Peruvian case” (3), a more developed discussion of certain regional case studies, such as the analysis of the Circle of Catholic Workers of Arequipa (188ff.), would have added more depth to the many examples mentioned by the author. A more exhaustive discussion of these instances, I suggest, could have illustrated in detail how the various Church initiatives and lay movements were received and discussed in specific spatial contexts and thus affected public perceptions of Catholicism in Peru.

Despite these minor shortcomings, Cubas Ramacciotti presents a cogent analysis that elucidates new aspects of the processes of adjustment and “revival” experienced by Peruvian Catholicism during the reform of Church-state relations. Written in accessible language, The Politics of Religion and the Rise of Social Catholicism in Peru (1884-1935) promises to be compelling reading for students and graduate scholars interested in the study of secularization and the social history of the Catholic Church in Latin America. A translation into Spanish would be welcome, and justified, in order to facilitate its outreach to domestic audiences in Peru.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Noah Oehri is a doctoral student in History at the University of Bern.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ricardo D. Cubas Ramacciotti is Associate Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad de los Andes (Chile) and has published on various aspects of Latin American political and religious history.


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