Edward L. CLEARY. The Rise of Charismatic Catholicism in Latin America. Miami: University Press of Florida, 2011. pp. 308, hardback. ISBN 978 0 8130 3608 3.
Reviewed by Richard RYMARZ, St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, Edmonton Alberta, T6G 2J5

One of the most significant developments in the study of religion in the contemporary world is the rise of Charismatic and Pentecostal groups. Cleary sets out to demonstrate that a neglected but very significant aspect of this global trend is the growth of what he calls Charismatic Catholicism throughout Latin America. He provides a conceptual basis for understanding this and then gives a description of this phenomenon in individual Latin American countries. The raw statistics that he marshals are quite significant. Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) claims over 73 million adherents worldwide. Indeed there are more Catholic Charismatics than Protestant Evangelicals and Pentecostals in Latin America, with Brazil leading the way with over 33 million Charismatic Catholics. It is worth noting that leaving aside the Dominican Republic, in terms of percentage of population, Columbia has by far the greatest percentage of Charismatic Catholics. The author briefly discussed the rise of Charismatic Catholicism in light of Liberation Theology in a general sense but devotes more discussion of this when he deals with individual countries. His general conclusion is that seeing CCR and Liberation Theology as opponents or at inevitable loggerheads is simplistic and needs to be considered in terms of the geopolitics of nations.

How then to best explain the growth of CCR? Cleary canvases a number of theoretical positions and proposes a blended model that takes into account a number of factors. In terms of Rational Choice Theory, the Catholic Church was challenged by the seemingly unstoppable rise of Protestant groups. Faced with this competition it needed to take on new and more efficient types of pastoral ministry and outreach. What emerged was a style closely aligned with the new Protestant Pentecostal groups. Charismatic ministry is typified by a close and easily accessible link to the divine and transcendent. The Jesus of the CCR is one who acts decisively and immediately in peoples lives. Added to this is the personal nature of Charismatic ministry, which places a high premium on personal fellowship. In CCR family and friends provide entry points for people to encounter the Church. Once involved the existence of various types of ongoing small groups provide support, fellowship and mentoring. This intimacy is often lacking in conventional Catholic communities.

Turning now to Cleary’s analysis of CCR in individual countries, a number present themselves as having especially important theoretical considerations. Bolivia is a nation where the roots of Catholic belief and ritual practice have not, relatively speaking, taken deep root. Indeed, Cleary describes the historical situation as that of a moribund church. In seeking to explain the progress of CCR in Bolivia, the author is careful to note that the movement now has significant local leadership. This challenges a popular misconception about CCR, namely, that it is movement that is imposed from above. In Bolivia as elsewhere the success of CCR can be closely linked with missionary activity of foreign priests. In the case of Bolivia these were Dominican priests who were part of the Charismatic renewal in the United States. These leaders, however, were always cognizant of the need to devolve power to local leaders, a process that is now well advanced. Part of the success of CCR in Bolivia is also explained by its sensitivity to blending what could be called generic aspects of charismatic worship and theology with both more traditional aspects of Catholicism as well as expressions of indigenous spirituality. This type of synthesis is still a work in progress but is revealed in actions such as Eucharistic worship which now incorporates a space for personal testimonies as a prelude to the Novus Ordo liturgy.

Columbia is described as the country where the impetus of CCR is most closely aligned with calls for social justice and renewal. Cleary sees the success of CCR in the country as resting on two pillars. Firstly, CCR has a strong presence in the low cost housing cooperatives in Bogota. This has ensured that the movement has always been grounded in the lives of the urban poor. The ministry has always been directed toward the more disadvantaged members of the community. Secondly, the establishment in the diocese of Sonson-Rio Negro of a seminary for the training of priests for the CCR along with a university for lay leaders of the movement. This educational and formative emphasis has ensured that CCR in Columbia is well supplied with both clerical and lay leaders and missionaries. Cleary describes Brazil as the Charismatic giant or superstar. Largely inspired by competition by Pentecostals the CCR in Brazil has a significant history spanning well over thirty years and a variety of pastoral expressions. Indeed Cleary sees the capacity to innovate as crucial in understanding the success of characteristics in Brazil.

Cleary’s book provides an important overview of a much neglected story, that of the CCR in Latin America. This is best seen as a developing project but a firm foundation for future study and evaluation has been laid here.


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