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Posted April 16, 2007

Why hasn't Catholicism had a more positive effect?

All Things Catholic
by John L. Allen, Jr.

Although this question by John Allen of the Catholic News Reporter is about Latin America, one must wonder what the responses to it would be if asked about this country: Why isn’t Catholicism more effective in this country, especially with so many Catholics being in our government???

If any corner of the globe should bear the imprint of Catholic values, it's Latin America. Catholicism has enjoyed a spiritual monopoly in the region for more than 500 years, and today almost half the 1.1 billion Catholics alive are Latin Americans. Moreover, Latin Americans take religion seriously; surveys show that belief in God, spirits and demons, the afterlife, and final judgment is near-universal.

The sobering reality, however, is that these facts could actually support an "emperor has no clothes" accusation against the church. Latin America has been Catholic for five centuries, yet too often its societies are corrupt, violent, and underdeveloped. If Catholicism has had half a millennium to shape culture and this is the best it can do, one might be tempted to ask, is it really something to celebrate? Mounting defections to Pentecostalism only deepen such ambivalence.

After my recent jaunt in Honduras, I understand the question.

In this tiny country of seven million, violence is so endemic that even the guards at the Pizza Hut across the street from our hotel carried automatic weapons. According to the World Health Organization, Honduras has a murder rate five times the global average, largely due to the maras, or drug-related gangs. One sign of the times: Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa loaned us his driver and vehicle for some of my appointments, which meant that we moved with a military escort because of death threats against the cardinal, an outspoken opponent of the drug trade. (I confess that I sometimes wondered if we might actually be safer in a cab.)

Most of the estimated 30,000 young Hondurans who belong to these gangs, it's worth recalling, were baptized as Catholics and raised in Catholic families.

Corruption is also ubiquitous. To take one example, electrical blackouts are chronic because the state-run electric company is perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy. In a classic vicious circle, revenue shortfalls due to corruption have produced a staggering national "electricity tax" of 49 percent, prompting people to refuse to pay their bills, making breakdowns even more routine. Once again, the officials responsible for this mess are overwhelmingly Catholic.

In light of such realities, I repeatedly put the question to my hosts: Why haven't five centuries of Catholicism left a more impressive social fingerprint?

To my surprise, the response I anticipated -- that despite the best efforts of the church, Latin America is hostage to meddling from the United States, as well as neo-liberal economic systems -- wasn't at the top of the list.

To be sure, Hondurans understand the role that American interests, both political and commercial, have played in destabilizing their country. Honduras is the original "banana republic," where U.S-based fruit companies long wielded more power than the government. In the early 20th century, U.S. Marines landed in Honduras no less than four times to protect the banana trade.

More recently, the United States played a huge role in Honduras during the 1980s, when the country formed a critical corridor between the Contra revolt against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and El Salvador's efforts to put down the Marxist FMLN. John Negroponte, today deputy secretary of state, cut his teeth as ambassador to Honduras, where critics say he turned a blind eye to human rights violations by the military, especially the infamous Battalion 316, thought to be responsible for thousands of "disappearances."

Post-Communist economic globalization has hardly been an unmixed blessing either. While CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement) is generating new wealth for Honduran elites, 80 percent of the country lives in poverty. Rodriguez believes that export economies won't work here, given that his country's principal products -- bananas, minerals and vegetable oil -- have been devastated by a collapse in international prices. Today, Rodriguez says, his country's real exports are "illegal immigrants and drugs."

Despite all this, most Hondurans seem determined not to blame outside forces for their struggles.

Fr. Ricardo Flores, pastor of San Jose Obrero parish in Tegucigalpa, told me that in his view, globalized economic systems and American policy "are not the big problems we face," and don't explain why Honduras is in crisis. He said the real issues are corruption, a lack of social solidarity, and inadequate investment in education -- all of which, he said, are basically home-grown.

Thus the original question: Why hasn't Catholicism had a more positive effect?

The most frequent explanation I heard boils down to this: For most of the 500 years since the arrival of Columbus, Catholicism in Latin America often has been skin-deep. People were baptized into the faith, married and buried in it, but for a variety of reasons there was precious little else.

To be sure, the church exercises considerable political clout. But that influence, many observers say, often masks a superficial Catholicism at the grass-roots.

At first blush, the claim that five centuries haven't afforded enough time for real evangelization might seem a terrible indictment. Honduran Catholics told me that, given its scarce resources, the church never stood a chance. Moreover, they say, baptismal counts notwithstanding, the region has never been ideologically homogenous.

For example, some Hondurans assert that during the Cold War, the dominant ideology was not Catholicism, but Marxism, which had a much greater impact in shaping the attitudes of political and social elites. That's the view at the new Catholic University of Honduras, founded in 1993 and named "Our Lady Queen of Peace" in honor of the reputed apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

During my visit, rector Elio David Alvarenga Amador and members of his staff explained that the university was founded by lay Catholics who taught at the secular national university, and who were frustrated with what they saw as Marxist indoctrination, especially in education and the social sciences.

Vice-rector Virgilio Madrid Solís, who keeps an image of St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, on his desk, though he's not a member, minces no words in describing the new university's mission: "To change Honduras."

Erika Flores de Boquín, another vice-rector, unpacked the point. She told the story of a recent engineering graduate who went to work for the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, where he was asked to sign what Flores described as a falsified environmental impact study, presumably skewed by corruption. The engineer lost his job, but he made a stand for principle.

"Little by little, such acts will transform this country," Flores de Boquín said. "The church is starting this work only now."

Hondurans also point to a severe priest shortage as limiting the extent to which Catholicism took hold. With just over 400 priests, the ratio of priests to people in Honduras today is 1 to 13,000.

"At the time of independence from Spain, most of the Catholic clergy were expelled," Rodriguez said. "We had one bishop and 15 priests for the entire country."

That shortage left vast sections of the population with no regular access to the sacraments, and no meaningful catechesis. The few clergy on hand, mostly foreign missionaries, did their best, but dreams of Honduran Catholicism shaping culture in the sense that one associates with Poland under Communism, local Catholics say, was never in the cards.

Ruminating on these explanations, I'm reminded of the famous quip from G.K. Chesterton: The problem is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but rather that it's been found difficult and never tried. Repeatedly, that's the story I was told by Hondurans. The problem is not that Catholicism has failed, but that authentic Catholicism has never been tried.

That view would appear to have been more or less endorsed by CELAM, the Conference of Bishops of Latin American and the Caribbean. In the lineamenta for their upcoming Fifth General Conference in Brazil, the bishops flagged inadequate religious formation, a mix of Catholicism and indigenous religious practices, and a lack of coherence with Catholic beliefs among the faithful, as central challenges.

Rodriguez, the first cardinal in Honduran history, emphatically believes that deep evangelization is a work still to be done, and thinks the church in Latin America is now developing the muscle to pull it off.

In that light, it will be especially interesting to watch the upcoming CELAM conference in early May in Brazil. Benedict XVI will be in attendance, and one imagines he too will be looking to see if Rodriguez's brother bishops share his confidence -- and, more importantly, what ideas they have to make it a reality.

Responses to John Allen

"If Catholicism has had half a millennium to shape culture [in Latin America] and this is the best it can do, one might be tempted to ask, is it really something to celebrate? Mounting defections to Pentecostalism only deepen such ambivalence."

Will the upcoming CELAM conference of Latin American bishops in May in Brazil—with Benedict XVI in attendance—come up with real answers to why millions of Latin Americans are leaving the Church and becoming Protestants? The solutions must be based on the Gospel, not on some social ideology.

Years ago, when a confrere of mine complained that Pentecostals were successful in his country because of money and missionaries from the USA, I told him: "I hope more of them come down to your country. Maybe you will finally start preaching the Gospel, not some political ideology. You had 500 years to preach the Gospel and Church teachings, but you missed your chance."

The Liberation Theology inculcated by some of the Latin American bishops and priests has certainly not helped stem the hemorrhage of Catholics to the Pentecostals. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Papal Household, said that if Catholics in some villages in Latin America want to organize a labor union, they go to their local Catholic priest, but if they want to learn to pray, sing the Lord's praises, and study the Scriptures, they go to the local Pentecostal minister

Thank you for covering this

Submitted by Luke 4 18 19 on March 31, 2007 - 7:39am.

Thank you for covering this important topic John. I've been studying this topic lately and I think that an important question that you haven't yet explored is, "Whose Catholicism?" We cannot presume that Catholicism is some type of pure tradition that will necessarily transform Latin America if it just "sinks in" more. Latin America was a lot better off before Europeanization and Catholicism. Our tradition is full of leaders and writings that have favored wealthy Spanish elites and their ancestors over against the indigenous and poor of Latin America. For every Oscar Romero and Bartolome de las Casas there are countless bishops (popes included) who have theologically and institutionally justified oppression. The issue of the Latin American church is the issue of the church from above vs. the church from below. Popes and Vatican curia have repeatedly allied with Latin American elites in order to undermine the vibrant base communities in Latin America (which contrary to the stereotype are anti-Marxist in many places). The Latin American elites use Rome to squash church movements that are perceived as a threat to both corrupt political power and to Vatican control . In return, Latin American governments give Rome friendly ambassadorial relations. Both Rome and the governments consolidate power and the poor lose out in both the church and the state. We need only look to Rome's treatment of Latin American clergy and theologians who do theology and ministry from the context of poverty. They get little support, are silenced, have their dioceses "gerrymandered," or are replaced by Opus Dei bishops. Why is there a "priest shortage" in Latin America? Because its easier to control the church (and the Holy Spirit) in Latin America with a few "fathers," often foreign "missionaries," than it is to grow an indigenous clergy and reclaim older and less narrow conceptions of priesthood. So long as there are only a few foreign "fathers," with elitist or missionary mentalities, the rest of the church will remain children. Now that CELAM is controlled by bishops from the elite classes who also owe major favors to Rome, I doubt they'll be as concerned with separating Catholicism from European practices as they are from indigenous ones. By far the best book I've read on this topic is The People's Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Mexico and Why He Matters. Absolutely eye opening!

I think the wonderful book "Pedagogy of the Opressed" did have a few answers, but it WAS about teaching the poor indigenous people of Latin America to read. The Jebbies taught me about that book in Grad School, but then, they were into (sigh) "Liberation Theology" at the time! It does help people to understand the Gospels in this day and age if they can truly read...as others have already pointed out in this thread, the rather "superficicial transmission" of faith (note small f) which included superstition, obedience to "powers that be" rather than true understanding, etc. might, in many cases, (not all) have had something to do with a lack of education in the past. So what's wrong with keeping people "in everlasting igorance"? It's a crime, that's what's wrong with it, and it keeps them in "Somebody's" power. John is right in quoting those who indicate that in some places, perhaps "true Christianity" hasn't yet been tried.

Looking beyond Latin

Submitted by VOTFCLEV on March 31, 2007 - 7:19am.

Looking beyond Latin America, is this the only place where Catholicism has had limited results? Or is there a common pattern elsewhere?

What about Europe during the Middle Ages? Where not many of the conversions of the barbarians merely superficial adherence to the religion of their leaders? Didn’t Catholicism mainly exist in the monasteries and chapels build by nobility? Was not the liturgy in Latin? Where not many of the priest chaplains of the manor houses people with far less education and social status than our deacons today? Wasn’t the piety of the people little above that of superstition?

Maybe Catholicism has some inherent weaknesses that we need to face. Perhaps our sacramental view of the world leads us to overestimate the importance of symbols and neglect the broader reality. If there are cathedrals and monasteries, and the liturgy is celebrated in splendor and they are attended by a religious and social elite then things must be well, even if these symbols impact the average Catholic very little and the society and even the church are full of abuses of money, power and sexuality.

Is our American Catholicism completely free from the same problems? Did not the pre-Vatican II church assume that all our church buildings, our schools, and our charitable institutions staffed mostly by priests and religious mean that all was well? Did we in the wake of Vatican II begin to turn our schools, health care and charitable institutions over to well formed lay leadership? Even when it became evident that there were going to be insufficient priests and religious to maintain them, many assumed these institutions would continue to be Catholic as long as priests and religious were in the administration. Again a pattern emerges of overestimating the importance of buildings and elites and neglecting the people.

Are we not too comfortable with our elaborate suburban church facilities and their ability to survive in the face of declining numbers of priests and religious? Are not our plans to survive little more than slight variations on the traditional theme of depending upon priests and religious. In the Cleveland diocese Bishop Pilla’s pastoral letter on the topic stressed the collaboration of priests, religious and laity. However a close reading reveals the laity are actually lay ecclesiastical ministers duly certified by the diocese, not the vast majority of the people. See http://www.dioceseofcleveland.org/vibrantparishlife/vpl_initiative.html for complete text.

As part of the planning for continuing vibrant parish life in the Cleveland Diocese more than 46,000 parish members in 129 parishes were surveyed. Out of 39 items “Masses that are prayerful and spiritually moving” was ranked first, and “the parish as a supportive, caring community” was ranked second in importance. When these same 39 items were ranked as to how well done they were, liturgy and community were ranked 21st and 19th respectively. Toping the list of items well done was “A church large enough for worship” and “Well maintained parish facilities and grounds.” In other words if we Catholics just did liturgy and community as well as we do buildings we would be in great shape.

In the NCR Issue Date: February 2, 2007, John wrote a very fine article entitled “More Catholics on the way They're likely to be gray-haired, healthy and rich” pointing out that our graying population are very religious. I would point out that this population is increasing well educated. People after retirement age have at least a decade maybe two of productive life. Research on retirement indicates that when highly educated people come to retirement age they continue to work to exercise their talents rather than to make money. Being religious and being educated are the two greatest predictors of voluntarism. So we have a grand opportunity to take advantage of this boom in personnel, yet Catholicism remains stuck in its dependency upon a religious elite that has only been slightly expanded to include “certified lay ecclesial ministers.” We still believe that if we have the visible symbols of buildings and staff, all will be well. We are mistaking signs for reality.

I've attended one VOTF

Submitted by donje on April 1, 2007 - 9:08pm.

I've attended one VOTF meeting, in Indianapolis; I was reminded of the Paulist saying: "It's better to light one candle than curse the darkness," for there was much cursing of the darkness. VOTF sees the problem mostly correctly, but its insistence on a "democratic" Church is far too simplistic. Would anyone believe that Church politics would be more gracious that national politics; it would be worse! The way to move: Church is not a bureaucracy but a family, and in a family the father does not "lord it over" his charge but, well, acts fatherly. If VOTF would start "calling" priests and bishops to father their charges rather than merely, as in some cases, be little more than enforcers, the needed change would come. This is the Scriptural model. Some management structure is needed, but it should not monopolize the ministry. Another problem: Feminism (stressing the "ism")too often has a bias against "fatherhood." Thus a significant number of the non-ordained are ill disposed to even desire priests and bishops to be fathers to their people--but that's another issue. Pope John XXIII spoke of the need for subsidiarity; I'm not sure how far he would have extended that into Church bureaucracy, but the principle holds across the board. -- My point: Quit trying to change the Church and start calling the "ordained" to change--according to the mind and heart of Jesus. -- I liked your comment.

John: Please don't overlook

Submitted by Mark Hamlet on March 30, 2007 - 9:01pm.

John: Please don't overlook the history of the Church in Latin America in your research. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II made major, but relatively recent inroads at Medellin and Puebla conferences of regional bishops to nail down the Vatican's role in naming bishops throughout Latin America. Latin American countries had followed the Spanish tradition since the time of the Catholic Kings and their conflicts with the Moors prior to the 16th century in reserving the naming of bishops to the head of state. This led to almost 500 years of a different kind of Church in Latin America, dominated by the state, and more heavily influenced by the highly stratified social class system of each country. States used their control of Church leadership to control their people. The majority of Catholics didn't feel comfortable with their leadership for many generations. We're not talking about the same Catholic Church we know in most of Europe and the United States. The Church in Latin America has only had one generation to return to unity with Rome, for all practical purposes. Archbishop Romero's murder can't be understood except in the context of his positions that threatened upper classes who controlled government in his country, and had previously controlled the Church leadership in his country of El Salvador. Marxism and Liberation theology in the Latin American Church can be seen partly as a reaction to the old Church structure. Today's problems of the Church in Latin America didn't begin in the 20th Century, and it will take generations for the changes in Church authority to bear fruit among the larger populations there. Meanwhile, evangelical protestant groups find it relatively easy to expand their presence throughout this supposedly Catholic region. These new groups don't have the old baggage.

Deacon Mark Hamlet

Full marks John for asking a

Submitted by pooka on March 30, 2007 - 7:20pm.

Full marks John for asking a hard question, but perhaps you've been a little lenient on the responses?

"The problem is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but rather that it's been found difficult and never tried. Repeatedly, that's the story I was told by Hondurans. The problem is not that Catholicism has failed, but that authentic Catholicism has never been tried."

Not for the first time, the similarity between Catholic and Marxist apologists is marked. Any criticism of Stalinism and the Gulags was always met with "Well, of course that is not really communism..the world order has never allowed real communism to be tried etc, etc", just as rebukes of Catholic despots would get the response "They're not true catholics".

Would it not be more honest to face up to the fact that the church is an institution traditionally secretive, unaccountable, rigidly hierarchical with its own omertae and ruthless tutelage of its young in their overarching loyalty to 'mother church' or casa nostra, with a centuries old tradition of power-broking and power-grabbing?

No surprise that cultures where the church has been strongest have also been those where corruption and systemic distain for the rights of individuals have flourished. Here in Europe, many Italians welcomed the prospect of becoming integrated into a European Union, with a strong power axis in the north, with the phrase 'Mani pulite' (Clean Hands), a phrase first used as the title of a police operation into the banking scandal around the Banco Ambriosiano and implicating the Vatican Bank, the mafia and P2.

No surprise either that the stongest voices, within the church in South America, for social reform came from clergy and theologians who the previous and present pope have so publicly repudiated, voice encouraged by the fresh air let in by Vatican 2 through windows which have been progressively shut by those two pontifs, and continue so to be.

Church structure and

Submitted by donje on April 1, 2007 - 9:20pm.

Church structure and governance in the early Middle Ages was too often chaotic, ill organized and subservient to political interests.

Then came the Avignon Popes, and things became organized and smooth running--and the smoother running it became, the more people began criticizing and even hating the bishops. Conclusion: the Body of Christ is not meant to be a smooth running institution.

Perhaps this is the place to

Submitted by starlight on April 5, 2007 - 12:42pm.

Perhaps this is the place to again insert the reminder of the wonderful chapter in Dostoyevsky's book, "The Brothers Karamazov" called "The Grand Inquisitor", where Christ returns to Earth, and is immediately seized and questioned for not adhering to "Doctrine"...Both the Inquisitor and Christ Himself know Who Christ Is and that He is doomed to be killed once again, rather than welcomed back to earth, because he does not "fit in" to the Church "of the time"...Why do I mention this now? It seems a good fit for this thread, even though it is just another "parable".

Another "The emperor has no

Submitted by mallie2419 on March 31, 2007 - 10:53am.

Another "The emperor has no clothes" truism is that democracy doesn't seem to flourish in Roman Catholic countries. Liberal democracy as we know it is an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant invention. Democracy was viewed with deep suspicion by the Church well into the Twentieth Century.

A perfect case in point is France where only by violently expunging it's Catholic past has democracy succeded.

And wherein lies the fault?

Submitted by here today on March 31, 2007 - 11:28pm.

And wherein lies the fault? With the Church that has weathered two thousand years, or with democracies that die in centuries (a sobering thought, how many democracies have lasted as long as America)?

The Liberation Theology

Submitted by Gino Dalpiaz on March 30, 2007 - 1:01pm.

The Liberation Theology preached to our fellow Catholics of Latin America in recent years by some of their bishops and priests has certainly not helped to stem the hemorrhage of Catholics to the Pentecostals. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Papal Household, once said that if Catholics in some villages in Latin America want to organize a labor union, they go to their local Catholic priest but if they want to learn to pray, sing the Lord's praises and study the Scriptures, they go to the local Pentecostal minister.

The bishops and priests who

Submitted by SJ on April 1, 2007 - 12:38am.

The bishops and priests who have preached liberation theology believe in prayer also. However, they believe in following prayer with actions on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the outcasts. Our Lord, after all, did not simply pray and study Torah. Nor for that matter, did he spend most of his time begging people to accept him as their personal Lord and Savior and sing his praises.

Personally, I'd rather see a small Catholic population in Latin America that takes the beatitudes seriously, than a large Catholic population that only sits around with fuzzy feelings in their souls.

"Is this the manner of fasting I wash, of keeping a day of penance: that a person bow his head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help and God will say: Here I am! If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday, then the Lord will guide you always and give you plenty even on the parched land." (Isaiah 58:5-11)

In response to John Allen's

Submitted by Fr. Harold Bronk on March 30, 2007 - 11:22am.

In response to John Allen's discouraging account of "five hundred years" of Catholicism in Honduras and Latin America, I should like to suggest that identifying Marxism as the enemy and naming a Catholic university for an "apparition" of the Blessed Virgin Mary are almost totally irrelevant to the evangelizing mission of the Gospel. The "base community" movement and its intellectually supportive "theology of liberation" did more to evangelize the clergy and people of Brazil and other parts of Latin America than almost anything else in the "five hundred" year legacy. The "preferential option for the poor", after all, came out of Latin America. Pope Benedict's fear and suspicion of progressive politics in and out of the Church--like his predecessor's--led to collabaration with the USA to suppress the base community movement and liberation theology. The "Pastoral Letter on Economic Justice" of the USA's Catholic Bishops Conference--hardly still existent in the minds of religious people--was a brave attempt to subject unbridled capitalism to a Catholic critique. Wherever we find the vision of a society founded on and practicing the principles of justice and peace we see a vision that is profoundly relevant to the Gospel regardless of its origin. That great "atheist" Karl Marx, in the same paragraph in which he describes religion as "the opiate of the people", also describes religion as "the cry of the heart in a heartless world". Go figure!

Furthermore, the Marxist

Submitted by Marie R. on April 2, 2007 - 1:45pm.

Furthermore, the Marxist slogan, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need", sounds Christian. Communism in its political form, not its philosophical form, is at odds with Christianity due to its condemnation of religion.

In the practical test of both Communism and Capitalism as economic policy though, Capitalism wins because it meets the needs of more people. When envy rules, the inequities produced by Capitalism are offensive, but for those willing to be poorer than some, Capitalism provides the most hope and the most opportunity.

It is unfortunate that US foreign policy in Latin America did not focus on the positive by nurturing Capitalism but chose the negative route of training Latin American military forces to resist Communism by turning on the citizens of that region.