A recent article by John Allen provided some interesting background and commentary on the much disputed statement by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. I am not planning to comment directly on the document here since others have adequately done so. I will only say here that I share the concern of others about any calls for a “Global Authority” to resolve matters and figure that such a body can only make matters worse. That said, Catholic Social teaching remains one of the most poorly understood bodies of teaching among Catholics.
But what makes John Allen’s article interesting is the way in which he uses the recent and rather public debate about the document to illustrate a possible sea change in the composure and worldview of the Roman Catholic Church.
We Catholics in the West, and especially here in America, tend to be very parochial and we presume that Catholics everywhere think largely as we do and share our Western priorities, moral, economic and political views. Or at least they “ought” to.
But, as John Allen points out, it is isn’t necessarily so. And, further, we in the affluent but decadent West are increasingly being outnumbered by Catholics in the Southern Hemishpere who represent a growth sector and an increasing proportion of Catholics.
I would like to present excerpts from John Allen’s article in the usual format of this blog. His remarks are in bold, black italic text. My remarks are in red plain text.
I am presenting excerpts, the full article can be read here: Southern Wave
Whatever you make of it, does the note [of the Pontifical Council] reflect important currents in Catholic social and political thought anywhere in the world. The answer is yes, and it happens to be where two-thirds of the Catholics on the planet today live: the southern hemisphere, also known as the developing world.
It’s a powerful number. Two-thirds of Catholics do not hail from the affluent West. While we have been becoming secular, and are depopulating ourselves through abortion and contraception, the Church is growing steadily in the developing world. They are less industrialized, cosmopolitan, and formally educated. The have larger families, and often live in parts of the world where many grave economic injustices exist and where the market economies and more stable governments we have are not their experience.
There are almost 750 million Catholics scattered across Africa, Asia and Latin America, and generalizations about such a vast pool of people are always hazardous. Nonetheless, on matters of sexual morality and the “culture wars,” Catholics in the south generally strike Europeans and Americans as remarkably conservative — opposed to gay marriage, anti-abortion, devoted to the traditional family.
And indeed many conservative Catholics have often rejoiced in the outspokenness of Bishops from Africa and other places about the issues stated and compared them to Bishops of northern and affluent West, especially those of Europe who were often too discrete or even in dissent or conflict with official Church teaching.
When the conversation shifts to economic policy and geopolitics, however, Catholic opinion in the developing world often comes off in the West as strikingly progressive. To be specific, Southern bishops, priests, religious and laity often are:
- Skeptical of free-market capitalism and unregulated globalization;
- Wary about the global influence of the United States;
- Pro-United Nations and pro-global governance;
- In favor of a robust role for the state in the economy.
Now, many Conservative Catholics will argue that this sort of thinking will keep the developing world from attaining a robust economy. I do not dispute the genius of free market Capitalism and what it has done for us economically and do not really wish to debate economic policy here.
Again, the point worth pondering is that many of our Catholic Confrers to the South simply do not share our enthusiam for Northern and Western views on this.
And the question is how we will attain a consensus on these sorts of matters or even whether we need to?
More personally, how will we in West, especially those of us who are more economically and politically conservative, regard our brethren to the South who may have some very different outlooks than we do?
Their views, of course, emerge from a rather different experience than we have been privileged to share. We have abundant resources, and relatively stable governments. It is easier for us to assert that the free market can meet most of our needs. Perhaps it is less easy for them to say this.
Further, it may actually shock us to find that there are people in the world who do not consider our affleunce as appealing as we do. They may, in fact, look with grave concern at our decadence and the breakdown of our families, social structures, and moral vision, and wonder if afflunce has a role to play in that.
I do not have enough data to speak to this definitively but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how an African or Asian Bishop might not look to Europe or even America in our present decadent condition and say, “Yeah that’s what I want for my people.”
In June 2005, a group of Catholic bishops from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia, Somalia and Djibouti declared, “We are particularly horrified by the ravages of unbridled capitalism, which has taken away and stifled local ownership of economic initiatives and is leading to a dangerous gap between the rich few and the poor majority.”
Catholic leaders in other parts of the global south hold similar views. For instance, in a 127-page report issued in 2004, the Catholic bishops of Asia declared that “neoliberal economic globalization” destroys Asian families and is the primary cause of poverty on the continent.
[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s senior correspondent.]
Wow! I realize that these sorts of statements from our brethren to the south and far east may strike us a “rich” considering that many of these same parts of the world look to us in the West for economic aid.
But at some point, after we finish bristling I have a few questions I would like to ask.
1. Are we wrong, in the West to be perturbed and the characterization of of our economic system? While no economic system is perfect, free market capitalism has produced a standard of living higher than any other system. And this is not only true for the wealthy. Most free market Democracies have a large and stable Middle Class. Further, there are greater varieties of products, efficiencies of market, and quality of products due to economic incentive, such as profit. We also live longer and healthier than ever before and have perhaps the greatest economic and social mobility of any other system. Hence, while no system is above critique and surely not sinless, free market capitalism has a lot of strengths and virtues.
2. But are we above reproach? Surely not. Bishops and Catholic Laity in the southern hemisphere and to the Far East have good reason to be concerned with the decadence of the West and the pernicious influence that decadence wields in their sphere. Some of that decadence comes from our affluence and what has come to be an exaggerated notion of freedom.
It is also a true fact that greed often leads to wrongful priorities that emphasize money and possessions at the expense of families, children and faith.
In recent years it has also become evident that no economy in the West, including America is in good shape. We are laden with debt and suffering from a legacy of buying things we cannot afford.
Further our wealth has also led us at times to overextend our power and involvement.
It is also a fact that free markets cannot meet all human needs. Some things, such as the care of the poor, the disabled and the elderly are just not lucrative enough to be solved by a profit driven market.
No we are not above reproach.
3. Can both sectors of the Church benefit one another? Certainly. And this is where the Vatican can possibly be of the most help in bringing insights and concerns together.
I was reacently talking with an economic conservative friend who had grave reservations about who was advising the Vatican and the U.S. Bishops, for that matter, on matters of economic policy etc.
I have little answer to these questions but it occurs to me that Economic and social Conservatives (with whom I often identitify) are long on complaints and short on solutions to the problem of influence. Influence begins when people like my friend joining together and begining to form relationships with Church leaders, such as the bishops and their staffs.
There are many valid economic approaches that fit within Catholic social principles. I would hope that those who support open market captialism or various versions of it would be in discussions at the Vatican and with world Bishops sharing ideas. I would also hope they would be open to other insights that offer healthy critique of our system which is not perfect and can afford some challenges.
4. What do we in the decaying West need to develop as a proper awareness, aside from the economic questions? I would say simply, that we are small and getting smaller. Currently we are only on third of the Church and dropping.
Most of us who are older were used to thinking of the Catholic Church as primarily a European membership and our critics often pointed this out. But that, if it ever was the case, is no longer. And we are going to have to get use to the fact that the attention of the Vatican and other Church leaders is going to increasingly be to the South and Southeast where the Church is growing.
We shall see how long trends like these continue, but for now, humility and sobriety are important. Europe and America are not the only thing on the Vatican’s radar; a fact of which we are sometimes forgetful.
Western concerns about permitting contraception and approving of divorce, and any number of sexual sins, along with preocupations about why women can’t be priests and endless issues about Church authority, are just not the things that matter to most of the rest of the Church. And the pouting in the decaying West about why the Vatican doesn’t update Church teaching must look pretty silly to rest of the world.
We are out numbered folks. And when we do want to legitimately be part of discussions at the Vatican about economic theory, science, etc, we ought to enter those discussion with some degree of humilty, knowing that we bring important things to the table and many successes, but also remembering that the Church is bigger than just us.
This video by Fr. Barron reflects on Caritas in Veritate and he expresses some concern too about a supranational agency proposed in that letter. His remarks about that are towards the end of the video