Robert Calderisi: The Catholic Church & the Developing World

With 1.3 billion members, the Catholic Church is the world’s largest organization and perhaps its most controversial. The Church’s obstinacy on matters like clerical celibacy, the role of women, birth control, and the child abuse scandal has alienated many Catholics, especially in the West. Yet in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the Church is highly esteemed for its support of education, health and social justice. Author of the bestselling The Trouble with Africa, Robert Calderisi has travelled through Africa, Asia and Latin America, talking to cardinals in the hallowed halls of the Vatican, nuns staffing clinics in grimy squatter settlements in Latin America, and priests struggling to speak up for poor people in Africa – not to mention local and Western critics of the Church’s work.

In Calderisi’s absorbing and deeply informed new book, Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development, he explores the tensions within the Church – complicity with genocide in Rwanda and dictatorship in Argentina versus the defence of human rights in Brazil and El Salvador, the refusal until very recently to countenance condom use in Africa versus determined support for girl’s education. In this exclusive interview, Calderisi describes the surprises he encountered while writing Earthly Missionhis views on the new pope and the likelihood of feathers being ruffled. 

calderisi coverInterviewer

Your last book, The Trouble with Africa, ruffled some feathers, particularly in the aid community. Are you trying to be provocative in this book as well?

Calderisi 

Some feathers may be ruffled – but different ones. When Yale commissioned the book, I predicted that I could demonstrate that the Church had had a positive impact on economic and social progress in the world overall.  They were comfortable with that approach, provided I actually made the case and did not “whitewash” the Church’s record. I couldn’t conceive of a book that did not also look at the institution’s warts and, besides, the Vatican was doing something almost every month to remind the world how very human it was. Undoubtedly, there will be people who feel I have still got the balance wrong.

Interviewer 

Well, some of your conclusions are remarkably positive…

Calderisi 

I don’t think another objective person, looking at the facts, could paint the picture very differently. In some African countries, 30-50 percent of basic health and education services are still being provided by the Church. Catholic organizations distribute about a third of all the anti-retroviral medicines people living with HIV/AIDS receive around the world.  Caritas (the Catholic network of humanitarian agencies) is the largest private charity after the International Red Cross.  This may not impress people in the West who are deeply skeptical about organized religion, but I hope the book will broaden the picture beyond the usual received ideas.  Ironically, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, I may be lambasted for overplaying the Church’s role in slowing down proper family planning programs. (A former Argentinian politician even asked me why I would be writing a chapter on contraception “What does that have to do with development?” he asked me). Others will feel I have exaggerated the negative effects of the Church’s anti-capitalist rhetoric.

Interviewer 

Was it an advantage or drawback to write this book as a Catholic?

Calderisi 

Well. I hope it will be clear from the start of the book that I am independently minded – as many Western Catholics have to be if they are to preserve their intellectual honesty and self-respect. At the same time, there are so many misconceptions about the Church that it helps to have been brought up as a Catholic and to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Some criticisms are clearly deserved; others are highly debatable.  The same applies to the good the Church does or doesn’t do around the world.

Interviewer

What challenges did you face in writing the book?

Calderisi 

The greatest challenge was to cover a very broad topic without skimming across its surface or, at the other extreme, dwelling on sub-themes that might intrigue me but were not likely to engage my target reader: someone interested in international affairs, with an open mind about religion but no burning interest in the details of economics or theology.  I also had to resist the temptation – if that’s the word – to add topics of current interest with no particular relevance to economic and social progress.  Not everyone will be happy – one reviewer has already complained that I did not cover the child abuse scandal – but the book would have been thicker, less coherent, and certainly less readable if I had tried to cover all things Catholic.

Interviewer

Are you satisfied that you met these challenges?

Calderisi 

Readers will decide for themselves.  What pleases me most about the book is that I was able to describe and assess the Church’s role in international development largely through the lives of impressive individuals I met, whose vivid accounts add flesh and blood to the story.

Interviewer 

In your research and interviews, what surprised you most?

Calderisi 

The openheartedness and enthusiasm with which people talked about the subject. Only one of the 150 people I interviewed in fourteen developing countries (including bishops and cardinals) refused to be quoted. Even as a highly educated Catholic, I was also struck by the deep commitment  of the Church to the role of Reason over the centuries, its conscious separation of social service and proselytism, and its essential optimism about being able to improve people’s well-being in this life. My favorite example of this was a priest on Mount Kilimanjaro who showed me six stunted trees planted by Alsatian missionaries in 1862 (four years before they built their church), to which the whole of the coffee industry in Northern Tanzania can be traced. Another revelation was the Catholic role in formalizing human rights law in the mid-20th century.

Interviewer 

Was the Catholic role really different from that of other Christian confessions?

Calderisi 

Not really, apart from the Orthodox and Evangelicals, who have not had a “social” mission or have come to it very late.  Some of the most telling insights I found about the missionary role in Africa were in the memoirs of Anglicans and Presbyterians.  What distinguishes Catholicism is its size, its global reach, its resources, its social teaching, and its structure, which gives it special opportunities to influence global and local events.  A former Archbishop of Canterbury has said that the Pope speaks for all Christians, which means a third of humanity.

Interviewer 

What are your thoughts about the new pope?

Calderisi 

Fortunately, Francis was elected just as I was reviewing the first proofs of the book, so I had the opportunity to reflect on the subject before we went to print. I think he could have a profound effect on the Church’s social mission, just as he has already altered many people’s perceptions of the institution through his humility and humanity. His election came just as the Church’s activism seemed to be fading, with Catholics of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) generation retiring or dying off and a new crop of clergy focusing more on spiritual renewal and evangelization.  Francis has said several times and in different ways that the Church should be “in the streets” serving the poor rather than absorbed in its own internal issues.  His decision to canonize John XXIII (1958-1963) alongside John Paul II (1978-2005) is a powerful sign of that commitment.

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