The Catholic Church and World Development

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 this extract from Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development, Calderisi introduces some examples of the Church’s involvement in the developing world and describes the response those actions have received.

“Somewhere in the developing world, a 57-year old woman is trudging up a steep hill in the early afternoon, sorry she could not come earlier when it was cooler or delay her visit until the evening. But the person at the top of the hill needs her urgently. In another life, she could have been spending a quiet afternoon in the suburbs of Bonn, with a grandson sitting on her knee, delighting in the gentle sunlight reflecting in his hair. Instead, she squints as the tropical sun assaults her like stage lights, careening off the wet banana leaves along the path. The ground is muddy and she is slithering in her sandals, her medical case weighing her down. She should have worn her running shoes, but they seemed a luxury in this area, where people are happy to afford a pair of flip-flops.

She has no grandchildren. She is a nun and a nurse, and the woman up the hill may be dying. Like many religious people, she was recurrent doubts about God and eternity, but she is sure of what she is doing, putting into practice the ideals she learned as a young girl. After a lifetime of service, she wonders, too, about the possibility of progress. Like Sisyphus of old, she always seems to be climbing a hill. The “growth” that the World Bank health team had talked about earlier in the day, when they visited her dispensary in the valley, wasn’t reaching anyone she knew. She had faith in people, and wished she could also have faith in the “development” these eager young economists had been bantering about.

Her life is part of a larger history of two great causes – some would say experiments – one dating back to the first stirrings of human consciousness, the other rooted in the recent past, barely as old as the Second World War. The meeting of religion and development, the government-led fight against world poverty, is one of the great illuminating moments of the human story, revealing high ambition and idealism, but also the limits of planning, technology, and religious doctrine itself. It is the story of bravery and stubbornness, of breakthroughs and setbacks, and of the steel of personal determination hitting the hard rock of prejudice, ignorance, power, and corruption. That collision throws off sparks and stories that can stir a jaded heart.

This book will tell part of that story through the lens of Roman Catholicism and the lives of real men and women who have struggled to do good in forbidding circumstances. The Catholic Church is the largest and sometimes the most controversial organization on earth. Mere mention of it can irate those who regard it as one of the worst examples of religious excess, yet provoke deep loyalty among Catholics who have a pained understand of its past. Catholics see traces of glory in Church history, take pride in its universal character, and regard it as a rare beacon of hope and fraternity in a fractured world. The most devout believe it to be the “Mythical Body of Christ.” Most Europeans and North Americans feel little need for formal religion, but know that the Church and its offshoots have had a profound influence on Western civilisation. Latin Americans are ambivalent, after centuries of being smothered and inspired by Catholicism. Outside the Phillipines, East Timor, and a few Indian states, Asians see Catholicism as one of a number of competing religions, but also a sources of health and education services. Africa – the last of the continents to respond to Christian overtures – is still establishing its loyalties, torn between traditional religions, Islan, mainstream Christianity, and fast-expanding Pentecostal sects.

The Church’s impact in the world’s poorer societies has been the subject of thousands of books, essay, and treatises; but none seems to have approached the subject comprehensively for a general reader. This book will describe the Church’s practical role and will touch on the relationship between religion and political, economic, and social progress more generally. By definition, the story will focus on the last sixty years, as the very notion of “development” is that recent.

To many people in the West, impatient with organized religion, the damage Catholicism has done across the developing world is much more glaring than any of the benefits it has brought. Christians – who make up a third of the world’s population – generally view the contribution of their churches more positively, despite their own resevations about the way eager evangelizers once trampled on traditional beliefs. Even boyhood adventure heroes have disliked missionaries. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), one of the first English novels set in Africa, has the resotred king of Kukuanaland tell his white benefactors before they return home, “I will see no traders with their guns and gin . . . I will have no praying-men to put a fear of death into men’s hearts, to stir them up against the law of the king, and make a path for the white folk who follow to run on.” Yet some scholars argue that many missionaries were modernizers rather than marauders, sowing deliberately or accidentally the seeds of a more open and prosperous society.

As an agent of Western imperial expansion, Christianity witnessed the wholesale eradication of people and cultures. Not all of this was systematic or deliberate; much of it was accidental, through the spread of disease, or incidental to what was considered a “civilizing” process, and the Church was rarely the principal actor. But these qualifiers mean nothing to the lives, the voices, and the traditions lost. The Church had a particularly destructive impact on latin American cultures in the sixteenth century, with one Spanish bishop in Merida (on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula) responsible virtually single-handedly for the destruction of the Maya tradition of hieroglyphic writing. However, other missionaries in the same period were training Maya converts to preserve their ancient literature in the Latin alphabet.


In short, the larger picture has as many angles as a Cubist painting. But it is often more plausible, compelling, and human.”

– Extract from Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development

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