A Church on the Side of the Poor?

Article excerpt

Global Catholicism By Ian Linden HURST Pounds 14.99 (337pp) Pounds 13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897

Catholicism is fond of claiming the unbroken stewardship of truth - or Truth - here on earth. But the reality is that what the Church does or says at any particular moment depends on who is in charge. Making international headlines recently has been the Catholic archbishop of Recife in Brazil, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, because of his decision to excommunicate the family of a nine-year-old girl who had been raped and made pregnant by her stepfather. Their crime, in the archbishop's eyes, was that they arranged for an abortion that probably saved the girl's life.

This cleric, whose unfeeling recourse to the rulebook when faced with human suffering is entirely in character, has long been controversial since he was named, in 1985 by Pope John Paul II, as the successor to Dom Helder Camara in Recife. Camara was a hero of the Latin American church - and therefore of Ian Linden's enjoyable and informative history of global Catholicism in the half century since the modernising Second Vatican Council.

One of the joys of the book - which is firmly aimed at general readers - is that it gives a bigger context in which to see the lamentable actions of those like Sobrinho. So Linden, a former director of the think-tank the Catholic Institute for International Relations and now based at Tony Blair's Faith Foundation, describes how Dom Helder risked his life in the 1960s to stand up against the human-rights abuses of a US-backed military government in Brazil. Like many fellow-clerics, he believed unambiguously that the Church had to side with those most in need of its help - the poor and dispossessed - rather than condemn them as his successor has.

Quite what form that action should take was and remains in dispute within Catholicism. Two key issues are how to reconcile the ideals of the Church with the reality of the lives of Catholics, and how far clerics can get involved in politics. On the first count, Global Catholicism highlights the emergence of the Church as a respected force in developing countries in the post-colonial era (having previously ridden on the coat-tails of imperialists). …