The Church in the Third World

10 01 2009


The common idea amongst orthodox Christians in the West now is that the Third World will be the salvation of Christianity. Many of us in the Catholic Church in this country have the privilege of being served by priests from developing countries in our parishes. It is well known that the only thing that is keeping the Anglican Communion from collapsing into a Gnostic sect is the presence of its churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And generally, Christians are amazed by the fervor of people embracing Christianity in places where the words of Christ are being heard for the first time. Few however think of why this is the case. Why is there so much enthusiasm for traditional Christianity in places that have not traditionally been Christian, and why is it dying in many places where Christianity is precisely what built civilization?

One of the more simplistic and edifying answers is of course, “grace”. The numbers do matter in this regard. Baptisms do bring masses of pagans out of the darkness and into the light of Christ. More people hearing His words and eating and drinking His body and blood mean more sanctifying grace and supernatural charity in the world. For this we must be thankful. But if it were just a numbers game, just an issue of theological forces at work, one can then ask what happened in post-war Europe, where the numbers were far greater, the fervor as deep in many places, and the doctrine impeccable. (I once met a priest who was ordained at the largest ordination ceremony ever at a Eucharistic congress in Barcelona in the 1950’s. 800 priests were ordained in one ceremony; so many it had to be done in the soccer stadium.) In spite of all this, the Church collapsed, and the numbers here as well don’t lie. Will the same happen in the developing world? And in how long? In my estimation, being a student of the developing world and social transformation, I would answer, “not long at all”.

The fate of the Church in Latin America, for example, is known to be far from certain. The failure of liberation theology in the 1960’s and 1970’s does not preclude a revival of such tendencies in the future. The only reason that liberation theology emerged in the first place was the hegemonic nature of Catholicism over the masses; people of Marxist and left-wing bent had to adapt and disguise their ideas of class struggle in the mask of Christian rhetoric. Now that the Church is not as hegemonic, there is probably no need to do this; the Church is not as relevant to the lives of people as it once was. In the less developed parts of Latin America, Catholicism continues to appear strong since life has changed little. In other areas, the Church has the same problems of theological liberalism and lack of vocations as it does here.

In terms of vocations in the Third World, we must keep in mind some pretty concrete facts. In the Middle Ages, for a young peasant to become a monk, his life would not have been that radically different than if he had stayed out of the cloister. He would still probably end up working in the fields, still eating a simple diet, and still he would have to live a very austere life. If anything, his life probably would have improved by joining a monastery. This is far from being the case now in the developed world, especially for women. Betterment of material circumstances is the name of the game in the modern West. Especially for women, life does not give the two blunt alternatives of kids or the cloister. On the other hand, take the average lower class person in the Third World, and consider the chances he or she would have of studying in Rome, Paris, or Leuven. Probably not very good, unless he was bright and joined the largest international organization in the world: the Roman Catholic Church. Am I saying that all of these people become priests and religious for these reasons? Of course not. And I am really not blaming them if they did. I know I would probably do it under the same circumstances. But we cannot take the concrete and material considerations out of the analysis of social religious phenomena. If in the pre-Vatican II church, the priesthood and the religious life were for many the easiest ways to get out of poverty and get an education, it should not surprise us that there are parts of the world where this is still the case.

But let us look even more towards the ground level. Why do people become Christians in the first place in a simple Third World village, leaving behind the practices and beliefs of their ancestors? In this day and age, a lot of it has to do with modernization. People feel that old social codes are outdated, and are fascinated by the social cohesion that Christianity can provide. (Islam probably also provides this in these places.) It is the leaving behind of provincial and local beliefs to enter into a wider national and international discourse. The message of the Gospel can also be appealing because of its egalitarian emphasis when compared to more traditional belief systems, especially when speaking of gender and caste equality. Christianity could look like a progressive force on a village level, even when here it seems like the main force of the reaction.

In this sense, Christianity in the Third World can end up being good at the game of “catch-up” when compared to its developed counterpart. I have written in the past that in many ways modern liberalism has outflanked traditional Christianity in the very ideas that may have made Christianity popular in the first place: equality, tolerance, and belief based on reason and not on atavistic prejudice. The latter mentioned things are often also in traditional Christianity mixed in with “liberal” principles: what we see in modernity is these principles stripped of any real tie to traditional religiosity. Leon Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution speaks in this sense of combined and uneven development, the ability of a society to leap over phases of history in a very short period of time just as Russia jumped from a predominately agrarian feudal society to a post-capitalist society in the space of a couple of generations. In this way, the neophytes of Christianity in the Third World will probably match the liberalism of their developed counterparts in a couple of generations. Though the material circumstances cited above may slow the process down, I think it still inevitable. The Third World will not be the salvation of Christianity this century; society is too globalized for these places to be insulated from these social developments for long.

Well what then? If I paint such a bleak picture, what is to be done to keep Christianity as a major influence on human society? First of all, I think we need to leave behind any ideas that any of this will get better before it gets worse. Secondly, I find the reliance on a Third World Christian renaissance is naive, and is usually thought to be a panacea for the foundational problems at the core of Christian discourse itself. Such questions as “what is the nature of faith?”, “what is the nature of authority?” and “what is the nature of the Church?”, cannot adequately answered by a resort to dogmatism, ideology, or intellectual tribalism.

What Christian thinkers must come up with is a radically faithful critique of the way the Christian message has been portrayed going back to the beginning. We must learn to think critically without cutting our own legs out from under ourselves. In my own mind, the way I like to think about it is not how we can revise traditional Catholicism to better reflect the “Christian message” (the method of the thinkers around Vatican II), but rather how does traditional religiosity reveal the roots of what it means to be human. Modern theology is most unhelpful in this since it tends to hide humanity behind idealism and not reveal it. Here the most important thing may very well be how a group of old women say the rosary in a chapel in rural Mexico, how Indian villagers relate to their patron saint, or how charismatics in Europe see the Holy Ghost interacting in their prayer life. I am perhaps taking the idea of the “People of God” much more seriously than the inventors of that neologism at Vatican II. A real revival must always come from the bottom up, and not the top down. And it is there that our hope lies.



4 responses

13 01 2009
Terpsichore, Lusitana Combatente

(just a side note, only partially related)

I have heard too many protestants teaching to Africans countries that have been catholic for ages, that

“now they discovered God” – just an example: protestant loby in Moçambique – politics against Portugal

I have heard preachings like that in North Europe too, protestant ministers spreading this all over: that Catholics are not Christians….

Simply shoking. And I have a very impartial take! But it is so unfair and anti-Christian that I have to mention it and defend Catholics from such…

Often, protestants use the word Christian, meaning protestant.
While catholic use the word Christian, as Christian, including all Christians…

It’s complex, but real

12 01 2009

For whatever reason, the spiritual forces of darkness are much more explicitly active in the developing world – perhaps we in the West are already so bound to the world and the flesh that Satan finds no advantage in openly manifesting more often among us. In any event, I think that because of this, people in Africa, etc. are much more receptive to receiving the liberation that Christ brings from the enemy than are people here in the United States or in Europe.

11 01 2009

I subscribe to what I call the “bottle rocket” theory of development; different countries are indeed developing, but not nessesarily in the same way, much like how bottle rockets that are lit at the same time, all take different trajectories. Given the current situation, I don’t see the African countries catching up with the West in terms of material development for a very long time. This is partly because the nation-state model doesn’t really work in Africa. The existence of a nation-state assumes that one type of person exists within well-defined geographical boundaries. Based on the haphazard way Africa was carved up, you have a bunch of ethnic groups stuck together that would ordinarily have nothing to do with each other, not unlike Yugoslavia or Iraq. With no clearly defined sense of what it means to be Nigerian or Kenyan (as opposed to Igbo or Luo), civil war is the natural outcome. In comparison, it is much easier to develop quickly if your society is very homogenous, as was the case with post-World War II South Korea and Meiji era Japan. Poor governance is the other big problem in Africa. It’s hard to develop your economy when your supposed leader is robbing the country blind (see Mobuto Seko Seko of the former Zaire and Sani Abachi of Nigeria). This situation is further exacerbated by the above mentioned tribalism.

That being said, countries can and do experience social and economic change very quickly, as the oft cited examples of China and India illustrate. Thirty, fifty years from now, the African continent could be very different, especially if AIDS rates decrease. Whether Africans will stick to the faith or become secular, I can’t say. Someone with more insight into that continent would be a better judge.

I agree with Arturo when he talks about the current inability to transmit the Catholic message. What is lacking in American Catholic discourse is substantive discussion of issues that don’t fit a narrow “culture wars” mold, which I think is flawed for many reasons. Most of those fights have already been lost anyway; gay marriage will be universal in our lifetime, the two parent home is already an endangered species, and nobody really cares about abortion outside of the pro-life movement and the hard-core “reproductive rights” movement. Rather than attempt political salvation, we need to focus more on practicing spiritual and corporal acts of mercy, so being Catholic will be viewed as being a way of being more fully human rather than just a way to justify certain socially conservative political views.

11 01 2009


I think it would be good to remember that, just as the Third World (in regards to its culture and material prosperity) will not remain the same over the coming century, neither will advanced societies. As the Third World becomes more prosperous (God willing) the “First World” will certainly experience transformation as well, and I do not simply mean a reversal in which we all become the backwards recipients of goods and services form our former outsourcees. If our own material well-being continues, it will be accompanied by a lot of soul-searching.

I recently reconnected with friends from college, after 15 years. None of them are Catholic, or even believers in anything outside of what the secular world offers (hot wings, Hooters, Budweiser, MP3s and cool ring tones on your cell phone). I thought I would feel ashamed of my relative lack of prosperity (4 kids, semi-employed, no health insurance). I knew none of them had kids, and all seemed to be well-employed, with homes, cars, etc. After dinner, I felt sorry for them. And I think there was some intrigue as to why I would live like I do.

I feel the same sort of sadness for most of my family and friends. As they reach 40+ years, I wonder if they aren’t beginning to realize that they have been acting like teenagers for twenty-years, suckered by the material world’s promises. As more and more people arrive childless and faithless to middle-age, I have to think there will be transformation.

Oh, I’m not saying it will be a happy, let’s-all-be-Christians-again moment. But it will certainly cause great change, at leats in many people’s lives, for better or worse. History teaches us, with the example of Rome if not any other, that a society can be corrupt and depraved and yet linger for centuries. I don’t expect a revival of the late-19th, early 20th century Church in America.

But the Roman martyrs were just that: Romans. They were from the developed world, for the most part (Not that I’m dissing my brethren in the third world who suffer for the faith I take for granted). But while history teaches us about the longevity of depravity, it also teaches us that renewal can continue to exist side-by-side with it.

My guess is that while faith may grow in the third world, it may suffer increasing persecution in the advanced nations. And this will probably renew the Church in a way we could never have done through our own efforts. I don’t say this lightly. I don’t want to be persecuted and I don’t want my kids to be, either. I like cookies and donuts after mass, not midnight rendezvous in a graveyard with a priest and a handful of believers, followed by arrest and execution.

But there it is. You want to know what Hope there is for the First World church. The answer hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. Our hope is in blood.

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