Books > Earthly Mission: the Catholic Church and world development

02 November 2013 | by Robert Calderisi

Earthly Mission: the Catholic Church and world development

Change where it’s most needed

Thousands of words have been written about the scandals that have beset the Catholic Church in recent years, so it’s good to see a detailed account of the Church’s outstanding contribution to international development. Or is it?

True, the Church is an indisputable leader in education and health services across the world. It has 140,000 schools, 18,000 clinics, 16,000 homes for the elderly and those with special needs, 12,000 nurseries, 10,000 orphanages, 37,000 centres of informal education, and 5,500 hospitals, 65 per cent of them located in developing countries.

But it is not all good news. Robert Calderisi presents a wide-ranging and comprehensive overview of the Church’s charitable and development work, but he is also refreshingly honest and critical where he feels the Church has not been true to itself.

He is an outspoken critic of some aspects of church doctrine, particularly in regard to its impact on human development. He left the Church for a decade after the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968, because of the serious harm he believed the ban on birth control would do in the developing world. He is also critical of the Church’s stance on homosexuality, on condom use to prevent HIV/Aids infection, and its role in the Rwanda genocide.

As well as being a Catholic, Calderisi is a former employee of the Organisation for Economic Development and the World Bank, and a writer and lecturer on Africa, international development and foreign aid. He is therefore well qualified to present an authoritative, critical assessment of the Church’s development work. Although he presents an impressive, and often moving, picture of the work that is done by many Catholic men and women working in the world’s poorest countries, this should not be a source of comfort for the Catholic Church, let alone hubris. The Church can, and should, be doing more. Charity alone will not help the poor; there is still an urgent need to address the root causes of poverty. Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, we are facing a global economic crisis, food shortages and climate change that threatens to set back years of development progress.

Calderisi concludes that most of the Catholic humanitarian workers he describes in his book have acted as individuals rather than conscious representatives of an institution. So can the Church claim any credit at all? Indeed, what is its role? Calderisi maintains that although it is individual men and women who are working at the front line in the battle against poverty, they do not act alone. They are drawn together by the Gospel, by the traditions and fellowship of the global Church, and they are supported by its structures, resources, teaching and worldwide presence.
The forward-looking and fundamental question Calderisi poses is, how can the Church build on the experience it has amassed in the last 50 years of development work? In recent years, the Church’s hierarchy seems to have viewed this work in the light of Catholic identity and evangelisation. But, as Calderisi says, “The opportunities to help poor people around the world to transform their lives remain manifold – if only the Church can overcome its current preoccupations with identity.”

Things may be about to change. Pope Francis has won worldwide respect and admiration with his call for a new era of mercy and compassion, for a “poor Church for the poor”. He has made it clear that a priority for the Church must be to be true both to itself and to its mission. And he recognises that the Church must work to promote real change. On a recent visit to a Jesuit refugee centre in Rome, Pope Francis said: “It is not enough to offer a sandwich if this is not accompanied by the possibility of learning to stand on one’s own two feet. Charity that leaves the poor in the same situation as before is not adequate. True mercy, that which God gives and teaches us, asks for justice, asks that the poor find the way out of their poverty.”

Much of Earthly Mission must have been in the can long before Pope Francis was elected, and he makes only a few brief appearances. I hope that Robert Calderisi is already hard at work on a second edition, and that the arrival of Pope Francis will literally open a substantial new chapter in Catholic development work.

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