Catholics and Marxists

Malcolm Deas

  • Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere: The Churches in Latin America and South Africa by Edward Norman
    Oxford, 230 pp, £12.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 19 821127 9
  • The Pope’s Divisions by Peter Nichols
    Faber, 382 pp, £10.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 571 11740 6

Edward Norman’s Reith Lectures reminded a surprised audience that His Kingdom is not of This World, and hinted that there was more than a little that was bogus about Third World theologians who sought to change that fundamental proposition. For this book he has brought together his Birkbeck Lectures at Cambridge and his Prideaux Lectures at Exeter to form a comparative account of ecclesiastical developments in Latin America and in South Africa. There are signs of hurry as he rushes from one engagement to another, but there is certainly an eager audience for his themes – a Christian international. As with the other international, it is often a credulous audience with a short memory, which has much to learn from a sceptical travelling Church historian. South Africa now stands alone. The Pope is on his journeys again. The book is undeniably topical. Dr Norman is not altogether convincing about the value of his comparison: the halves of his book are quite separate and one does not shed much light on the other. But he provides a useful background for those wishing to understand the varied churches of South Africa, and an essay on Latin America which will help Anglo-Saxons catch the nuances of Papal pronouncements on the poorer parts of the world.

A liberal with some historical sense ought to feel some puzzlement and disquiet when the Pope sets out for Colombia, Mexico, Brazil or the Philippines. The present Pope makes a clear distinction between ‘human rights’, traditionally defined, and ‘an exaggerated interest in the wide field of temporal problems’, but the atmosphere surrounding past tours has been more ambiguous. The Church played a large part in the formation of these societies, and certain shifts in stance look like an opportunistic evasion of responsibility. What precisely are the changes in structures and policies that the Church is seeking to encourage? What would our reaction be to similar homilies nearer home? Are the European conflicts between Church and State really so irrelevant to the course of, say, Latin American history that as spectators we need only rejoice as the new église bien pensante goes about its business? Is there some point on the scale of income-distribution where we should abandon our traditional notions of what is the proper sphere of clerical activity? The ‘Theology of Liberation’ did not receive much encouragement at the Puebla meeting of Latin American bishops, nor has it received much official encouragement since, but it is still an influential current in the Latin American Church and elsewhere. These questions are therefore still pertinent. Progressive Catholicism receives disproportionate attention and automatic approbation from abroad, but these questions are rarely raised.

Dr Norman’s book suggests some of them and answers some of them. ‘It is difficult,’ he writes, ‘to avoid the conclusion that the advanced social thinking of the 1960s was the adoption, within the Church, of the secular moral idealism of the Left – which was at the time strongly represented within the intelligentsia of the various republics. The result was surely the politicisation of parts of the Church’s leadership, not the Christianising of secular political society.’ He senses that recent decades have seen in Latin America a rapid secularisation of society, and that radical Catholicism has been, to interpret it cynically, the reaction of clerics who are losing their clientèle. He does not go far enough in his attempt to describe the reality behind the nominal Catholicism of the region, and the lectures could easily carry more detail of the numbers and provenance of priests and vocations, of church attendance and all the other essentials of religious sociology: the treatment of Latin American Protestantism is particularly inadequate. From a Catholic point of view, matters are indeed worse than he implies, for his account of the region’s church history, especially that of the rural areas, is tinged with romanticism: the countryside is filled with ‘indians’ dominated by priests, in turn dominated by hacendados, all believing, albeit the indians in a syncretic fashion here referred to as ‘religiosidad popular’.

Dr Norman’s Latin America is settled too early and catechised too thoroughly. He is unaware of the degree to which the Church failed even when it enjoyed its colonial monopoly: it failed with blacks and succeeded only most unevenly with mestizos. In republican times, it has often failed to keep pace with new areas of settlement, just as it for long did not recognise the problems posed by urbanisation. Dr Norman is also exaggerating when he writes that the 19th-century ideology of anticlericalism did not have popular roots: in many areas it did, and the cry of ‘Viva el Gran Partido Liberal!’ would find an echo way beyond anything that can sensibly be called an élite. Here the critic of stereotypes is the victim of a stereotype of his own – of a quaintness or sentimentality strayed from some smart Thirties traveller. This unsureness shows also in frequent errors in people’s names and in an erratic bibliography, much of which is out of date and has led him to out-of-date conclusions. The book is not as scholarly as it looks.

This is not a pedant’s point. The general reader is unaware of how easy it is to get away with wild inaccuracies when writing with every semblance of scruple about distant parts of the world. The Times correspondent, Peter Nichols, recently told his readers that El Salvador was a microcosm of Latin America, and he is the author of a book that lovingly details the varieties of the Italian peninsula. His The Pope’s Divisions scorns any such discrimination for the larger area. Christ stopped at Eboli, but He clearly never thought of touching anywhere between Patagonia and the Rio Grande: ‘The reality is dreadful. Most of the subcontinent is under authoritarian rule. Much of the economy is dominated by multinationals who take out basic raw materials in return for impossible wages. Repression is of the crudest kind. The huge American interest has proved incapable of forcing military regimes to abide by some of the fundamental rules of fair government. Injustice, death, imprisonment, disappearance, violence, torture are a part of the life of the subcontinent and violent reaction to them is equally commonplace – at its most acute in Brazil, Paraguay and El Salvador.’

One does not have to be wedded to a Panglossian view of Latin America to think that this sort of reporting – untypical of an interesting and stylish book – conceals underneath its humanitarian surface another sort of denial of Latin American humanity. Despite appearances, it has no sense of nuance or history.

It is the business of scholars to be scholarly. The failings of Dr Norman are here aggravated by the disgraceful carelessness from which his text suffers, caused perhaps by the prolonged hangovers following the Oxford University Press’s orgy of auto-celebration in 1978. These are hard times, but there are many Delegates, Heads of Houses, Proctors, Assessors and Chairmen of this and that Board in the University who would benefit the Press and themselves with a little therapeutic proof-reading from time to time.

Besides doubting his view of the peasant masses, the reader should not be misled by Dr Norman into thinking that Francisco Madero was a socialist, that ‘political society in general’ in Venezuela in 1957 was represented by Marco Perez Jimenez, that Limantour was an intellectual, that the cientificos were a Latin American intellectual movement rather than a set of Mexican cliques, or that ‘Fuegians’ are the same as ‘Araucanians’. On the accuracy of the South African half of the book I cannot pronounce. Passages of untranslated Afrikaans in the text may stop many readers getting to the comparative note at the end.

What Dr Norman gets wrong may seem small from a distance – like Papal homilies, such errors would be much harder to tolerate nearer home – and he gets some things right. He is right about the broad course of secularisation. He is right to point out that there are plenty of parallels between Latin American ecclesiastical history and European ecclesiastical history, that past Church-State conflicts are ‘familiar enough, viewed from a European perspective’, even though he does not succeed in conveying their atmosphere or drama, or examine with any exactness the issues at stake and the ideologies at work. It is true, too, that conservative politicians have often used the Church for their own ends, against the better judgment of its local leaders. Dr Norman’s conclusion that a church usually more or less abreast with the times ‘has in general had a pragmatic approach to politics’ is unexciting but sound. The fiercest assaults have come from radical liberalism, and pragmatism can look for new allies against the old enemy. If the ‘status quo’ is represented by the heirs of liberalism, then it is not surprising in such a simple schema that the Church has never been its wholehearted supporter, and that pragmatism can contemplate other allies and accommodations.

These are better exposed than by Dr Norman in the Venezuelan Carlos Rangel’s From the Noble Savage to the Noble Revolutionary (Del Buen Salvaje al Buen Revolucionario, Monte Avila, Caracas, 1976: there is a French edition, published by Robert Laffont). This is a book which deserves to be better known here, which escapes Dr Norman’s bibliography, and which in its chapter on the Church argues that the unnatural alliance of Catholics and Marxists is in Latin America all too natural. Both for their different reasons are ascetic, anti-American, paternalist (not to use a harsher word), anti-liberal. Both can agree to devalue the limited conquests of bourgeois liberalism, or freedom, and consumerism, elsewhere called prosperity. Both can decry ‘dependency’ on the ‘Protestant, liberal, secular and materialist’ United States. Both oppose birth-control – the Left as an ‘imperialist plot’. Cubans are far from fervent, but the Church gets on well enough with Fidel Castro; Monsignor Zacchi, sent to lie abroad for the good of the Vatican, says that Castro ‘from the ethical point of view is a Christian’. Of course vast numbers of Latin American Catholics were unaffected by such developments, or have been opposed to such lines of thought. Rangel’s book cites some who were not. Monseñor Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, the Secretary General of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference, apparently believes that ‘the United States and Canada are rich because the peoples of Latin America are poor. They have built their wealth on top of us.’ Sancta simplicitas? Demagogic rubbish. These excesses weaken the clerical defence of human rights, though they have no obvious logical connection with that issue. It is not possible to define with any precision where proper concern becomes ‘an exaggerated interest in the wide field of temporal problems’ (the Pope in Manilla as reported in the Times), but it is possible and salutary to subject clerical pronouncements on political matters to the same criticism as everyone else’s. Some Latin American curas revolucionarios remind one powerfully of upper-class English revolutionaries of the Rose Dugdale stamp: not only are they frequently foreigners in their field of operations, but in changing their views they have lost none of their desire to give orders. Authoritarian government is not the ineluctable destiny of Latin America. To assume that it is, and to prefer the left-wing versions to the right-wing ones, is just the new form of the old condescension.

This book’s conclusions are in no way sensational. ‘It is clear in the largest perspective ... that the earlier interdependence of religious and non-religious forces has been replaced by a pattern of influence less advantageous to the churches. Although the political and cultural environment has become more secularised, the leaders of Christianity have continued to reflect prevailing opinion. It may be that the future offers little prospect of a more effectively independent Christian voice, for the existing trends do not appear to be especially ephemeral.’ Dr Norman ends with the words of the dark Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe: ‘Are you not under my shadow and protection? Do you need anything more?’ It was at her basilica, as he notes, that the present Pope, perhaps reminded of the dark Virgin of Poland, made his devotions in Mexico City – a choice unpopular with progressive Mexican Catholicism. But it certainly reflected prevailing opinion in that country, under that secular and one-party government, a pragmatic tradition and an awareness of danger.