BOOK REVIEW / Power to the poor: The Two Churches - Michael Budde: Duke University Press, pounds 25

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The Independent Online
AT THE start of this century almost three-quarters of the world's Catholics lived in Europe and North America. At the outset of the next, 75 per cent will be in the developing world - Africa, Asia and above all Latin America. The consequences of this, according to Professor Michael Budde, will be a dramatic realignment in the Church's political sympathies: from defender of the North and the prevailing capitalist system, to champion of the South and what was once called socialism.

From providing the moral backbone for successive European empires, the Catholic Church is, he claims, changing sides and joining forces with anti-capitalist, anti-Western forces in the Third World. The Vatican will remain as God's business address on Earth, but real power will shift to the local churches. Where Catholicism was once associated with the occupying powers, and was effectively another office of state in the Spanish and Portuguese empires, today it is a church of the people, working closely with left-wing parties and opposing the colonisation of Latin America by the United States.

Professor Budde provides an accurate sketch of the network of Christian communities in the shanty towns, where reading the gospel has become a precursor to political action to demand basic rights for the poor. In parts of Brazil, church services and meetings of the radical Workers' Party have merged into one. Priests and bishops have, from the Sixties onwards, developed the theology of liberation, which has unequivocally put the Church on the side of the oppressed, in opposition to governments and the multinational companies who come to the region for its cheap labour and plentiful natural resources.

To argue, however, that Catholicism is set to replace Communism as the counterweight to capitalism on the world stage is more debatable. There is an alarming and, to my mind, wholly unjustified, assumption in much of Professor Budde's analysis that what is true of Catholicism in Latin America also holds true in Asia and Africa. But the major fault in his theory is that it gives too little weight to the influence of the Pope, in a church where hierarchy and authoritarianism have always been the order of the day.

Professor Budde presents Pope John Paul II as hovering between the two camps in his church - the European and the developing world. He refers to the 'travelling Pope' and his unprecedented willingness to leave the Vatican to meet his far-flung flock. He quotes recent papal encyclicals on social questions which set out the shortcomings of capitalism.

What the book does not discuss at any length is the ferocious anti- Communist tone of those documents. Pope John Paul is a product of his Polish roots, and suspicious of any variation on the theme of Communism or collectivism. His criticisms of capitalism were intended to give it the human and spiritual dimension that he felt was eclipsed by the Eighties obsession with market forces.

The Vatican's evident distaste for liberation theology has been displayed on many occasions. Priests and academics have been silenced. Those clerics who have taken on political offices have been suspended. And in recent years radical and independent-minded bishops - like Dom Helder Camara in Brazil - have been replaced by those who are loyal to Rome's every whim.

Yet even if such arguments are underplayed here, there is much truth in Professor Budde's contention that once Catholics in the developing world have been encouraged to think and act for themselves, to see their faith as having a political dimension, no amount of coercion from Rome will reverse the process. Clearly, the mass of Catholics in the world has suffered, rather than benefited, at the hands of capitalism.

Yet few cheered louder and longer than the Church when the Communist system in Eastern Europe came tumbling down. To the Vatican the ideology of the former Soviet Union, with its scorn for organised religion, was anathema. Its demise was the answer to every Catholic's prayers. Now there is the possibility that Catholicism could replace Communism around the world. In this timely and intriguing study, Professor Budde never loses sight of that irony.