Johann Hari: A global war for the soul of Catholicism

Young girls wear skimpy tops bearing the pious face of Mary as they snog their boyfriends
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The Independent Online

Barrio La Carapita is a hillside neighbourhood built from cardboard and tin, where people live 10-to-a-house and still find space for a dozen small statues of the Virgin Mary. It's one of the country's many invisible slums, not even marked on maps - but the churches dotted among the rubble represent a microcosm of the battle within the Catholic Church between liberals and arch-reactionaries for the faith of 1.1 billion people.

You only have to glance at the barrio's sea of Catholokitsch to pick up on the contradictions embedded in their faith: young girls wear skimpy tops bearing the pious face of Mary as they snog the heads off their boyfriends. They loll about next to the cardboard doors of a church - and inside, I discovered a scene that would give Pope Benedict XVI a stroke.

A sassy 31-year-old nun named Lourdes Fuentes was officiating over mass, wearing jeans and flip-flops. "The priest will bless this bread and water later," she says as she handed it out to the congregation. To the accompaniment of a guitar, she sang, "You came to save the world in the humble womb of Mary/ you were tortured by the imperialist Roman Pilate/ You are alive in the shacks, in the schools, in the factories."

She then lead a democratic discussion, where she asked the congregation what they have read in the Bible and what it means to them. One said she was encouraged by the fact Jesus was black and associated with prostitutes; another woman said Jesus rebelled against a violent, machismo-obsessed society.

The priest assigned to this area, Juan Solorzano, rarely visits because he believes it is too dangerous. He lives instead in the wealthy part of town alongside the Venezuelan élite - but when he does grace the church, he offers a very different form of Catholicism. He offers a stern, hierarchical service with no participation. Instead of Lourdes's vision of a God who wants the poor to empower themselves, he says they should embrace their hunger and poverty because it brings them "closer to Christ". (You could almost hear him melting down that opiate of the masses and tapping the syringe.)

This might seem like an internal fight, irrelevant to non-Catholics like me - but it didn't take long before I got a glance of how innocent lives depend on whether liberal or reactionary Catholics prevail. Lourdes said: "A woman came here recently who has three children and hypertension, and she was very confused. She was pregnant again and the doctor said if she had the baby she could have a stroke and die. She did not know whether to have an abortion. The priest told her she must not. He said she would burn in hell if she did. In many churches, it would end there, and the woman would die. But here, once the priest was gone, we helped her arrange an abortion and she lived. If she had taken the priest's advice, her children might not have a mother today."

It gets worse. As Aids begins to rip through Venezuela, the priest here preaches - as so many of his colleagues have across Latin America and Africa - that condoms don't work. Don't wear one, it won't protect you.

In El Salvador, the Vatican has even successfully lobbied to have every pack of condoms marked with a dishonest warning that they are useless. It's an attempt to terrorise people out of having sex, but in practice it simply spreads Aids.

Lourdes explained: "We know it's crazy to tell people that, so when the priest leaves, we talk to everybody about condoms and the coil. We don't want to see 12-year-old girls having babies or 19-year-old boys dying of Aids. But in many churches the nuns are too afraid to do the same - and people die."

When we talk about religious civil wars today, we tend to think of the war within Islam, fought out everywhere from Bali to Kabul to King's Cross station. But the outcome of the battle within Catholicism - over condoms, Aids and abortion - may determine the life and death of just as many people. The News at Ten does not lead with footage of Catholic Africans dying of Aids after being told by the Vatican that the HIV virus passes through tiny imaginary holes in a condom, or with imagery of the silent mass rape of Catholic children that Rome has covered up for decades. It is not as photogenic as a suicide-massacre - but it can be just as deadly.

Lourdes's liberal wing of the Church is losing. When Cardinal Ratzinger was made Pope, she "cried and cried and cried. It was a disaster for us. I knew many people would die as a result of his teaching on condoms and abortion." Half of the world's Catholics live in Latin America, and many of them were already deeply suspicious of Ratzinger: he was the trained inquisitor tasked by the last Pope with liquidating liberation theology. He slapped down and excommunicated priests who tried to use the Church's power to oppose the far right dictatorships scarring the continent. Many grassroots priests are now determined to simply ignore his Papal pronouncements, just as Lourdes does - but those who don't (out of fear of expulsion, mostly) continue to hand out deadly diktats.

Some imagined Benedict would make concessions to the centre ground. But his actions have been driven by a different agenda: soft on paedophiles, tough on gays. One of his first decisions was to cancel a high-profile child molestation investigation. He did not bother to offer a reason. Father Marcial Maciel of Mexico had been accused by several men of raping them in the 1960s. According to the victims, the Vatican investigator, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, had already told them he was convinced they were telling the truth and that the Church owed them a public apology. Ratzinger halted the proceedings nonetheless.

Instead, in the past month the Pope has reportedly drafted an "instruction" for the expulsion of even celibate homosexuals from the priesthood. He has long damned the "deceitful propaganda" of gay rights campaigners, who promote an "intrinsically evil" act. He believes gay sex leads to "irrational and violent reactions" and thinks "the practice of homosexuality may threaten the lives of a large number of people". (May I use a condom, Your Holiness?) Liberal Catholics are now battening down for a church-wide witch-hunt against gay people.

For somebody as allergic to all shades of religion as me, it's tempting to sit back and watch smugly as theo-cons seize the Catholic Church. Won't their anti-democratic, anti-condom, anti-gay agenda merely empty the pews faster? But the reality is that most Catholics in Africa and countries such as Venezeula will not ditch their faith; they will follow its dogmas to the point of death, just as the pregnant woman in this Church might have done if Lourdes had not intervened.

As she watched her congregation filter out, Lourdes said, "It cannot continue like this. They are causing so many people to die, and for no reason." She lifted her eyes to a peeling statue of the Virgin Mary and murmured: "One day, decent people will take the Vatican." Her smile was feeble and bleakly unconvincing.