Friday, January 20, 2006

Fighting poverty

By David Mikhail:

While the most expansive African debt forgiveness initiative yet was coming to fruition in Gleneagles last summer, the Vatican’s presence was only marginally visible. Not a papal delegation but a collective of African bishops met with G8 representatives to lobby for debt relief for their continent. The fact that the full voice of the new papacy was not heard on this cause is an indication of a broader issue that may have a significant adverse effect on the Catholic Church as it exists in the African continent. If Pope Benedict XVI does not personally adopt a larger advocacy for poverty elimination in Africa, this same poverty, coupled with the perception of the church’s indifference towards it, will trigger a significant exodus from the Catholic faith over the next twenty to thirty years. The dimensions of the problem become clearer when one notes that the Vatican has benefited tremendously from a dramatic increase in African followers, whose numbers have gone from 55 million to 144 million since the late 1970s.

Though it would be inaccurate to say that Pope Benedict never broaches the issue of African poverty, he has rarely made it the center of his advocacy. Meeting bishops from Burundi in response to the nation’s history of civil war, he encouraged them to address poverty because many Burundians "know extreme poverty and interior distress, and are tempted to return to ancient practices not purified by the Spirit of the Lord, or to sects." During a Sunday prayer in July 2005, he sandwiched a brief call for the G8 to address African poverty between the Prayer of the Angelus and a salutation to the English-speaking visitors of St. Peter’s Square. While Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan demand more leadership and economic involvement from the international community in battling the global AIDS pandemic, Pope Benedict, in his recent speech on " World AIDS Day", focused on how fidelity and abstinence programs have been a successful approach to combating the disease on the African continent.

Read the complete article Pope Benedict’s indifference and Africa’s faith from open Democracy.

There's more. The piece goes on to discuss just why the Catholic Church's position in Latin America has been decreasing in the face of Evangelical encroachment (Evangelicals have a 'better' message when it comes to poverty).

Overall, Mikhail's piece is rather lengthy. If I were his editor, I would have helped him slim it down a bit. As far as the actual content, Mikhail obviously didn't put much effort into understanding Benedict XVI. The current pope's priority is getting souls back into the Church so that they can be saved and gain salvation. Aside from basic differences like that, Mikhail also forgets that this is a different man with a different personality and style. I doubt Bono's going to be getting any audiences in the near future.

Mikhail does make one good point, though it probably wasn't his intent: the Vatican social justice machinery is rather unwieldy, with congregations and councils, etc. all doing working here and there and everywhere. John Paul II was a pope with a specific agenda when it came to poverty and he was a big enough personality to see that his own message was carried through.

Benedict on the other hand has other priorities and in the meantime, the Catholic message may appear to be rather voiceless. I would hope that in the coming curial reform that in the same manner as what has been proposed for the Holy See's communications organs that the social justice organs be streamlined so that one point-man can be appointed and act as the pope's top lieutenant and overseer and voice when it comes to issues like poverty.

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