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Why Hasn't Five Centuries of Catholicism Had More Effect? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Friday, 30 March 2007 09:59
John Allen's All Things Catholic essay is up and he is asking some probing questions:

"Latin America has been Catholic for five centuries, yet too often its societies are corrupt, violent, and underdeveloped. If Catholicism has had half a millennium to shape culture and this is the best it can do, one might be tempted to ask, is it really something to celebrate? Mounting defections to Pentecostalism only deepen such ambivalence."

Honduras is deeply violent (it has a murder rate five times that of the global average) and is deeply corrupt ("revenue shortfalls due to corruption have produced a staggering national "electricity tax" of 49 percent, prompting people to refuse to pay their bills".


Allen was surprised that blaming the US wasn't the first response his hosts gave. Snip.

"The most frequent explanation I heard boils down to this: For most of the 500 years since the arrival of Columbus, Catholicism in Latin America often has been skin-deep. People were baptized into the faith, married and buried in it, but for a variety of reasons there was precious little else.

To be sure, the church exercises considerable political clout. But that influence, many observers say, often masks a superficial Catholicism at the grass-roots.

At first blush, the claim that five centuries haven't afforded enough time for real evangelization might seem a terrible indictment. Honduran Catholics told me that, given its scarce resources, the church never stood a chance. Moreover, they say, baptismal counts notwithstanding, the region has never been ideologically homogenous.


For example, some Hondurans assert that during the Cold War, the dominant ideology was not Catholicism, but Marxism, which had a much greater impact in shaping the attitudes of political and social elites. That's the view at the new Catholic University of Honduras, founded in 1993 and named "Our Lady Queen of Peace" in honor of the reputed apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

During my visit, rector Elio David Alvarenga Amador and members of his staff explained that the university was founded by lay Catholics who taught at the secular national university, and who were frustrated with what they saw as Marxist indoctrination, especially in education and the social sciences.

Vice-rector Virgilio Madrid Solís, who keeps an image of St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, on his desk, though he's not a member, minces no words in describing the new university's mission: "To change Honduras."

Erika Flores de Boquín, another vice-rector, unpacked the point. She told the story of a recent engineering graduate who went to work for the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, where he was asked to sign what Flores described as a falsified environmental impact study, presumably skewed by corruption. The engineer lost his job, but he made a stand for principle.

"Little by little, such acts will transform this country," Flores de Boquín said. "The church is starting this work only now."

Hondurans also point to a severe priest shortage as limiting the extent to which Catholicism took hold. With just over 400 priests, the ratio of priests to people in Honduras today is 1 to 13,000.

"At the time of independence from Spain, most of the Catholic clergy were expelled," Rodriguez said. "We had one bishop and 15 priests for the entire country."

That shortage left vast sections of the population with no regular access to the sacraments, and no meaningful catechesis. The few clergy on hand, mostly foreign missionaries, did their best, but dreams of Honduran Catholicism shaping culture in the sense that one associates with Poland under Communism, local Catholics say, was never in the cards.

It's encouraging to see the lay initiative in founding a new university with the specific purpose of evangelization of both individuals and society.

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