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Roman Catholic Church

The Oxford Companion to Comparative Politics
J. Bryan HehirJ. Bryan Hehir

Roman Catholic Church 

The Roman Catholic Church has been an actor in world affairs for over two millennia. The “Christian fact,” a religious community that quickly assumed an institutional status, posed a double challenge to the Greco–Roman world. First, the church's claim on the conscience of believers was a profound challenge to the classical world's conception of the power of the state; now there was a new standard of behavior against which a state's prescriptions and prohibitions would be tested. Second, as a social institution the church quickly became a contending locus of power in the Roman Empire.

The evolution of the relationship between spiritual and temporal power took several forms: the church and the Roman Empire, the church in the Republica Christiana of the High Middle Ages, the church and the Catholic and Protestant states of the post-Reformation period. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the religious wars in Europe, also symbolized the rise of the nation-state, the basic unit of world politics for the last three centuries. It is in the context of the “Westphalian system” that the issue of the Catholic Church and international politics emerges in its modern form. The nation-state posed a theoretical and a practical challenge for Catholicism. On the one hand, the claims of the sovereign state threatened fundamental Catholic teaching that bonds of human solidarity and responsibility to others exist in spite of state boundaries and these obligations must be honored in times of war and peace. In theory, Catholic teaching on international affairs accorded the state real but relative moral value. The nation-state is recognized as a legitimate center of moral and political authority, but the activity of states is to be assessed in light of the moral order of rights and duties. On the other hand, at the practical diplomatic level, the church recognizes the role of nation-states and maintains formal diplomatic relations with over 178 states; this activity is directed by the Vatican's secretary of state, a cardinal who is the ranking official in the Roman Curia.

Demography and Distribution.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Roman Catholics numbered 1.2 billion, approximately one-sixth of the global population. The distinctive characteristic of the population, however, is not its aggregate total but the pattern of its distribution. Catholicism arose in the geography of Israel and Palestine, then spread throughout the Mediterranean world, with the decisive event being the location of the papacy in Rome in the first century of the Common Era. The history of the church was then powerfully shaped by the emergence of Catholicism in Europe. The European roots of the church were not only geographic but intellectual and cultural. From the beginning the church understood its mission to encompass the human community; at the same time its understanding of its doctrine, governance, and practice was powerfully shaped by its roots in the Hebrew scriptures, its integration of Greco–Roman intellectual sources, and its adoption of Roman structures of organization. From the first century through the twentieth century, Europe and the West had a unique significance for Catholicism. By 2010 the distribution of the Catholic population was heavily concentrated (two-thirds of the church) in the “global south”: Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Moreover, the dynamic of distribution points to ever-increasing growth in these three continents, with either declining or stable populations in Europe and North America. The meaning of this change is being steadily but slowly integrated into the policies and practices of the church. The papacy moved beyond Italy for the first time in centuries with the election of John Paul II and Benedict XVI but remained within the European orbit. The College of Cardinals is still heavily dominated by Europe and the United States. There is significant expectation that the next pope will be drawn from the south, but this is not a certainty. Beyond the role of offices in the church, the deeper questions of demography and distribution involve the definition of legitimate pluralism within the overarching framework of Catholic unity. Pluralism refers to questions like theology, liturgy and language, cultural adaptation in different parts of the church to different local/national settings, the role of canon law, and the recruitment throughout the church of priests and consecrated religious communities.

From the Cold War to 9/11.

From a pastoral perspective the community of the church—its members, numbers, distribution—is the dominant theme. From the perspective of the role of the church in international politics, the structure of the church and its leadership is the primary (but hardly exclusive) category. Pope Pius XII (1939–1958) marked a significant transition for Catholicism in its engagement of the modern era of world politics. His leadership during World War II remains a contested question because of Vatican policy regarding the Holocaust. But his intellectual and diplomatic leadership were decisive for the church. He opened a path for acceptance of democracy and the modern conception of human rights by the church; he made significant contributions theologically to themes that would gain wide acceptance only after the Second Vatican Council. Politically, he played a forceful role in the shaping of Christian democracy in Europe in the postwar era. This in turn was a dimension of his intellectual and political resistance to communism in any of its forms.

The pontificates of Pope John XXIII (1958–1963) and Pope Paul VI (1963–1978) are primarily remembered in terms of the powerful and pervasive changes they led through the convocation of Vatican II (1962–1965) called by John XXIII and Paul VI's complex challenge of guiding the church through the immediate postconciliar era. Both, however, played substantial roles in shaping Catholic teaching and diplomacy in the 1960s and 1970s. John XXIII's encyclical Peace on Earth (Pacem in Terris, 1963) advanced the Catholic argument about human rights substantially beyond Pius XII, and he combined this with a less adversarial role in relationship to Communist states. Paul VI, a diplomat throughout his life as a priest, significantly shifted the church's focus to developments in the Southern Hemisphere and the needs of these countries. In addition, he led a version of Ostpolitik in the church, opening new channels of limited but significant dialogue with governments in Central and Eastern Europe.

Most significantly, these two pontificates catalyzed the most systematic, substantial, and wide-ranging internal changes in Catholicism in four centuries through their leadership of Vatican II. The sixteen documents of the council initiated a complex process of change whose meaning and consequences are still being worked out in the twenty-first century. Most of these changes related to the internal life of Catholicism, but the conciliar texts on religious freedom (Dignitatis Personae, 1965) and on the church's role in the world (Gaudium et Spes, 1965) brought about fundamental changes in the church's life within states and across the international system.

The election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Kraków (Poland) as Pope John Paul II (1978–2005) ranks just below Vatican II as the most significant event in twentieth-century Catholicism; in one of the longest pontificates in history, he catalyzed and led change within the church and the world. Within the church he both systematically endorsed Vatican II and took steps to limit and reverse policies and practices in the church that he believed wrongly interpreted the council. These steps included appointing conservative bishops, bringing leading theologians under review, and intervening into the life and discipline of religious communities.

These actions and others inside the church cast him as a conservative, a description substantially different from his reputation on the world stage. In the international arena he committed his papacy to the protection and promotion of human rights in the face of governments of the Left and the Right, provided strong support for the United Nations, sustained consistent social justice advocacy on behalf of the needs of the global south, and was openly opposed to both the Gulf War (1991) and the US-led war in Iraq (2003).

Three dominant themes emerge from the highly activist papacy in world politics pursued by John Paul II. While he vigorously denied his pontificate was motivated by or directed by politics, his broad definition of the pastoral role produced multiple results in the political order. First, his universally acknowledged role in the collapse of communism and the ending of the Cold War is the dominantly remembered theme of his pontificate in secular circles. His role involved constant moral advocacy about the failure of the Communist social order, his vigorous advocacy of religious freedom, and his return to Poland for pastoral visits at crucial moments in the country's time of change. Second, a topic less often given notice was his role in promoting nonviolent social change in the Southern Hemisphere; the model here was to oppose Marxist theory and tactics but to press for protection of human rights, democracy, and his version of “the option for the poor.” From Brazil to Chile to Haiti and to the African continent, he carried this message, often as a critique of Western policies affecting those countries. Third, in three major social encyclicals and in scores of addresses, from two at the United Nations to others in countries across the globe, he reshaped Catholic social teaching. He addressed the nuclear age, standing in the shadow of Hiroshima; he recognized the positive possibilities of globalization but set stringent limits on its methods. He supported international institutions but called for greater effectiveness and efficiency.

September 11, 2001.

John Paul's health was already in decline by the time 9/11 convulsed world politics. His immediate response was to see the terrorist attack as an example that evil is a constant possibility in human history, then to call for a mix of justice to vindicate the loss of life and forgiveness as a tempering restraint on how justice was pursued. While he did not criticize the use of force in Afghanistan, he persistently opposed the war in Iraq.

Benedict XVI.

The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany as Pope Benedict XVI promised both continuity and discontinuity with the papacy of John Paul II. Part of John Paul's legacy was a vigorous teaching ministry, a global style of ministry, and a barely addressed sex-abuse crisis in the church. Through multiple encyclicals and scores of addresses in Rome and throughout the world, John Paul had worked to extend and apply the teaching of Vatican II and the social teaching of the church. On many issues, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under Cardinal Ratzinger had been a close collaborator. That background and, more important, Benedict's personal history as one of the leading theologians in Catholicism have produced continuity in the vigorous teaching role of the papacy. Both popes have held the conviction that the postconciliar era in Catholicism has produced mistaken conceptions of the council, which they sought personally to correct. Efforts to restrain and reshape themes in the Latin American theology of liberation and to oppose certain conceptions of theological pluralism as adapted to an Asian context were examples of this teaching role.

John Paul's role as the most visible global public religious leader of his time, who often plunged directly by word and deed into religious and secular crises, is not one that Benedict has continued. Benedict XVI is much more the scholar and teacher than the catalytic personality he followed.

But in terms of the sexual-abuse crisis Benedict has played a larger role than his predecessor. For reasons that are still debated, the activist pastor, John Paul II, was slow to recognize the gravity of the abuse crisis, which exploded first in the United States. Eventually, he delegated responsibility for addressing the scandal to Ratzinger in the CDF. The crisis followed him to the papacy, and it intensified as it exploded in Ireland and Europe. Benedict XVI has undertaken several steps to address the problem, but six years into his papacy the horrific damage done to young people and their families has resisted an effective response. The consequences of the crisis likely will be a part of his entire papacy.

Sex abuse has been an internal pastoral issue for the church, with external public policy consequences for Catholicism within states and across regions of the world. While seeking to address it, Benedict XVI has also undertaken major public initiatives that significantly define his ministry.

  1. 1. Islam: This poses both a theological question for the church (interreligious relationships) and a public question of how these two major faiths encounter each other in the Middle East, in Africa, in Southeast Asia, and in Europe and the United States. John Paul II recognized the crucial nature of this relationship and used pastoral visits and a vigorous policy in the Middle East, including opposition to both the Gulf War (1991) and the US invasion of Iraq (2003), to reduce tensions that in past centuries pitted Rome against Islam. Benedict, in his own way, has continued the effort. His attention has been focused on the theological themes at stake. Agreeing with Islamic leaders, he has pressed the legitimacy of a public role for religion. He has also argued that Western rationalism's attempt to marginalize faith will erode public policies worthy of the human person. At the same time he has argued that any religious tradition that excludes a critique based on reason runs the danger of becoming fundamentalist.

  2. 2. Social Teaching: Given his academic focus on internal issues in the church, Benedict surprised many when two of his first three encyclicals were contributions to the social tradition of the church. God Is Love (Deus Caritas Est, 2005) and Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate, 2009) both focused on the church's response to human need, poverty, and socioeconomic issues. The first notably argued that the duty to respond with charity to those in need has equal standing and significance for the church with preaching the gospel and ministering the sacraments. It stressed the duty for the church to go beyond ad hoc responses to systematic organized programs of charitable service in society. The second letter was a wide-ranging response to the human meaning of development, something beyond its often-used economic description. This letter, published in 2009 when the effects of the financial crisis were still being felt globally, argued—controversially—for greater international oversight and direction of globalized trade and finance. The letter, however, was so generally stated that it left many specific operational issues unanswered.

  3. 3. Europe: A thematic concern of Benedict's papacy is the state of the church in Europe. More broadly, he sees Europe as a case study of the challenge that postindustrialized democracies, with their secular cultures and pluralistic societies, pose for Catholicism. Benedict has taken a very personal and pastoral interest in reconnecting modern Europe with its Christian roots and heritage. While North America poses a somewhat less secular setting, its intellectual, political, economic, and technological character is clearly part of what Benedict believes the church must actively engage.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is clear that a church that is universal in its mission must simultaneously balance the complexities of the Northern Hemisphere with the quite massive challenges and opportunities of its now dominant communities in the Southern Hemisphere.

[See also Christianity; and Religion and Politics.]


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            J. Bryan Hehir