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World: The Roman Catholic Church and Social Welfare (Part III)

The Roman Catholic Church has come out against poverty, social injustice, and political tyranny. Under Pope John Paul II, the church strongly reasserted its century-old social doctrine that sees inalienable dignity in the poorest people. But have deeds followed words, or has the Catholic Church failed to truly embrace the interests of the world's poor? In this third in a three-part series on the Catholic Church and the modern world, we find the Vatican is engaged in a heated debate over the church's role on global issues such as poverty and social justice. And that debate is likely to help determine the choice of the next pope. [See also "The Line Between Science And Religion (Part I)" --> and "The Roman Catholic Church And Birth Control (Part II)" --> .]

Prague, 18 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Toribio, a village in Colombia, is as good a place as any for a glimpse at the challenges facing the Catholic Church in the developing world.

On 14 April, leftist rebels attacked Toribio, killing four police officers and a girl living with the family of Rodrigo Chavez.

"This attack was against everyone -- against all human rights, everything. They killed a child in my house. How is this possible? They always attack us and you see how we pay the price. And yet to others, we are the rebels, we are the subversives, we are everything that is bad," Chavez says.

In a country like Colombia, wracked by poverty and war, the Roman Catholic Church has long played a key role in helping to generate basic services, such as education and healthcare, that the government has failed to provide.
The question now is where the Roman Catholic Church will go following the death of Pope John Paul II. The pontiff had long championed the cause of the poor.

Recently, following the 2002 assassination of a prominent archbishop who had spoken out against drug traffickers, the church joined an official commission seeking to mediate a peace with the rebels.

But Colombia's brutal civil war, raging since the 1960s, is just one of several examples of violence, poverty and disease gripping the populations of countries where the Catholic Church is not only an important religion -- but a key player in politics and social services.

The question now is where the church will go following the death earlier this month of Pope John Paul II. The pope long championed the cause of the poor, even doing so in one of his last public addresses in January.

"While I renew my prayers for the young victims of the [tsunami] in Asia, I do not forget those children who are victims of hunger and sickness, war and terrorism, or those children kidnapped, lost or exploited in vile trafficking," said the pope.

With cardinals now locked in a Vatican conclave to elect the next pope, the church finds itself at a crossroads: Should it follow John Paul II and more strongly back the cause of the world's poor, or should it quietly move away from that legacy to favor a more exclusive focus on religious matters?

Historian Robert Moynihan is editor of the monthly magazine "Inside the Vatican." He says that debate -- which pits "liberal" Third World cardinals against "conservatives" from the West -- could help determine who becomes the next pope.

"The more conservative Catholics say the church shouldn't be that directly involved in this, the church should continue to focus on the sacraments, on baptism, having mass, having communion, having confession, having people think about their individual souls, their individual sins. And truthfully, this is a big debate in the church right now, in Rome. And it's a very high level debate. It's very nuanced, it's a very interesting debate," says Moynihan.

The Roman Catholic Church has made poverty and social injustice a top priority over the last century. John Paul II was known for his strong anti-Marxist stance, but in recent years, the Polish pontiff also increasingly voiced criticism of economic globalization and its effects in the Third World.

Moynihan says the pope's vision reflected the reality lived by Catholic prelates around the developing world.

"A priest and a bishop look at their people and say, 'Here are some kids who have rotting teeth. Here are some kids who don't have good food and they're growing up stunted. Here are some kids that don't have any schools to go to," says Moynihan. "Here are some kids growing up in houses that have no running water. Here are some kids that have no future because the only thing they can do to make a living is to grow cocaine or join a paramilitary force.' And they say, 'We must build a better society.'"

But where they draw the line between social activism and political action is never easy -- and often very dangerous.

Take the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. On 23 March 1980, Romero pleaded with the country's military to stop wanton killings in a civil war that had claimed over 75,000 lives and created 1 million refugees.

"This is the struggle of the light of God...a struggle that requires neither swords nor rifles. The struggle is fought with guitars and church songs, with the heart, so that the world can be changed, whereby violence, even if the motive is just, is always violence," said Romero.

The next day, Romero was shot dead while conducting Mass in San Salvador.

Two-thirds of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics now live in the Third World. This week's conclave is being watched by Western governments and businessmen concerned that the church might turn too far leftward in its emphasis on economic justice.

For his part, Moynihan believes the cardinals will choose a middle route.

"I think they'll find a man who may be presented as in solidarity with all believers, from the poorest to the wealthiest - because they're all children of God - but without a doubt, saying that the option for the poor is a real element of Church teaching and it can't be completely relegated to the side, the way some of the more capitalistic and 'neo-con' theologians have been arguing," says Moynihan.

Another reason it can't be ignored is because the church beyond the Vatican involves a vast network of charities, schools and social services whose focus is the poor and whose combined budgets total in the billions of dollars

Their charitable efforts around the world constitute the most visible hand of the church's role in helping the downtrodden.

The pope intended to emphasize charity as a response to globalization in a major writing -- an encyclical - that he was unable to finish.

Perhaps the next pope will pick up where he left off.

Visit RFE/RL's Religion And Tolerance webpage for stories of religious tolerance in our broadcast region, biographies of leading religious figures, and profiles of religious minorities.