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Managing decline.

The Catholic Church and the Nation-State: Comparative Perspectives Paul Christopher Manuel, Lawrence Christopher Reardon and Clyde Wilcox (eds.) (Georgetown University Press, 2006, 283pp) 978-1589011151, $26.95

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND the Nation-State is a collection of outstanding research papers that articulate and examine contemporary issues of religion, society, faith and culture. It is important to do this, according to the editors, because as the church mixes its missions today, it also transforms itself. This is a complicated process, but in bringing the spiritual dimension to politics, the church constantly makes moral judgments; a difficult undertaking, according to the editors, who remind us that the church is always willing to balance the debate between "the orthodox and the progressive, the center and the periphery, the clergy and laity" (pxi) as an agent of reconciliation.


The book attempts to explain the nuanced relationships of the Catholic church and various states under broad themes, all of which are characterized by the editors as "challenges." They consist of the theological and political challenges of the Vatican itself, and the challenges of secularism, opposition, justice and accommodation.

This framework immediately helps the reader to understand the uniqueness of the church's positions and policies in different states, but it also raises questions about the church's long-term spiritual and political influence. One must ask if in the long run the challenges that the authors articulate are simply individual, unique situations or if they are all part of a larger church reaction, or even a confrontation, with the contemporary structures of institutionalized political, cultural, economic and social power. Are the challenges in each chapter ultimately about the church's attempt to stave off the decline of its own power--a limiting reality that could compromise its ability to carry out its mixed missions for the common good?

There is much that can be learned from the excellent articles in this book. Himes articulates five basic roles that the church must play to be successful and to carry out its missions: 1) that of sacrament, by incarnating grace and witnessing to others; 2) that as a servant, by teaching; 3) that as a communion, by uniting all people; 4) that as a gatherer of believers to celebrate life, work and culture; and 5) that as an ecumenical worker to effect the dignity and well-being of all.

Himes emphasizes post-Vatican II understandings of the church's engagement in politics: that it is part of the social, as well as the spiritual, mission of the church, thus making it possible and necessary for it to be involved in moral issues. In all cases, though, he reminds the reader that Vatican II clarified that the church cannot be identified with any political system or partisan movement or seek political privilege. These caveats are important to remember for the present and the future, as many of the chapters in the book chronicle how the church is responding to, and confronting, difficult partisan situations, some of which are of its own past and current making.

Ferrari adds a critical dimension to the book as she looks at the Vatican as an international actor. As an institution with "soft power," she argues that that the Vatican can cause change by its sheer numbers, clear focus on issues, credibility, expertise and concern for the common good. She emphasizes the Vatican's concerns for human dignity, economic development and social justice, but she could have added to her valuable chapter by also discussing the contemporary obligations that are inherent in the Vatican's role as a unique transnational actor. What responsibility does it have to critique the use and abuse of power by nation-states? What can it do realistically to increase its influence as a moral force around the globe? How can it utilize religious engagement as a means to mediate, reconcile and make peace with antagonistic states and other faith communities?

The rest of the chapters in the book are important case studies of how the church is relating to various national governments in a number of different political contexts. For example, the church is trying to find and articulate its appropriate role in light of former political relationships and changing national and cultural developments. It is trying to practice a form of prophetic politics: teaching truth to power, stressing transcendent universal values and attempting to find moral solutions to political problems. In many cases, however, this is not possible given the church's past emphasis on protecting its own interest and autonomy, even for spiritual reasons. That reality is compounded, according to the book's contributors, by the fact that the church also is trying to cope with liberalism, modernity and religious pluralism, as well as the advancement of human rights and social justice.

These challenges reflect similar, reactive shifts in the official, institutional behavior of many of the church's former privileged, monopolistic relationships in a number of states. In many cases, the authors show that the church is scrambling for moral and political relevance as its influence erodes, particularly in Latin Europe, Poland, the United States, Chile, Ireland, Northern Ireland, East Timor and Brazil. At the same time, it is seeking ways to overcome the negative effects of former alliances with various elites, such as with authoritarian regimes in Spain and Portugal, with colonial powers in East Timor, with corporatists and powerful families in Chile, and even with those participating in the recent genocide in Rwanda. In some states, it has taken the lead in establishing a political alliance with governments, as in Angola, or is participating in democratization, as in the Congo. It is also attempting to readjust its "contentious" relations with China.

Because of the well-documented research of the authors, the reader is led to see the underlying reality of the church's relationships with nation-states: that it is attempting to maintain and increase its political autonomy in order to teach, preach and sanctify its adherents. All other social, cultural and political roles--even mixed missions--flow from that spiritual responsibility and cannot compromise it.

Some of the articles make it very clear that the church must always create a zone of spiritual independence as well as one of political accommodation, or reconciliation, where it can carry out its salvific mission. For example, in the chapter on Brazil, Kearney articulates how the church is coping with the Vatican rejection of liberation theology, the lessening of Christian-based community building, and the growing number of Pentecostal conversions among its Catholic adherents. Her valuable research is spiritually centered and politically contextualized. Byrnes' significant study on Poland examines John Paul II's desire for the reevangelization of Poland and his dream of establishing his homeland as a Christian moral vanguard in a new Europe. In this piece, support for workers rights and human dignity are understood as supplemental social and political actions to ensure the continued spiritual mission of the church. In Rwanda, the church's need to carry out its spiritual mission is inextricably tied to its need to pursue an "authentic" reconciliation, according to the chapter by Elisee Rutagambwa.

ALL OF THESE ATTEMPTS TO maintain relevance and power in the international community must, however, be analyzed in the light of the longer-term implications of any changes that occur for the church as a national, regional and international spiritual and political actor. There are critical omissions in this book that could shed more light on the future geopolitical role of the Vatican. There is no real discussion of the current religious clash between Christianity and Islam and its potential for negative political and religious responses in the West; of the critical role that the Vatican can and must play in diplomatic back channels and the court of public opinion for peace in the world; of the church's breakthrough spiritual and political outreach to Israel and the Jews of the world; of the church's religious engagement with Cuba and other atheistic states; or of its attempts to make concessions for reconciliation with the Orthodox church in Russia and for altered relations with Hong Kong.

This book could have used an epilogue, a final summing up that would have helped the reader to gain deeper insight into the disparate relationships between the church and various nation-states. These excellent research papers are more than the sum of their parts and require a synthesis of their findings--an integral examination of the state of the church and its place on the world's spiritual and political power continuum for the future. Perhaps the editors will consider a second volume that will continue the dialogue and answer some of the unanswered questions that still need examination: Will the church as a spiritual, social, political and economic actor still be influential and relevant in the not-too-distant future? If it survives the myriad challenges described by the authors, will it be so dramatically altered by its mixed missions that its credibility will become problematic? Will the church's relationships with nation-states become more antagonistic or accommodating in light of the evidence that has been uncovered by the very capable scholars who have written papers here?

Overall, however, this book is a valuable part of the research and literature on the role of the church in contemporary society and politics. It is recommended for serious study and discussion among those in academic, religious and policy circles and is also an important read for anyone trying to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing the church today.

JO RENEE FORMICOLA is a professor of political science at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and the author of Pope John Paul II: Prophetic Politician (Georgetown University Press).
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Title Annotation:The Catholic Church and the Nation-State: Comparative Perspectives
Author:Formicola, Jo Renee
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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