Global Catholicism: Diversity and Change since Vatican II

Linden, Ian
Hurst & Co., London, 2009, ISBN 978 1 85065 956 3, 337 pp.
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Vaggione, Juan Marco

Ian Linden's Global Catholicism provides a history of the Catholic Church in recent decades by considering the genesis, development, and aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Although Vatican II was a turning point, it 'did not represent a hiatus…New things were already happening before, and old things continued afterwards' (p. 261). This sentence probably summarises the broad scope of a book which presents a detailed analysis of the many factors that triggered Vatican II (although the author places the analysis in the 1950s, the history of the Council can be traced back before then) and, then, provides a de-centred narrative of the many consequences of and reactions to the Council worldwide. Although the Vatican occupies an important space, the book gives analytical priority to what happened within and outside the Catholic Church in different regions of the world. This global picture contributes to the main appeal of the book, a wide-ranging understanding of the consequences of Vatican II in different regions, but also to its limitations, mainly because this broad approach sometimes sacrifices a more detailed consideration.
One significant component of the book is the focus on a range of geopolitical contexts, thus displacing the narrative from Europe. The analysis of Vatican II and its consequences is intertwined with the consideration of different political contexts, which thus provides a more complex understanding of the tensions between a centralised institution in Rome and its national manifestations. Poverty in Latin America, the role of Liberation Theology, and the Vatican's interventions occupy a significant part of the book. Other contexts that receive attention are the Philippines and authoritarian modernisation; South Africa, apartheid, and racism; and Africa, decolonisation, and democracy. In all these regions the influences of Vatican II are considered in the specific local political situations. Beyond regions, the book also considers the dynamics of ecumenical dialogue, particularly with Islam. The book's scope is remarkable, and although this broad sweep reduces the space for a deeper analysis, it delivers an understanding of the Catholic Church, its tensions and contradictions, beyond Europe and the Vatican. At a time when the connections between religion and politics are again at the centre of the academic agenda, Linden provides a much-needed narrative, one that places the Catholic Church as part of geopolitical reality, by bringing different political contexts to the analysis.
The book also offers a remarkable consideration of the main problems and possibilities of the Catholic Church as a global actor in the contemporary world. On the one hand, it poses problems and challenges that are connected, in different ways, to the sexual orthodoxy of the Catholic Church: the gap between a Council that closed down the possibility of artificial contraception and a culture of increasing sexual liberalisation; the declining numbers of priests, a problem that the Vatican II could neither prevent nor reverse; and the emergence of cases of sexual abuse by priests. Most of these problems are variously rooted in the sexual rigidity that has become the most noticeable and challenging public position of the Catholic Church. However, stressing the complexity of global Catholicism, Linden's book includes many important roles that the Church is performing within national and transnational scenarios, such as helping migrants in precarious situations, combating and denouncing sexual trafficking, promoting non-violence and peace, and encouraging responsible stewardship for the environment. These roles also defy any linear understanding of the intersection between religion and politics, because any reading of the Catholic Church as a public institution needs to take into account its irreducible complexity.
Global Catholicism identifies four different Roman Catholic Churches: the people, the theological construction, the institution of the Church as it works, and the institution as it is seen by others. In the last chapter a fifth dimension of the Church is added: the critical lay voice. The gap between the church hierarchy and the people, and the resulting tensions, has become the decisive and defining dimension of contemporary Catholicism. This critical lay voice provides a central source for understanding the future of the Church, a voice that is expressed in many languages. Linden's analysis of the move away from the European religious hierarchy towards the believers in underdeveloped countries is part of a normative reading about the future and the possibilities for the Catholic Church. But to what extent is the current hierarchy willing to consider these critical lay voices, and/or how powerful are these voices to promote institutional change?