The nation of Haiti has experienced another insurmountable tragedy this week as a result of another natural disaster, a destructive earthquake. The history of the small impoverished nation is a litany of destructive events that started with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. In all of these events, the Catholic Church has always played an integral role in the development of the political, social and economic structures of the island. Colonialism and its subsequent rule by both the British and the French was dramatically unsuccessful and ultimately a failure. The Catholic Church throughout the struggles has identified itself as the supporter of the people, however strong relationships with the 22 successive governments since the Haitian Revolution ended in 1704, and Haiti became an independent nation from France, the Catholic Church has been present.
In the 19th century a Concordant between the Catholic Church and the Haitian Government was reached. The agreement specified the Church had special protection and endorsements from the government of Haiti. In return, Haitian Catholics could also make recommendations directly to Rome in regards to the appointment of their bishops and Church administration. Diplomatic relations have been in place with the Holy See and Haiti since 1860. It is interesting to note that the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See did not occur until the Reagan administration in the 20th century.
Uniquely, even with a vast potential of exportable resources, Haiti in the 21st century is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, 80% of it’s population live under the poverty line, 54% live in abject poverty and over 60% depend on sustenance agriculture in order to survive. It seems that despite the rich resources once available, exploited and never replenished in Haiti, the Catholic Church has neglected Catholic social teachings in the implementation of the Gospel message in this small part of the Caribbean. While there indeed is a strong infrastructure for the Catholic Church on the island, the Church has provided educational, medical and social aid since the first Spanish visitors in 1505, there is still quite an evident social failure in this unfortunate society’s political, cultural and social infrastructure.
In the late 20th century, Haitian Catholic priests embraced liberation theology as the contemporary theological and moral intervention that would establish renewed Catholicism and political stability to a historically unstable government in Haiti. However, liberation theology proved just as unreliable in its message and integration with Catholic theology just as incompatible as the extreme Marxism that always followed this drastic compromise of human rights and spiritual freedom. Pope John Paul II in his subsequent teachings against liberation theology and Marxist extremism laid the groundwork intellectually, spiritually and pastorally with his 1983 visit to the island of Haiti. John-Paul stressed that, “Things must change here!” during his visit and delegated all of the Catholic Church’s resources towards developing a better society in the impoverished nation. During this time of the papacy, Cardinal Ratzinger clearly illustrated the faults of liberation theology and it’s incompatibility with Catholic moral, ethical and social teachings and the Church continued to participate in the lives of the people of Haiti.
What is significant since this intervention of John-Paul in 1983 and his pastoral visit is the lack of success the Church has experienced in its social programs in Haiti. While the religious evangelization process was flourishing (there are over 10 million Catholics in Haiti), the Church hasn’t been successful in integrating Catholic faith with political, social and economic responsibilities in Haiti.
The Catholic Church has a remarkable opportunity in Haiti to illustrate the compatible integration the Gospel of Jesus has in the practical and pragmatic development of a socially and economically responsible populace in the Republic of Haiti. In addition to the resource of humanitarian aid, spiritual and medical comfort the disaster in Haiti presents a pregnant theological moment to show Catholicism in its best light as it works towards the establishment of a stable society on this island republic in addition to spiritual counsel and triage emergency responses.
The Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) indicates that the presence of Catholicism in the global environment transcends religious boundaries and territorial limitations. It teaches about the development and deep appreciation of the entire global community as the People of God. Haiti is a microcosmic example of how the global participation of the Catholic Church would enhance and affirm the Gospel mandate of Jesus, “…to love one another!”
In the case of Haiti, the opportunity to illustrate real, Catholic theology in action is unlimited. Providing humanitarian aid, the reestablishment of natural resources, Catholic participation in both the religious and the social practices of the Haitian culture presents a chance to implement all of the Catholic Church’s most sacred traditions, from an appreciation of the sanctity of human life, to appreciate human rights, to instruct in natural family planning and put into practice the pragmatic and genuinely compassionate nature of the Catholic lifestyle experience. Catholic faith in Catholic action is the anthem that seemingly echoes in this moment. Namely, the chance to show fellow Catholics, non-Catholics, and the global community that the Catholic Church offers a relevant lifestyle for the world of the 21st century that incorporates religious beliefs with pragmatic examples of human living.
Haiti shouts as a great example of how colonialism of the 19th century has miserably failed in establishing stable and productive forms of representational government. Haiti also is indicative of the failure of Catholic conversion without political, social and environmental responsibilities that are mutually inclusive to practicing our Catholic faith as not only good Catholics, but responsible global citizens. It is really not enough to teach about Catholicism, without implementing pragmatic examples of Catholic theology in the daily activities of the human condition.
The southern western hemisphere is currently the largest block of Catholics on the planet. As a Church we are obligated not only by faith to assist their needs. We also have the obligation from a human sense of global responsibility as Catholic to clearly show the world, that our faith is not one one of spiritual aspirations, but also one of secular obligations as we work daily in spreading the Gospel to the entire family of the world. The chance for the global Catholic Church to brightly shine as a beacon of spiritual and temporal hope to a fragile world in desperate need of Christ’s graces and peace through our tangible Catholic actions.
It has frequently been noted that evangelical Christianity is spreading in the southern western hemisphere not simply because of new Christian beliefs. It is spreading in this area of the world because in addition to spiritual guidance, evangelical Christianity also offers temporal guidance and assistance directed towards eradication of hunger, poverty, social injustices and political instabilities. The Catholic Church has offered the same tangible resources since Columbus’ first voyage to Haiti in 1492. However, the Catholic Church needs to clearly now indicate that their temporal and human services is not intended as a tool of mere evangelization, but rather the implements of a global revolution towards faith in Christ Jesus, that has the Church and it’s sacraments as the cornerstone for the evolution of a peaceful and sustainable human society.