Quick: Name the countries with the most baptized Catholics. You might guess Brazil (172.2 million) or the United States (72.3 million). You might miss Mexico (110.9 million) and the Philippines (83.6 million). You might be surprised by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (43.2 million). Only Church demographers know that Nigeria (29 million) will soon pass Spain and may eventually catch Italy.
Catholicism has become the most multicultural and multilingual institution in the world. In 1900 two-thirds of Catholics lived in Europe. Now two-thirds of the 1.2 billion baptized Catholics live in the Global South.
Astute observers have long anticipated this shift. In the fall of 1961, Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, only thirty-four but already a celebrated theology professor at the University of Bonn, met with Cologne’s Cardinal Josef Frings. The two men discussed an address Ratzinger was drafting for Frings—who was nearly blind and would memorize the speech—on the topic of the upcoming Second Vatican Council.
In his draft, Ratzinger contrasted preparation for the First Vatican Council in the 1860s with preparation for the Second Vatican Council, scheduled to open in 1962. Then, liberalism in politics, economics, and theology seemed the most important challenge. Now, globalization was. Radio and television brought the world into almost every home and trains and airplanes allowed ordinary people to journey vast distances. More than anything else, the Church needed to “become in a fuller sense than heretofore a world Church.”
To Ratzinger, Europe’s plunge into the abyss of two world wars between 1914 and 1945 had discredited ideas of Western superiority. Catholics must “recognize the relativity of all human cultural forms” and cultivate “a modesty which sets no human and historical heritage as absolute.”
To read Joseph Ratzinger acknowledging “the relativity of all human cultural forms” is disconcerting. Forty years later he would blast the “dictatorship of relativism” that he associated with modernity. (Comparing young Ratzinger with old Ratzinger has become a scholarly growth industry.) But his analysis in 1961 was shrewd. He did not use the term “decolonization.” Still, neither the Second Vatican Council nor the current Catholic moment can be understood without it.
Catholicism became significantly more global in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as millions of migrants and tens of thousands of missionary priests and nuns left Europe. It did not become more multicultural. When clergy trained in Europe or North America landed in China or Cameroon they lugged with them statues of the Sacred Heart, rosaries, blueprints for neo-Gothic churches, and Latin textbooks. Their theological project was uniformity. In the words of another German theologian, Karl Rahner, Ratzinger’s collaborator during the Second Vatican Council and his rival in its messy aftermath, these missionaries “exported a European religion as a commodity [they] did not really want to change.”
This Catholic globalization of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often became entangled with imperialism. Missionaries frequently worked with government officials from Catholic colonial powers such as France, Belgium, and Portugal, and even Protestant empires such as Great Britain. (British leaders admired the way Irish Catholic bishops kept order among Irish Catholic soldiers and settlers.) The Protestant imperial German government, not the Catholic Church, funded the first scholarly chair in Catholic mission studies at the University of Münster in the early twentieth century. When its first occupant published an account of German Catholic missions in Africa, he dedicated it to Kaiser Wilhelm II. The same scholar volunteered that missionaries could lift Africans from “their state of rudeness to a life worthy of a human being.”
The Catholic and colonial world shattered in the two decades after 1945. The process began with the Cold War. Before World War II, if they discussed economic growth at all, Catholic intellectuals focused on the industrial North Atlantic and warned against the ways in which growth might disrupt social hierarchies. Growth meant small businesses bought out by corporations, family farms swallowed by large landowners, or families torn apart by a desire for unnecessary luxuries (including mothers working outside the home when extra income was unnecessary). Redistribution, not growth, seemed the most likely solution to the global depression of the 1930s. Foundational documents for Catholic social thought such as the papal encyclicals Rerum novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo anno (1931) advocated just wages for (usually male) workers, not greater equality between rich and poor nations.
The postwar struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States for influence in what was then called the Third World changed this calculus. Many Western policymakers feared poverty would serve as the gateway drug to communism. The alternative was economic development, and because Catholic institutions were so numerous in the Global South, they joined colonial governments and international aid agencies in facilitating development programs. Bishops in the tiny West African country of Guinea, for example, requested—and received—from the French government more than seventy million francs in the single year of 1954 to build Catholic schools. In Ghana, women religious from the United States and Europe serving as missionary nurses helped establish the country’s modern medical system.
Catholics also joined the development conversation. Two voices were crucial. The first was Barbara Ward’s. Born in 1914, Ward graduated from Oxford as the only woman in her year with a first-class honours degree. By 1940 she was a full-time writer for the British newsweekly the Economist, one of the first women to hold such a role.
Ward married a United Nations diplomat from Australia, Robert Jackson, who spent his career working on hydroelectric development projects. She accompanied Jackson to postings in Australia, India, and the Gold Coast (Ghana). She became friends with Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of an independent India, and Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of an independent Ghana. Informed by these experiences, Ward published several books during the 1950s, written with lightning speed even as she composed pieces for the Economist and lectured on both sides of the Atlantic. Always anti-Communist, she reminded her readers that aid to less-developed nations was the least expensive way to combat the Soviets. Catholics, especially, needed to recognize “moral obligations which stretch beyond our own frontiers.”
Ward’s best-known study, The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations, appeared in 1962. Now a fixture on the New York-Washington-London policy circuit, Ward became an advisor to the World Bank. The book garnered her a White House dinner invitation with President John F. Kennedy, who jotted down in a notebook his conviction, taken from a conversation with Ward, that the Soviets feared only “a religion that transcends frontiers and can challenge the purpose and performance of the nation state.”
The second voice was that of Fr. Louis-Joseph Lebret. A pilot during the First World War in the French air force, Lebret entered the Dominican order in 1926. He began his ministry in Brittany, where he competed with Communists for the allegiance of dockworkers, and observed with dismay the threat posed to local fishermen by multinational companies claiming the most productive waters. In 1942, he founded a think tank focused on development issues—Économie et Humanisme—dedicated to understanding a world with a growing gap between developed and “under-developed” nations.