This praise comes despite the fact that China ranks among the world's worst air polluters, performs between 10 million and 23 million abortions a year -- many of them forced by the government -- and persecutes Christians who worship outside of state-approved churches.
Yet the bishop's comments go beyond blind diplomatic rhetoric. They reflect the Vatican's increasingly materialist world view. That paradigm shift is changing the Catholic Church's fundamental identity and alienating members, especially among Latin America's poor.
The shift began with the Second Vatican Council, which produced "Gaudium et spes," a pastoral document concerning economics and politics in the modern world, particularly regarding the poor. In the preface, the council, "proclaiming the noble destiny of man and championing the Godlike seed which has been sown in him, offers to mankind the honest assistance of the Church in fostering that brotherhood of all men.”
Statements from other sections reinforce that emphasis.
"Never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the world's citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty, while countless numbers suffer from total illiteracy," from the introduction.
"According to the almost unanimous opinion of believers and unbelievers alike, all things on earth should be related to man as their center and crown. For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential," from Chapter I, "The Dignity Of The Human Person."
"Therefore, there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one's own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious. Hence, the social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person," from Chapter II, "The Community of Mankind."
Monsignor Brunero Gherardini, dean emeritus of the Pontifical Lateran University's theological faculty, sharply criticized "Gaudium et spes" for its fundamentally anthropocentric approach, ambiguity and sloppy theology in his 2012 work, Vatican II: At the Roots of an Equivoque, written in Italian. "The whole document is a sequel of shocking proclamations, whose sheer number makes exemplification a difficult choice," wrote Gherardini, who worked at the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries during the council.
Gherardini concluded by warning about an excessively intimate relationship between Catholicism and the world: "The frontiers have come so close and to such an extent, that they have become welded. What the Church says and does, she says and does it for the world; and what the world is doing in its drive toward progress, is to the advantage of the Church."
Pope Paul VI amplified "Gaudium et spes' " approach in his encyclical "Populorum Progresio," which announced the formation of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and solidified the Vatican's commitment to the material development of poorer nations through international cooperation. But the encyclical addressed more than immediate logistics.
"The ultimate goal is a full-bodied humanism," it stated. "And does this not mean the fulfillment of the whole man and of every man? ... True humanism points the way toward God and acknowledges the task to which we are called, the task which offers us the real meaning of human life. Man is not the ultimate measure of man. Man becomes truly man only by passing beyond himself."
Achieving that goal would mean using existing international agencies -- or creating new ones with overarching power -- to manage the world's economic and political development.
"Such international collaboration among the nations of the world certainly calls for institutions that will promote, coordinate and direct it, until a new juridical order is firmly established and fully ratified," the encyclical said. "We give willing and wholehearted support to those public organizations that have already joined in promoting the development of nations, and We ardently hope that they will enjoy ever growing authority."
Pope Benedict XVI took that concept to its logical conclusion in another encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate," which advocated giving the United Nations power to direct both international and domestic economic policies:
"In the face of the unrelenting growth of global interdependence, there is a strongly felt need ... for a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth. ... To manage the global economy ... to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority..."
This authority, the encyclical stated, must "observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity," "seek to establish the common good" and "have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties, and also with the coordinated measures adopted in various international forums."
What is this authority's ultimate mission? A "directed" global economy designed to "open up the unprecedented possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a world-wide scale," stated the encyclical -- including "a worldwide redistribution of energy resources, so that countries lacking those resources can have access to them."
In promoting such an agency, "Caritas in Veritate" subtly redefines the Catholic Church's primary role from proclaiming the Gospel to ensuring economic benefits for all -- or, at least, redefining the Gospel in materialist terms. Benedict's encyclical cites "Populorum Progresio" often and refers to Paul VI's ideas in this statement:
"(T)he whole Church, in all her being and acting ... is engaged in promoting integral human development. She has a public role over and above her charitable and educational activities: all the energy she brings to the advancement of humanity and of universal fraternity is manifested when she is able to operate in a climate of freedom.”
Benedict's encyclical even presumes that global economic management through a "true world political authority" can achieve at least partial spiritual harmony:
"When animated by charity, commitment to the common good ... has a place within the testimony of divine charity that paves the way for eternity through temporal action. Man's earthly activity, when inspired and sustained by charity, contributes to the building of the universal city of God, which is the goal of the history of the human family."
Thus does "Caritas in Veritate" solidify the materialist transformation of Catholic identity. Independent Catholic journalist Lee Penn described the encyclical's magnitude:
"Caritas in Veritate should be seen as what it is: a theological and political earthquake. The Roman Catholic Church, which was once a guardian of tradition worldwide, now wishes to use radical means (a 'true world political authority') for its own ends. It is as if Benedict wishes to mount and ride a wild beast, and imagines that he (and those who believe as he does) will be able to direct that fierce beast’s course. Ordinary prudence – even without reference to the dire symbolism of Revelation 17:3-18 – should have warned the Vatican against such folly. Europeans have already tried using radical means to support conservative goals; the results of that 20th century experiment in Italy, Portugal, Germany, Spain, and Vichy France are written in letters of blood and fire.
"Seeking a world government that is governed and limited by natural law and Christian tradition is akin to seeking dry water or square circles. Lord Acton, a Catholic historian in 19th Century England, made a warning that the Vatican ought to have heeded: 'Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.' Humanly speaking, no power could be more absolute than that of 'world ruler,' and such is the post which (despite the fig-leaf invocation of 'subsidiarity') Benedict proposes to create (all parentheses in original)."
But how do the ideas expressed in "Gaudium et spes" and the two encyclicals work when practiced?
Latin America, with its long history of Catholicism and mass poverty, would seem to provide the ideal environment. In 2010, 39 percent of the world's Catholics lived in Latin America. Yet even as a counterweight to Liberation Theology, Catholicism's economic modernism not only fails to solve intractable social problems but contributes to massive conversions to conservative Protestant denominations, especially Pentecostal ones.
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014 showed that 69 percent of Latin Americans considered themselves Catholic, compared to 92 percent in 1970. Meanwhile, the proportion of Protestants rose from four percent in 1970 to 19 percent in 2014. In 1970, Catholicism claimed at least 90 percent of the population in all but five of the 19 countries surveyed. Yet by 2014, the percentage of Catholics fell by double digits in all but one country, with 11 reporting declines larger than 20 percent.
Central America reported the most dramatic descents: 41 percent in Guatemala, 43 percent in both Nicaragua and El Salvador, and 47 percent in Honduras -- by far the largest in Latin America.
Catholic author Leon Podles, after reading Jon Wolseth's Jesus and the Gang: Youth Violence and Christianity in Urban Honduras, offered these reasons for the massive decline:
"Progressive Catholicism emphasizes community and solidarity with the poor and blames the problems of the poor on structural inequities, especially economic oppression. Catholic youth groups in the barrio follow this analysis and try to identify with the poor. But they are fearful of identifying with the poor who are gang members. Catholic youth blame gangsterism on social inequities, but do not explain why they themselves have not followed the path of the gangsters.
"Pentecostals set up a harsh dichotomy between the world ruled by Satan and the church ruled by Christ. Young men who want to give up the destructive and self-destructive life of the gangs can have a conversion experience and dedicate themselves to a new life, totally rejecting the old one and separating themselves from it. They have to change their lives to convince both the church and their old gangs that they are cristianos. If a man leaves a gang, he is killed by the gang, unless he becomes a cristiano. Gangs usually let Pentecostal former gang members alone if the former members demonstrate that their lives have really changed.
"Catholics, with their rhetoric of solidarity, do not offer gang members the opportunity for a clean break that Pentecostals offer. Catholics blame society for individual problems; Pentecostals stress individual responsibility."
Not only gang members face the demand for personal accountability.
"As a Baptist who has traveled to Guatemala on four mission trips, I can tell you that one reason evangelical churches are growing there because they take alcoholism seriously (which is a huge problem in Mayan communities)," Ryan Booth wrote to Rod Dreher's blog at The American Conservative in 2013. "While Baptist attitudes in the U.S. toward alcohol continue to relax, Baptists in Latin America don’t drink at all."
A Brazilian named Alat explained the evangelicals' appeal on Dreher's blog:
"They are very, very morally strict, which is why they grow so fast in the poorest areas: they give order to the disordered lives of the very poor, who come from generations of poverty and broken homes and have never known anything better. They take a huge portion of the poor’s meagre income in tithes and 'gifts'… and even then the poor are better off in these churches, because the order the church gives, much like a military boot camp, helps them to plan for the future, educate themselves, not fall into drugs, not have multiple children out of wedlock, etc.
"And this is not just inwards. The politicians elected by the Evangelicals are at the forefront of the resistance to homosexual 'marriage,' to abortion, and most of the left’s culture war agenda. In my own country, abortion would have been legalized a few years ago if not for the resistance organized by the Evangelical politician-preachers across almost all parties – a fight in which, by the way, the Catholic hierarchy was entirely silent. (emphasis added) If the Church retreats from these issues, the pull of the Evangelical Protestant churches will only INCREASE throughout Latin America (capitals in original)."
Alat concluded with a statement that represents, if not the epitaph for Latin American Catholicism, an indictment of Catholicism's economic modernism.
"To sum up," Alat wrote, "as we say here, when 'the Church chose the poor, the poor chose the Protestants.' "
But don't worry, the Church is learning from them! (Heinrich Bedford-Strohm and Reinhard Kardinal Marx)