14 November, 2007

Rational choice and the Church

Your dear Elliot has recently been quite wrapped up in researching Mexico and Paraguay in comparative perspective, buying turkeys, and writing encyclopedias.

That said, Last week I read one of the most interesting things I have this semester: Anthony Gill's Rendering Unto Caesar: The Catholic Church in Latin America. In it, Gill applies a rational choice perspective to the actions of the Church in Latin America, especially vis-a-vis Church support for right-wing military dictatorship rather than for Liberation Theology. Spencer will certainly appreciate the irony of an "otherworldy" organization clearly revealed to have developed its political and theological strategy based upon very worldly economic considerations.

But that is exactly what Gill does. The Church has long been ambiguous for the Latin Americanist. On the one hand, you have Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who gave his up his career (and life) for his country's poor, along with many lesser priests of that era. On the other, the Church was buddy-buddy with some of the worst regimes in modern history - Nazism and Spanish Fascism in Europe, Gospel-inspired genocide in the colonial period (but also the resistance to such) and the modern day tyrannies of Videla in Argentina, among many others. Gill starts with the question: why does the Church choose very different positions (pro- vs. anti-dictatorship) in various historical situations?

His answer is at once simple and startling: competition is the key. In countries where there is an elevated presence of either Protestant sects, atheist Marxist movements, or a combination of both - that is, forces that constitute "substitutable goods" in direct competition with Catholic doctrine - the Church is forced to adopt a lower-class-friendly policy in order to maintain itself as an institution. So, in Chile, where Protestants had long made inroads and Marxism was so popular as to out-and-out elect a president, the Catholic Church was forced, by the incentive structure of competing ideologies, to move closer to working-class interests in order to remain relevant. Thus, during the Pinochet dictatorship, the Church was a vociferous proponent of democratization. His second case study is Argentina, where the Church, unthreatened by competing religious sects, allied with the military regime in order to repress Marxist/lower-class forces.

In each case, the hierarchy of the Church surveys the situation, calculates what action will best perpetuate its dominance in society, and acts accordingly. For me, it says something about the nature of the Church that it found it in its natural interests more often than not to support monarchical or dictatorial regimes. Even though I am not usually a proponent of rational choice (though after this, I may be more so) I think Gill has succeeded in capturing the Church rendering a bit more unto Caesar than they would like to admit to.


spencer said...

This is, of course, awesome. Does he accompany this with some sort of statistical analysis? Perhaps regress some measure of the Church's policy on the median income of Catholics in a particular country. I'd like to see something like that.

I'd say that this also explains the Church's pro-immigration stance in the U.S. quite nicely. Immigrants (and businessmen?) are nearly all Catholic.

Another way of looking at this may be to regard the Church as a democratic institution and ask what it would do in each situation. If most Catholics in the country are against the dictator, then the Church, as a democratic institution, would be as well.

It's hard to differentiate actual democratic results from mere pandering to the masses. In fact, they may be one in the same. On the other hand, perhaps Gill is saying something more subtle?

Elliot said...

Taking into account that I had to skim some of the chapters, I don't think he really utilized statistical analysis. That is, he didn't use economic data per se to make his point; rather, he used an economic explanatory framework, and the data consisted of political data and interviews with the Church hierarchy.

One thing he is very explicit about is that his analysis focuses on the national Church hierarchy. The people actually making the decisions about what Church policy would be in any given country were not as high as the papacy, nor as low as the priests - they were the "middle" bureaucracy that mediated between the pressures from "above" and "below", as it were.

I don't think you can say the Church is a democratic institution in the sense you mean, that the leaders say, "Ok, 70% of Catholics are against the dictatorship, so we will be too." For one thing, all of the military regimes were minority regimes, and since most Latin American countries are almost all Catholic, that means by definition that a majority of Catholics were against the regime in every case. Of course, some sectors of the population tend to be "more" Catholic than others, complicating the analysis.

Yes, I think the point is more subtle than pandering to the masses. The point is that the Church as an institution is "democratic" in the sense that a corporation is - it responds to "demands" from its "consumers". But it has to respond much more to certain consumers that are thinking of switching "brands" to Protestantism or Marxism. There are two ways of defeating your competition: you can out-compete them, or you can use the State to put them out of business. So, Gill shows that in some cases the Church is forced to "out-compete" its competition and move closer to the "masses" - since the upper class are not going to flee the Church anytime soon.

But, in other cases, due to the particular circumstances, the Church calculates that it can do better by cozying up to the State and using its influence (for the State also wants to use the Church to validate its rule) to pass laws that cripple its competition. For instance, the laws passed by the Argentinian regime restricting the ability of Protestant sects to proselytize.

spencer said...

Congratulations on resisting my efforts to box everything up and take it away.

You make a good point that these countries are almost all Catholic. So the Church goes where it can claim the most political power--which is not always denoted by the number of warm bodies in their corner. I wonder is this is described by some sort of mean voter theorem?

Guadalupe said...

If you own a copy, Elliot, please bring it back for me too browse. I'm skeptical in simply reading what's been posted and allowing that to take hold in my mind.

I don't quite know if "buddy buddy" is the best description of the Church in a lot of the examples...more like averting their eyes to those they claim to serve.

Being part of the Church I am always open to it being challenged though. John Courtney Murray was first excommunicated and later invited to the second Vatican council for making the claim that the really difficult issues must be held against the Church and if we challenge it, it will only strengthen and prove itself.

Also being part of the Church (and an optimist in general) I look for what good had happened. [side note: I have never looked into this situation previously and haven't had time to go outside the internet so forgive my lack of valid information, but either way, I enjoy wikipedia for what it is.]

This is what I've found:

During Videla's regime, a dispute arose with Chile over three islands in the Beagle Channel at the southern tip of South America, Picton, Lennox and Nueva. By 1977 Pinochet's Chile and Videla's Argentina were on the brink of open war.
In 1978, however, Pope John Paul II opened a new mediation process. His representative, Antonio Samoré, successfully prevented full-scale war.

Of course, JP2 is not representative of all the 'members' of the Church BUT I would argue that he may be one of the closest representatives of the actual Church (para mi).

Oh school tomorrow. I'm done here until you show the world how ignorant I am.

PS. you should let me post.

Elliot said...

Guadalupe, I will certainly bring my copy with for Christmas. Just a couple thoughts in response to your post:

1) I am not a Catholic, and in terms of Christianity in general the very most I can say is that I am agnostic. With this in mind, I try deliberately to avoid anti-Catholic or anti-religious cheap shots or pre-conditioned responses, because, while I am not convinced by religion's claims I take those claims and that way of looking at the world seriously, and with respect.

That said, the point of Gill's type of analysis is that we (as social scientists/observers of the world) have been too shy of analyzing the Church's actions with hard data, because the Church is somehow supposed to transcend the everyday workings of other institutions.

The phrase "buddy-buddy" is too flippant, and you should call me on it. But I won't back away from the basic claim behind it, which is that the Church often found it in its interest to make active alliances with anti-democratic regimes. Your phrase "averting their eyes" is too passive to accurately capture the positive political choice the Church is making in these circumstances.

And of course, this all isn't to say that the Church leaders don't have good intentions - its not some sort of big conspiracy theory. But military regimes can easily become a "lesser of two evils" type of problem in which Church leaders have to decide between actively aligning themselves with the military or losing their ability to effectively preach their message.

But you also have to recognize that major strains of Catholic ideology are anti-democratic, and that those strains, especially inasmuch as they overlap with upper-class interests, have been very influential in Spain and Latin America. People like Franco and Videla (look up some of the latter's comments on the separation of church and state) were not just autocrats, but theocrats. They espoused a society organized on Catholic lines, and the Church, to its discredit, largely got on board.

2) I was not aware that John Paul II mediated the Chile-Argentina conflict, that's interesting. But Gill's analysis focuses on internal political alliances, and that is an arena in which the Vatican has been a less than constructive actor, in my opinion. It has taken a "hands off" approach to dictatorships while actively moving to stamp out liberation theology. It seems clear to me, then, that it considers one of these a bigger threat than the other.

3) I think this is a good discussion, and ongoing one I'm sure, and we will benefit from the presence of a non-Heathen here at debaser.