Who Needs A Lifeline?

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga was in New York last week with some timely - and pointed - words for a marketplace in meltdown. David Gibson spoke to the Salesian after his address to a UN summit on global poverty

He didn't plan it this way, but Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga's visit to the United Nations last week could not have been more propitious, or poignant.

Leader of the Catholic Church in Honduras and one of the most vocal proponents of the Church's social justice teachings, Cardinal Rodriguez arrived in the global financial capital just as the credit collapse was pushing the world economy to the brink. And he was coming to the United Nations to argue on behalf of its Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, for reducing poverty, just as Washington was trying to engineer a $700-billion bail-out of Wall Street.

"Seventy billion?" The cardinal queries, incredulous at the figure, then he realises his error. "No, seven hundred billion!" President of Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican-based umbrella organisation for Catholic charities in 162 nations, Rodriguez shakes his head and says: "I am very sad that the riches of this country [the United States] are being used to save big corporations who we don't know are honest or corrupt."

He repeats the astonishing sum: "Seven hundred billion. Can you imagine that money, and only because people are not able to run their corporations in the right way. How come it is always the money of the poor that is lost? How come the money of the rich is always saved? I'm not blaming or accusing, just putting the facts on the table. When it comes to alleviating poverty, there are no resources. But when it comes to saving the rich, there are always resources."

The cardinal was speaking shortly after addressing a high-level UN meeting, convened by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to assess the MDGs at the midpoint of the 15-year programme. Bill Gates was there, as was Britain's embattled Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

Launched in 2000, the MDGs were originally adopted by 189 countries and comprise eight benchmarks, such as improving health care, reducing child mortality, and fighting HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases. Environmental sustainability was the cardinal's topic, and he set out the stakes: that climate change affects the poor disproportionately, even though, once again, the poor "bear least responsibility for the pollution causing global warming". Hurricanes are more destructive than ever, he said, and resources are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. He then broadened his critique beyond policy prescriptions to a condemnation of "an acute poverty of imagination" that afflicts wealthy societies above all.

"We need to be able to imagine ourselves not in a Third World and a First World but in one world in which our duties to the poor are shared. We need to imagine a world in which the needless deaths of nearly 10 million children a year are an abomination that cannot be tolerated," he said.

Rodriguez spoke to The Tablet at America House - the Midtown headquarters of the Jesuit weekly America, and Rodriguez's home for two nights - about greed, social justice inside the Church and out, and the need for limits in a world of excess.

Rodriguez is well known in Rome, and was often mentioned as a Latin American papabile during the conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger. The cardinal will see Benedict XVI during the synod, and he describes the Pope as a man he can speak with frankly, someone who wants to hear other views, especially from churchmen - such as Rodriguez - outside Benedict's European base. But one also gets the sense that the cardinal from Honduras has little of la romanita, the Roman spirit, that life in the Vatican entails.

"I recall arguing a few years ago with a Roman prelate who was telling me, You are only about words, words, about the preferential option for the poor! What are you doing in the concrete?' So I gave it back to him," Rodriguez says with a characteristic smile. He says he ran down some of the accomplishments of the Church in his country where, as he says, many live in Dickensian squalor: some 20,000 new houses, a network of health clinics, a growing home schools system, and a micro-credit programme that rueful Wall Street titans could learn from. "I know what I am doing," Rodriguez told the curial official. "What are you doing?"

At 65 his affability and openness make him popular with both flock and the media, for he connects faith and works in a passionate yet accessible manner that can be more influential than the most earnest homilies. (It doesn't hurt that he also plays the saxophone and has a pilot's licence.) What is more difficult to understand is how he maintains such enthusiasm in the face of so many obstacles. The short answer is that Cardinal Rodriguez has faith in the long-term prospects for the Church's message, which is, quoting Pope Benedict, "only formative, but performative".

"Even if not too many people were present [at the UN summit], it is important that the voice was present. It will resound," he says, noting that financial crises and presidential campaigns will come and go and adding: "Sooner or later, leaders discover that the crises could have been avoided by talking honestly, not just diplomatic talk."

But Rodriguez is not a man to sit idly and wait for a better future to arrive. He noted that in the three months before the financial crisis, 100 million people had sunk into poverty owing to rising oil and food prices, and he was forthright about the prospects for the MDGs. Poverty reduction "is not working", he declares, noting that improvements in health care are fitful and explains: "The only capital of the poor person is good health." The fight against malaria "is working to a degree, but reducing HIV/Aids is not working, I believe", he says. He wants pharmaceutical giants - as well as other multinationals - to show more solidarity with the poor. He points to the "hidden monopolies" of multinational businesses that talk about competition but then fight it in poor countries. "Modern globalisation is only a mask for a monopoly. If you ask me how many banks are in Honduras, I will tell you 15. If you ask how many banks are Honduran, maybe three. What is the future of the economy when monsters just expand and expand?"

Asked about the advent of populist governments and regimes in Latin America, he is frank, saying: "We are moving backwards." He includes his own Honduran political class when he says: "Our politicians are only looking to the next four years. Then they get elected, and four more years of piracy."

When I ask about the fierce debate in the United States about denying Communion to politicians who support abortion rights, Rodriguez laughs and says: "We don't have that because our politicians simply never go to church." He cites the Church's need for better-educated future leaders, but also cites the appeal of Protestant "sects", as he calls them, which are drawing many away from Catholicism with what the cardinal unsparingly diagnoses as the "spiritual sedative" of prosperity theology.

Rodriguez says that he is especially dismissive of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and his empty "messianic" promises. He notes that the president is using the oil profits that belong to the Venezuelan people to influence elections in other countries and build huge stocks of weaponry, even buying old Russian submarines. "What for? This is not socialism." I ask him what he would call it. He chews it over for a minute. "Good question," he says, then comes up with an answer: "Totalitarian capitalism disguised as socialism ... They talk about helping the poor but it is self-serving."

However, the cardinal does root for Paraguay's newly elected president - and recently laicised bishop - Fernando Lugo, who he says represents a genuine hope for that country after decades of dictatorship.

As for the Church's role in Latin America's development, he is unapologetic about lobbying for societal change as well as individual conversion. The current crisis reveals the problem not only of unchecked greed but also a dysfunctional social ethic, Rodriguez says.

When I ask him about the state of liberation theology, he concedes that "few people will talk about liberation theology these days". He himself is not so reticent. Rodriguez recalled a conference on the Church's social teaching two years ago in Mexico where Fr Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian theologian considered a founder of liberation theology, was asked if the movement was dead. "I don't know if it is dead. I was not invited to the funeral," the cardinal says Gutierrez quipped before adding: "Eighty per cent of liberation theology is the option for the poor, and this is alive." Cardinal Rodriguez himself seconds that view, and it is one he always preaches at the Vatican, where he says officials "don't know the reality on the ground". That reality, he says, is one of the markers differentiating the Church in the underdeveloped South from that of the industrialised North.

"In the North many times the Church is only understood by looking to the hierarchy, and the work of the Church is reduced to the work of the hierarchy. For us it is different. We are more lay-led. We have to be. In Honduras we have just 400 priests and 30,000 lay ministers," says the cardinal, while noting that numbers at the country's seminary are increasing.

"Development is the new name for peace," Paul VI declared more than 40 years ago in his great social justice encyclical, Populorum Progressio, and Cardinal Rodriguez sees the same challenge today. Yet this is not a question of a one-way sacrifice, North to South, he says, rather it is about rectifying an imbalance across the board. He points to labour being concentrated in the South and capital in the North. He contrasts residents in the southern hemisphere being held back by the basics they cannot afford, while those in the North seek luxuries they cannot afford, and adds: "When you do not have limits, you always need more. So you get this vicious cycle that leads the economy to this crisis."

"Let's think of goals that are not economic," says Rodriguez. "It is a big mistake to reduce life to the economic sphere. There is no time for writing, thinking, reflecting - using your brain to be more, not to have more."

"There should be limits. This is wisdom." And it may be wisdom that, for all the cardinal's words, is only now being brought home by the collapse of a marketplace whose dead weight he has warned about for years.

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