Benedict's Crusade

Can the Pope bring God back to Europe?

The Vatican's recently-founded Pontifical Council for New Evangelization seems at first glance to be a somewhat redundant enterprise. Isn't the Catholic Church already pretty good at spreading the faith? Not in its own backyard, it turns out.

According to the Vatican's statistics, the number of Catholics worldwide in the past ten years has increased at a healthy 11 percent clip, faster than the global population as a whole. But that's largely been driven by a 33 percent increase in the Catholic population in Africa. Meanwhile, in traditionally Catholic countries like France and Germany, church attendance has dropped below 20 percent. In the cathedrals of Paris, tourists now regularly outnumber churchgoers. And in Ireland, where just 30 years ago 91 percent of the population went to mass regularly, local dioceses are suddenly bereft of laity and leadership: church pews are empty and hundreds of priests are dying every year with no one to take their place. In the words of the Irish religion journalist David Quinn, "It's not a crisis, it's a catastrophe and it's happened in a generation."

The Vatican's new official administrative apparatus is, in fact, committed to the unprecedented, and ostensibly quixotic, task of combating that catastrophe. Its sole goal is the re-evangelization of Europe. The council will shape the Vatican's messaging and direct European churches in their efforts to steer the public back towards the "perennial truth of the Gospel of Christ" and away from an "eclipse of God." It's tasked with finding and implementing methods, both pastoral and political, to convince Europeans to put Christ back at the center of their lives. Not surprisingly, the Vatican has faith that it can turn back the secular tide. But it's also going to have to show a newfound willingness to compete for believers, and, even then, it will probably need a good dose of luck.

With the odds so stacked against it, the new council begs the question: why Europe? As Catholicism continues to spread rapidly in the global south, the European continent -- with its aging population and diminishing political influence -- seems a curious strategic priority for a global institution like the Vatican. Scholars and laymen alike used to think that Europe's secularism epidemic was spreading: soon everyone would follow in exchanging prayer beads and crucifixes for fast food and sitcoms. But Europe proved the exception rather than the rule. The United States didn't secularize, and most of the rest of the world grew steadily more, rather than less, religious during the late 20th century.

So why devote resources to a problem that seems unlikely to spread? While Europe's growing secularism may be the "exceptional case," as British sociologist Grace Davie has deemed it, it is a concern exceptionally close to Pope Benedict, both to his personal career and his theological reflections.

The German-born Pope Benedict XVI (nee Joseph Ratzinger) has long held fast to the goal of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, to preserve "the Christian roots of Europe and its Christian soul."

As John Paul's prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger became the Vatican's key player in 2004 in the battle over the preamble to the European Constitution, a document that was supposed to be a symbol of the continent's "ever closer union."

While many political representatives at the constitutional convention insisted that Europe remain secular, the Vatican lobbied hard for the document to reflect the continent's millennium and a half of Christian history. Europe, Ratzinger argued, was not a geographic or political concept, but a "cultural and historical" one, founded on Christianity. He and the Vatican ultimately had to settle for the compromise phrase: "the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe."

Subsequently, Benedict's papacy has had a particular emphasis on Europe. Cardinal Ratzinger chose his pontifical name partly in honor of Pope Benedict XV, the early-20th-century pope who sought to bring peace to a continent devastated by World War I, and partly in honor of St. Benedict of Nursia, whom Ratzinger, reflecting on his choice of name, called "the co-patron of Europe," and described as "a fundamental reference point for European unity and a powerful reminder of the indispensable Christian roots of his culture and civilization." Since ascending to the throne of Peter, Benedict has made 16 foreign visits. Ten have been to European countries.

The pope is motivated by a deep concern that Europe's spiritual foundation is slipping away, taking with it the continent's future, both earthly and eternal. This concern lay behind both his reservations about Turkey's prospective EU membership and his infamous 2006 Regensburg lecture, in which -- with prose both dense and controversial -- he voiced reservations about Islam's adherence to human reason. But, apparently, the pope now deems the threat of secularism more urgent than that of Islam.

Addressing the members of the European People's Party in 2006, Benedict observed that there was now a "fairly widespread" culture in Europe "which relegates to the private and subjective sphere the manifestation of one's own religious convictions." This "deliberate promotion of religious indifference or practical atheism," as he calls it in his encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, threatens development and democracy, liberty, and equality.

He does not, of course, imagine that Europe is about to slide back into the totalitarian nightmares of the past. But Benedict does warn that without conception of inalienable human dignity, a people are apt to commit horrible abuses against one another and themselves. Absent religion, what resources does our culture have to stop medical science, for example, from entering into gene manipulation, human cloning, or use of human fetuses for research purposes? In the pope's geopolitical vision, Europe, because of its Christian heritage, is an ideal defender of human dignity on the world stage.

Benedict's and the Vatican's concern with evangelizing Europe, then, is not simply a matter of increasing congregation sizes, still less of hauling the center of Catholic gravity back north and west. Rather, it is a concern with the dissolution of the social and political foundations of the continent and of the world at large. New Evangelization is as much about strengthening the church's ties to its spiritual roots, thereby protecting Europe's political and religious future, as it is about merely putting butts in seats.

It's not often that the Vatican introduces a new administrative arm devoted to such a parochial cause. By making European secularization a major political priority, Benedict has demanded that some of the Church's most powerful and respected players -- including Italian bishop Salvatore Fisichella, who heads the council -- work together on solving the problem and speak with one voice when addressing it. Presumably, they will also be held responsible for producing results.

But those results might demand a "free market" solution for which the Vatican is wholly unprepared. The recent best-selling book by Economist editors Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait, God is Back, argues that the only way religious belief will flourish is if churches are disestablished and religious "markets" liberalized. They cite numerous successful examples of this market model from around the world, not least the United States, where religious freedom and religious vitality apparently go hand in hand. They bolster their argument with a counterfactual example from European religious history -- the all-but-monopolistic religious markets of the 18th century, where the well-fed establishment clergy had been "bribed into indolence" and attitudes to Christianity were notoriously lax and apathetic.

One of the few European religious success stories of recent years is that of independent churches, commonly evangelical or Pentecostal, run by so-called "pastorpreneurs" who can create, innovate, and follow the religious market wherever it leads. New Life Church, City Life Church, Hillsong, Elim Pentecostal Church, The Lighthouse, Glory House -- the variety of independent churches in Europe's large urban centers is now bewildering for those who hold fast to the dominance of established churches.

The demand-side market is perhaps the very antithesis of Vatican culture, whose hierarchy sees itself as the guardian of a unique spiritual truth. The centralized and hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is thus both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gives Catholic Christianity a structure and unity that allows it to disseminate its message -- not least its message about the inalienable dignity of human beings -- with clarity and force. On the other, it prevents local priests and pastors from operating with the sort of autonomy that might be essential to spur dramatic re-evangelization.

In that way, the success of Catholic "New Evangelization" in Europe might turn out to require a decentralized church structure that would weaken the very message that, in Pope Benedict's view, makes such evangelization necessary in the first place. That dilemma would make the new Pontifical Council's job very difficult indeed.


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How Mexico's Drug War Is Killing Guatemala

Overrun with Mexican drug gangs, troubled by a staggering murder rate, and plagued with endemic corruption, Guatemala is in serious trouble. And now the nation's "Supercop" has called it quits. Can anyone stop the country from going down the tubes?

Before he resigned in exasperation from his job as the top prosecutor of the international anti-corruption commission in Guatemala last month, Carlos Castresana liked to compare the country to an obstinate hospital patient. "The patient refuses to take the medicine that is recommended," he recently told a reporter. "And a patient who does not take the medicine dies."

Guatemala definitely needs to take its pills. But now that the good doctor is on his way out, the country's condition looks more dire than ever. Castresana, the internationally appointed Spanish magistrate who presided over the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), was perhaps the country's lone hope amid the wave of organized crime and corruption that is quickly inundating Central America's latest nascent narco-state. As he steps down and hands the reins to his newly appointed successor, the Costa Rican Francisco Dall'Anese, Guatemala's halting progress at combating those ills risks disappearing with him. Indeed, his sudden departure must feel like a victory for those who want Guatemala to remain "a paradise for criminals," as the International Crisis Group recently called the country.

Just how bad is it? Last month, Guatemala's president, Alvaro Colom Caballeros, welcomed the courts' removal of the newly elected attorney general for his alleged ties to criminal groups that, among other nefarious activities, sold adopted babies on the black market. Days earlier, four severed heads were placed in strategic locations in Guatemala City with messages pinned to them warning of a similar fate for the minister of the interior and director of prisons. This was the drug gangs' way of firing back against a recent tightening of regulations in Guatemala's jails. And, in the midst of the chaos, the Constitutional Court approved the extradition to the United States of a former president accused of embezzling millions in public funds. Just another day in Guatemala.

The country's descent has been a long spiral, but the pace has accelerated in recent years. The government signed a peace accord with leftist rebels in 1996, ending a 36-year old civil war. But as Mexico and Colombia cracked down on their own drug trafficking problems, the criminals sought new refuge, and Guatemala fit the bill: a weak government, a strategic location, and a bureaucracy whose allegiance came cheap.

Today, Guatemala is overrun with Mexican narcotraficantes and increasingly brazen street gangs. Other organized criminal networks traffic in not only babies, but also weapons, passports, timber, and immigrants. Close to 96 percent of those crimes go unpunished, in part because there's no long arm of the law -- criminal influence reaches the highest levels. The country's small security forces, meanwhile, are poorly trained and paid, especially when matched against drug traffickers bristling with sophisticated weapons and tactics.

Into this abyss stepped CICIG, which was proposed by the United Nations in 2006. With the approval of Guatemalan officials, the investigators got to work in 2007. (The international community foots the bill, about half of which is paid by the United States.) For the last three years, local prosecutors worked side-by-side with international prosecutors, all of whom have subpoena powers, the ability to order an arrest, and the authority to try cases.

At the top of the commission was Castresana, the so-called doctor -- a moniker he gave himself, preferring it to other nicknames given to him in the press  such as the "modern-day Elliot Ness" and "Supercop." Among his many bona fides, Castresana was a co-author of the 1998 indictment against Augusto Pinochet, the late Chilean dictator. When he arrived in 2007, Guatemalans could dare to hope that their new savior could end the drug lords' reign of impunity. "The horizon is open, with its promises, challenges, and threats," wrote the Guatemalan paper El Periodico at the time. "Among the many demands, ideological concerns, and real enemies, the CICIG looks for light to move forward."

Castresana's mandate required that he attack, if not completely dismantle, Guatemala's shadow state -- the criminal networks that have undermined the government's authority. CICIG started by revising the country's antiquated judicial system. It helped push through legislation for wiretaps, reduced sentences for collaborating witnesses, and created special courts to try sensitive cases. It also helped to establish a witness protection program and began training a specialized police unit akin to the U.S. marshalls to see to their security. It secured the removal of an allegedly corrupt and ineffective attorney general and 2,000 suspect police officers and called for a transparent process to replace them. The progress was significant -- so much so that President Colom called on the United Nations to extend CICIG's mandate, and other countries in the region began clamoring for their own independent corruption investigators.

The big breakthrough came this past January, when CICIG cracked the mysterious murder case of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a prominent lawyer who was killed as he rode his bicycle through Guatemala City on Mother's Day, 2009. He had recorded an ominous video five days before his death that began, "If you're watching this video, it's because I was assassinated by the president's private secretary." Opposition politicians began to call for Colom's resignation; street protests followed. But CICIG turned up a stunning result: Rosenberg, for personal and political reasons, had planned his own murder. Some questioned CICIG's results, but few questioned the professionalism and thoroughness of the investigation, which included triangulating telephone calls to prove that Rosenberg had set in motion his own assasination.

Just a few weeks later, CICIG arrested former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo on charges of embezzlement as he tried to escape to Belize; his defense minister and former aides have also been indicted. Then, in March, the commission arrested  Guatemala's chief of police, Baltazar Gomez, and his top anti-narcotics intelligence official, Nelly Bonilla, both accused of being operatives for the powerful Mexican drug gang the Zetas. 

Of course, none of CICIG's successes has come easily. The commission has struggled to build trust between the international prosecutors and their Guatemalan counterparts. Once welcomed by Guatemala's upper crest, the commission is now seen as intrusive; indeed, CICIG has been vilified in op-eds and elite conversation for encroaching on Guatemala's sovereignty. What's behind this is an elite -- businessmen and political figures -- who didn't expect the body's investigations to lead to them. But hardly anyone is left untouched by the pervasive infiltration of illicit interests.

Gradually, the frustration of these daily struggles became too much for Castresana to bear. In announcing his resignation, he said that he could "not do more for Guatemala than what I've done." But he also attacked the government for not supporting its judicial and security institutions. Large sums of allocated money had never been disbursed to certain special investigative units, for example, and a witness protection program was rendered useless because the government had not paid the rent for the necessary safe houses. Only five of 16 proposed legislative changes to the country's criminal legal code  have been passed by Congress; the rest, Castresana said, were "frozen" -- stopped by opposition members who simultaneously sought to discredit CICIG and him personally via the media. Then, rumors began circulating about Castresana's supposed dalliance with an employee.

But it was the selection of Attorney General Conrado Reyes that seemed to push Castresana from frustration to resignation. The newly appointed top lawyer arrived on the job with a notorious right-hand man: former presidential security director Carlos Quintanilla, who was accused in 2008 of spying on the president for the Zetas. (The attorney general is not appointed directly by the president in Guatemala, but through a convoluted process involving the lawyers' guild, university presidents, and the Supreme Court; Reyes made it through that vetting despite CICIG's protests.) Once in office, one of the new attorney general's first actions was to put his own people in charge of the wiretapping program. Other prosecutors assigned to sensitive cases, including the one against ex-President Portillo, were removed from their positions. As a goodbye gift, Castresana took down Reyes, presenting the president with evidence of the attorney general's shady ties. Perhaps he knew it was the only way that the attorney general would leave -- if he left, too.

Of course, some will argue that CICIG may in fact be better off without Castresana, who was a polarizing figure. The image of Castresana as "Supercop"  undermined the commission's ultimate goal of building up domestic institutions to the point that they could tackle these sorts of cases alone. Dall'Anese inherits and unenviable position, but he will at least have a clearer notion of exactly what resources Guatemala has to work with and who his enemies are. And Dall'Anese is no stranger to the terrain: Though he hails from relatively placid Costa Rica, as that nation's attorney general since 2003, he has witnessed the rise of organized crime throughout the region.

Dall'Anese may face an impossible task, however. Most observers agree that real, lasting gains are unlikely until either Guatemala's government or the international community sufficiently funds domestic judicial institutions -- and security forces to protect them. The commission regularly puts dozens of investigators and resources toward a case, something local authorities cannot afford to do. Most foreign CICIG investigators get round-the-clock protection from highly trained bodyguards -- a luxury (or arguably a necessity) that local investigators simply don't have. 

"This is going to take years," Castresana said during a press conference a few days after he announced his resignation. "It's a fight for Guatemala, for the legal authority, for the institutions, but it's a house by house type of fight. The institutions are infiltrated . . . and we have to remove the bad public servants from these institutions one by one." And step by step is how they will have to go -- but Castresana's departure is certainly a step in the wrong direction.