Pity Mexico: first one earthquake, then another, in a single month. One diocese in Morelos, Cuernavaca, had been collecting supplies to send to the victims of the earthquake at the beginning of September. Now, says its bishop, Ramon Castro, after it was hit by the second earthquake, the goods will be used locally. “There is a great deal of solidarity, thank God, but it is not enough. This is a serious disaster,” Bishop Castro said. “I am on my way now to visit the areas that have suffered the greatest damage, to try to convey a message of encouragement and hope,” he said.
This is all wholly unremarkable in the current crisis. Churches are the focal points of the community, places to which people gravitate in times of need – though that can be tricky when churches are among the buildings that collapse after a tremor.
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But obviously the buildings are only an expression of the church; the social infrastructure is more important: a remarkably effective network that enables people to rally to each other in time of need. The dioceses are part of an organisational structure that enables churches to collect aid for other parts of the country, and the parishes are where aid is distributed at local level. The bishop can articulate the need of the community for help – from other areas, from the government and from the worldwide church through organisations such as Caritas – but he also has a pastoral function, to rally the people and pray with them. Meanwhile, local priests comfort the bereaved and injured, and local churches are where people rally round each other. What’s happening in Cuernavaca is happening around the country.
This isn’t to say that you don’t get communal solidarity and neighbourly help in secular communities, though even in London after the Grenfell Tower fire, it was the local church of St Clement’s that was the most obvious and visible place for people to come for help1. But earthquakes are a rather greater challenge.
The famous Lisbon earthquake of 1755 – which happened on All Saints’ Day, ruined the Portuguese capital, destroyed almost every church in it and caused unimaginable loss of life – and was the defining natural catastrophe of the Enlightenment. For philosophers it was an expression of the problem of evil; famously, it enabled Voltaire to make the case against a beneficient deity who keeps humankind in his loving care. In Mexico, he would have seized on one poignant episode in which a church collapsed onto a baptism, killing the baby and all his family, apart from his father, the priest and the priest’s assistant2.
Yet Voltaire wasn’t quite right. In Lisbon and now Mexico, the function of institutional religion is demonstrated in the response to catastrophe, from the intangible spiritual comfort that people derive from prayer to the organisational capacity of the church to provide practical assistance in helping the homeless and distributing relief.
This is not to say that the church in Mexico has always been on the side of the poor. Its record is, to put it mildly, mixed. In the sixteenth century, the Pueblo-Hospitals set up by Bishop Quiroga of Sante Fe in 1532-38 promoted communal agriculture, health and education and a degree of self-government. The missionaries articulated a robust stance in favour of the humane treatment of native people. Yet over the course of time the church became a parallel elite, with close ties to the military and the landowning classes, with enormous assets. The backlash against the church in the political upheavals of the mid nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has obvious parallels with the Spanish civil war. Yet Mexico has remained an overwhelmingly Catholic country – well over 80% of the population identifies as Catholic.
In his book, Earthly Mission (Yale, 2013), on the church and development, the economist Robert Calderisi3, concluded that:
“Despite its obtuseness on the role of the market and family planning, the Catholic Church has probably lifted more people out of poverty than any other organisation in history.”
Its role in Mexico reminds us of its value in times of natural disaster too. As Calderisi says, “social action and an essential optimism about the world… [are] at the heart of Roman Catholicism”. Both are evident in Mexico.
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