Catholic Latin America

By Lawrence E. Harrison
Volume 25, Number 3 (Spring 2015)
Issue theme: "How many is too many? The challenge of Latino immigrants"

Latin America’s history bears witness to the failure of Catholicism, in contradistinction to Protestantism, or, at least, to the defeat of the Catholic ethic by the Protestant ethic, which shaped the development of the United States…[The] North American Protestant society appears more Christian, or perhaps less anti-Christian, than Latin American Catholic society. It demands of its followers a pattern of social behavior that dictates reasonably good faith in daily affairs and interpersonal relations and requires socially constructive action even of those in opposition.

Carlos Rangel, The Latin Americans: Their Love-Hate Relationship with the United States (1987) 1

When the people in Anglo–Saxon societies, above all the United States, identify a common infrastructure need, they look to one another; they meet and refine their ideas; they agree on a course of action; and then they volunteer their time and resources to bring the project to fruition.

In Latin America, when the people identify a common need, they raise their eyes to the central government as supplicants; and they lose all hope for commerce, bridges, piers if the government doesn’t do it all.

Juan Bautista Alberdi, Argentine statesman (1880).2

The future prosperity and happiness of [Mexico] now depend on the development of Protestantism…Protestantism would become Mexican by conquering the Indians; they need a religion to compel them to read and not to spend their savings on candles for their saints.

Benito Juárez, a full-blooded native Mexican, five-time president of Mexico (1858-72)3


The striking contrast in the evolutions of post-Reformation Protestant Scotland and Catholic Ireland, discussed in Chapter 5, has been repeated, but on vastly larger scale, in the Western Hemisphere. This is above all true of the contrast between Ibero-Catholic Latin America and the Anglo-Protestant United States (and, we might add, Anglophone Canada). It has also been repeated, on smaller scale, within Canada itself: between the Anglo-Protestant provinces and Catholic Québec.

Spain’s and Portugal’s former colonies, which had a century’s head start and are half again more populous than the United States and Canada taken together, are today roughly half a century behind them with respect to the maturity and stability of their political institutions, prosperity, and social justice. It is only in recent years that democratically elected governments have predominated in Latin America, and many of the democratic experiments are precarious. The standard of living is roughly one-tenth that of the United States and Canada. Distribution of land, income, wealth, and opportunity is highly inequitable by the standards of the advanced democracies.

The Venezuelan writer Carlos Rangel, who in the mid-1970s incurred the wrath of the Latin American intellectual and political establishments with a book that said that Latin Americans and their Ibero-Catholic cultural inheritance were responsible for Latin America’s condition, notes, “As late as 1700, the Spanish American empire still gave the impression of being incomparably richer (which it was!), much more powerful, and more likely to succeed than the British colonies of North America.”4

What explains this striking historical flip-flop?

The contrast between the United States, an exceptionally dynamic and successful society, and Latin America may be unfair. But a strikingly similar contrast has been illuminated by an Inter-American Development Bank study of a century of Scandinavian and Latin American economic development, entitled Diverging Paths.5 The study makes little mention of culture and views the divergence as essentially a policy and institutional phenomenon. But if one asks with respect to any number of policy or institutional issues, “Why did the Scandinavians choose the right path while the Latin Americans chose the wrong one?” the answer inevitably gravitates toward fundamental cultural differences.

And the reader should be mindful of the finding in Chapter 2 (see author’s note on page 22) that the three Scandinavian countries—Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—along with Finland and Iceland, are the world champions of progress.

Natural Resources? Climate? Dependency?

The roots of the discrepant evolution of the United States and Canada on one hand and Latin America on the other are thus centuries deep. Can they be explained by natural resource endowment? Canada and the United States are blessed with vast extensions of arable land, but so are Argentina and Brazil, which is now among the world’s largest exporters of soybeans. There is no clear advantage with respect to minerals. Canada and the United States have an advantage in navigable waterways, especially the Great Lakes, and the terrain of Mexico and the Central American and Andean countries is more severely interrupted by mountain ranges.

On balance, Canada and the United States may enjoy a somewhat more bountiful natural resource endowment, but Latin America is also very well off. Even if a rich resource endowment were a precondition of rapid development, an assumption challenged by successful resource-poor countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Switzerland, and Israel, the difference in resource endowment between the North and the South in the Hemisphere is insufficient to explain the gap. And the gap, after all, is not just in economic development. It is comparably vast with respect to democratic institutions and social justice. Yet Costa Rica demonstrates that you don’t have to be rich to be democratic.6 Alexis de Tocqueville correctly concludes, “Physical causes do not therefore affect the destiny of nations so much as has been supposed.”7

Climate has to be considered. Early in this century, Ellsworth Huntington, like Montesquieu two centuries before him,8 argued that the differences between the temperate and tropical zones principally explain variations in human progress.9 The early inhabitants of the temperate zones had to work harder in the shorter growing season to put something aside for the winter. They enjoyed a more bracing, energy-inducing climate. Their shelters had to be substantial, and fuel had to be found and stored to protect against the cold. This placed a premium on work and saving but also may have encouraged cooperation.

Those who lived in the tropics enjoyed the luxury of growing crops—or picking food that grew naturally—year round. And shelters needed only protect against the rain. But that same ease of feeding and sheltering oneself nurtured indolence, as did the enervating climate. And the fecund environment also nurtured disease.

I have no doubt that climate has played a role in the diverse evolution of the North and the South in the Western Hemisphere, just as it has in the Eastern. Around the world, the vast majority of poor countries are found in the tropical zone, almost all rich countries in the temperate zones. But there are exceptions: all the countries of the former Soviet Union are in the temperate zone, but none have achieved First World status. Hong Kong and Singapore are both in the tropics. Moreover, all of Uruguay, almost all of Argentina, most of Chile, and much of Mexico and Paraguay are in the temperate zones. And many Latin Americans who live in “tropical” countries enjoy temperate climates because of the region’s many elevated plateaus, as is the case with the capitals of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil.

The gap is further underscored by contrasting structures of government in Canada and the United States on the one hand and Latin America on the other: federalism, with states and provinces retaining substantial powers, in North America, centralized power in Latin America. Keith Rosenn, a professor of comparative law at the University of Miami, observes:

Canada and the U.S. were colonized by Great Britain, which allowed its colonies substantial freedom in governing themselves. In both countries, federalism was perceived as a useful technique for integrating substantially autonomous colonies into a single nation. Latin America, on the other hand, was colonized by Spain and Portugal, whose heavily centralized regimes permitted their colonies little freedom to govern their own affairs...

Both the U.S. and Canada, with the exception of Québec, were products of colonizations that synthesized Protestantism, Locke’s social compact theory, and the natural rights of Englishmen. This North American inheritance of theology and political theory was far more conducive to the structured dispersal of power among many regional centers than Latin America’s inheritance of the centralized hierarchical organization of Roman Catholicism and Bourbon absolutism. It should not be surprising, therefore, that power in all the Latin American countries is far more centralized than in Canada or the United States.10

Latin America’s chronically poor policies and weak institutions—and what may appear as persistent poor judgment—are principally a cultural phenomenon flowing from the traditional Ibero-Catholic system of values and attitudes. Traditional Ibero-Catholic culture focuses on the present and the past at the expense of the future; it focuses on the individual and the family at the expense of the broader society; it nurtures authoritarianism; it propagates a flexible ethical code; it enshrines orthodoxy; and it is disdainful of work, creativity, and saving.

It is that culture that chiefly explains why, as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, Latin America lags so far behind the United States and Canada. And it is the very different Anglo-Protestant system of values, attitudes, and institutions that chiefly explains the success of those two countries.

Tocqueville on Culture

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is filled with wisdom that extends beyond his incisive analysis of American democracy that, for example, anticipated some of Gunnar Myrdal’s analysis a century later of the racial dilemma of the United States.11 In a discussion of the relationship between religion and progress, Tocqueville foreshadowed Max Weber’s analysis of Protestantism some seventy years later: “...British America was peopled by men who, after having shaken off the authority of the Pope...brought with them into the New World a form of Christianity which I cannot better describe than by styling it a democratic and republican religion. This contributed powerfully to the establishment of a republic and a democracy in public affairs.”12

But few are aware that the transcendental message Tocqueville wished to communicate to his readers was the overriding importance of culture in shaping societies. He is very clear:

The customs of the Americans of the United States are, then, the peculiar cause which renders that people the only one of the American nations that is able to support a democratic government... Thus the effect which the geographical position of a country may have upon the duration of democratic institutions is exaggerated in Europe. Too much importance is attributed to legislation, too little to customs. These three great causes [geography, laws, customs] serve, no doubt, to regulate and direct American democracy; but if they were to be classed in their proper order, I should say that physical circumstances are less efficient than laws, and the laws infinitely less so than the customs of the people. I am convinced that the most advantageous situation and the best possible laws cannot maintain a constitution in spite of the customs of a country; while the latter may turn to some advantage the most unfavorable positions and the worst laws. The importance of customs is a common truth to which study and experience incessantly direct our attention. It may be regarded as a central point in the range of observation, and the common termination of all my inquiries...if I have hitherto failed in making the reader feel the important influence of the practical experience, the habits, the opinions, in short, of the customs of the Americans upon the maintenance of their institutions, I have failed in the principal object of my work.13

Tocqueville is also very clear about what he means by customs, and it is essentially what I mean by culture. He says, “I here use the word customs with the meaning which the ancients attached to the word mores; for I apply it not only to manners properly so called—that is, to what might be termed the habits of the heart—but to the various notions and opinions current among men and to the mass of those ideas which constitute their character of mind. I comprise under this term, therefore, the whole moral and intellectual condition of a people.”14

While Tocqueville focused his attention on the United States, he was not oblivious to conditions in Latin America (in the 1830s):

If the welfare of nations depended on their being placed in a remote position, with an unbounded space of habitable territory before them, the Spaniards of South America would have no reason to complain of their fate. And although they might enjoy less prosperity than the inhabitants of the United States, their lot might still be such as to excite the envy of some nations in Europe. There are no nations upon the face of the earth, however, more miserable than those of South America...15 The inhabitants of that fair portion of the western Hemisphere seem obstinately bent on the work of destroying one another.16

Catholicism and the Grondona Typology

Mariano Grondona is an Argentine of Italian extraction who had in mind Argentina, and by extension Latin America, when he devised that half of his typology that analyzes progress-resistant (low cultural capital) cultures. For our purposes here, three of the 25 factors are particularly relevant:

2. Work. Work is central to the good life in progressive societies, a source of satisfaction and self-respect, the foundation of the structure of daily life, and an obligation of the individual to the broader society. Work is viewed as noble and indispensable in the Protestant, Jewish, and Confucian ethics; in many Third World cultures, including the Ibero-Catholic, work is viewed as a necessary evil, and real satisfaction and pleasure are attainable only outside the workplace. Attitudes about work are, of course, intimately linked to achievement and entrepreneurship, on which economic development importantly depends.

4. Education. Education is the key to progress in dynamic societies. In contrast to traditional Catholicism, which interposed the priest as the interpreter of God’s scripture to the faithful, both Protestantism and Judaism have stressed the importance of literacy so that each follower can read the Bible. And education is also central to Confucianism; witness the high level of Japan’s literacy relative to Western Europe in the nineteenth century. In traditional societies, education is seen as a frill by the masses, an entitlement of the elites. Substantial illiteracy still exists in Latin America, and in several Latin American countries, half or more of high-school age children do not attend secondary school.

7. Ethics. The rigor of the ethical code influences political and economic performance. Weber believed that the Roman Catholic emphasis on the afterlife, and, particularly, what he perceived as a more flexible ethical system, put Catholics at a disadvantage to Protestants in this life. “The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system. There was no room for the very human Catholic cycle of sin, repentance, atonement, release, followed by renewed sin.”17

An anecdote will help make the point. The limits culture places on institutions, in this case legal institutions, is apparent from a conversation Keith Rosenn of the University of Miami Law School had with an Argentine lawyer.

Since the nineteenth century, the Argentine constitution has authorized trial by jury and the use of oral testimony by witnesses. But no jury trial has ever taken place. Instead, a cumbersome system of written depositions has prevailed, with the verdicts the responsibility of judges. Rosenn asked the Argentine lawyer why this was so. The latter replied, “We are a Catholic country, and everybody knows that it would be easy for a witness to lie, confess to a priest a few days later, and be absolved.”18

The Challenge of Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism

David Martin is a sociologist and theologian who has focused his attention in recent years on the rise of Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism, particularly in Africa and Latin America. He is also an ordained Anglican priest. Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are linked: “two phases of a faith based on change of heart and thoroughgoing revision of life.”19 The principal distinction, often blurred, is the greater emotionalism of Pentecostalism, which may express itself in unintelligible utterances (“the gift of tongues”) and faith healing,

Martin estimates the global number of the two branches at about 500 million, with about 200 million in Africa, 100 million in Asia, 100 million in North America, and 50 million in Latin America. But the numbers are growing in Latin America. Perhaps as many as one-third of Guatemalans are now Evangelical or Pentecostal, and the Brazilians who have converted (see below) already constitute a political force in that country.

At least in Latin America, Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism are seen by the poor, including many indigenous peoples, as avenues to family stability and upward mobility via the Weberian virtues symbolized by Benjamin Franklin. Martin observes: “In discussing how these virtues work out in practice, one needs to remember that these men of God are mostly women. Pentecostalism is a movement of women determined with God’s help to defend home and family against machismo and the seductions of the street and the weekend. They represent female nurture and order over male ‘nature’ and disorder.”20

These Protestant churches also provide a social structure that eases the adaptation from life in small villages to life in the intimidating chaos of big cities. Martin believes that the values engendered by Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism will lead to better lives for the converts and that the demonstration effect will sustain the momentum of conversion. Anecdotal evidence, for example the image of Protestant honesty and reliability held by other Latin Americans, points in the same direction.

The 2010 census in Brazil supplies an important indicator: the 2000 census showed 26 million Brazilian Protestants of the total 170 million––about 15 percent. Martin related the dramatic news in an as yet unpublished Christian Science Monitor column:

Brazil a Protestant Country by 2020?

By David Martin

The startling news that the 2010 Census shows a doubling of the Protestant population in Brazil over a decade from 15 to 30 percent suggests that Brazil could become a predominantly Protestant country by the next census, in 2020. In the middle of the twentieth century, Protestants accounted for about one percent of Brazil’s population.

This startling news is part of a wider global trend. Two-thirds of the Protestants in Brazil are Pentecostal, and a very large proportion of the Protestant surge globally belongs to one of innumerable Pentecostal churches.

Brazil is a country of almost two hundred million people that was for centuries almost entirely Catholic. It is now wide open to religious pluralism and competition. There is reason to believe that Brazil’s economic development will benefit from an injection of the Protestant work ethic. Insofar as it rejects alcohol, tobacco, and the weekend spree and weakens the hold of macho attitudes, Protestantism is also bound to strengthen family bonds.

Politically, Protestants have moved away from traditional acceptance of the status quo to participation, so that numerous Evangelical/Pentecostal candidates have been successful in national elections…

Needed: A Second Reformation

The continuing inroads being made by Evangelical/Pentecostal Protestantism on its heretofore substantial monopoly are one telling indicator of grave problems for the Catholic Church in Latin America. But the conversions are not the only unsettling consideration for the Church. Latin America’s economic development, in terms of growth but particularly with respect to equity, has been generally disappointing. Finally, Latin America has not escaped the pandemic of sexual abuse by priests and nuns.

Economic Development

In an essay that appears in Developing Cultures: Essays on Cultural Change, Michael Novak, the prominent and prolific lay Catholic scholar, notes that there are now more than a billion Catholics around the world, with the largest contingent in Latin America. Moreover, the Church is growing, particularly in Africa, and he expects that the number of Catholics will increase to almost 1.5 billion by 2025.

Novak observes that the Church came late to the support and promotion of democracy, in part because political liberalization in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was often accompanied by secularization and anti-clericalism. But in the second half of the twentieth century, the Church dropped its support of authoritarian governments in favor of a pro-democratic stance that contributed to the wave of democratization in Latin America in the last decades of the twentieth century.

In this trend toward democratization, one hears echoes of an observation by Tocqueville:

I think that the Catholic religion has erroneously been regarded as the natural enemy of democracy. Among the various sects of Christians, Catholicism seems to me, on the contrary, to be one of the most favorable to equality of condition among men. In the Catholic Church, the religious community is composed of only two elements: the priest and the people. The priest alone rises above the rank of his flock, and all below him are equal…no sooner is the priesthood entirely separated from the government, as is the case in the United States, than it is found that no class of men is more naturally disposed than the Catholics to transfer the doctrine of the equality of condition into the political world.21

The changed posture of the Church with respect to democracy is particularly apparent in the case of Spain. The Vatican sent a congratulatory message to Francisco Franco on his victory over the republicans in 1939. But a quarter-century later, Cardinal Vicente Enrique y Tarancón played a key role in Spain’s transition to democracy after Franco’s death.

In his book The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Novak refers to a minority Catholic crosscurrent favorable to free-market economics. He strongly advocates reconsideration by the Church of its ambivalence with respect to capitalism.

* * * * *

In most of the dimensions of progress, Protestant countries have outperformed Catholic countries:

• Democracy: Catholic countries have generally been slower to consolidate democratic institutions than Protestant countries, and democracy remains fragile in Latin America.

• Prosperity: Catholic countries, particularly those in Latin America, lag economically. The first Catholic country to appear on the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 Competitiveness Index is highly secularized France at number 15, preceded by ten Protestant and four Confucian countries. Rapid economic development in Italy, Spain, Ireland, and Quebec has been accompanied by processes of secularization that have led to labeling these societies “post-Catholic.” An Economist article a few years ago announced: “It used to be spoken of as Catholic Spain. Not these days.”22 Subsequently, Mar-lise Simons noted in the New York Times that “of Spain’s 43 million people, only one in five consider themselves practicing Catholics.”23

• Income distribution: Some of the most inequitable income distribution in the world is found in Latin America. In 2004, the richest ten percent in Brazil accounted for 45 percent of income, the poorest ten percent for only 0.9 percent. The data for Chile, Latin America’s fastest developing economy, were 45 percent for the top ten percent, 1.2 for the bottom ten percent. By comparison, the richest ten percent in the United States—the most inequitable of the advanced democracies—accounted for 29.9 percent of income in the 2000 Census, the poorest ten percent for 1.9 percent.

Denmark is the world champion of income equitability: the bottom ten percent of Danes receives 2.6 percent, the top ten percent 22.4 percent24

The highly inequitable income distribution found in Latin America is profoundly ironic: the Catholic Church has long championed the poor—remember Matthew’s judgment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” The irony is compounded by Calvinist Protestantism’s preference for the rich: the poor are proportionately fewer and less poor in Protestant countries than in Catholic countries.

• Trust: Trust is significantly lower in Catholic societies than in Protestant ones.

• Corruption: Corruption is significantly higher in Catholic societies than in Protestant ones.

Michael Novak signals a key reform goal for Catholicism: a wholehearted commitment to market economics, coupled, of course, with democratic politics. Catholic doctrinal ambivalence about economics may be in part responsible for Latin America’s dalliance with socialism/statism, the related chimera of dependency theory, and Marxist-Leninist-inspired Liberation Theology. Some Church leaders have advocated “Third Way” solutions to poverty and social injustice, presumably with the Nordic countries in mind. But the advanced Nordic welfare programs have been made possible by their essentially capitalist economies, which have produced high levels of prosperity, so the Third Way is another chimera.

Another key reform goal concerns ethical standards in Catholic countries. I believe that there is truth in Weber’s contrast of “a life of good deeds” Protestantism with the “very human” Catholic cycle of sin/confession/absolution/renewed sin. The more flexible Catholic ethical code contributes to shorter radiuses of identification, lower levels of trust, and higher levels of corruption in Catholic countries. (A particularly egregious example of the latter is Nicaragua’s Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who became embroiled in the corruption case of former President Alemán—on Alemán’s side.)

The flexible ethical code probably also contributes to high levels of crime exemplified by the disconcertingly common incidence of kidnappings in Latin America today. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) data on homicides show ten Latin American countries among the twenty highest homicide rates in the world in the period 2000-2004. Colombia was at the bottom of the 121-country listing.25

To be sure, the Church’s influence, at least in Europe and Latin America, is not what it once was. The proportion of practicing Catholics has declined precipitously—a similar trend has occurred in the mainline Protestant denominations—and many tens of millions of Latin American Catholics have converted to Protestantism. But the Church retains substantial influence, and through reform of its economic doctrine and a more aggressive stance on issues of morality and ethics, it could make a critical contribution to modifications in traditional values that would enhance the chances for greater progress in Catholic countries. Reform could also arrest and possibly even reverse the drift away from Catholicism in Latin America.

Urgently needed: An end to celibacy

The Catholic Church’s sex scandal has become a pandemic, as inevitably it would. Why? Because the Church’s celibacy policy flies in the face of human nature and human need. Moreover, there is no solid scripturally based reason for it—the policy took hold over the years in part because of the inheritance problems posed by the children of popes, bishops, and lesser priests.

As late as the mid-fifteenth century, a pope (Felix V) fathered and recognized a child. Eleven popes during the period from the fourth through the eleventh century were sons of popes or other clergy. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, six popes fathered illegitimate children. But sex in the church did not end then.

I recently met a woman who had worked for a Catholic educational institution for several years. She judged that about one-third of the priests were homosexuals and had consensual gay relationships; one-third were heterosexual and had consensual relationships with women; and the final third lived, ostensibly at least, celibate lives. I said that I assumed that the third category masturbated, to which she replied, “Of course.”

I must state the obvious: This is a very narrow sample for reaching broad conclusions. But whether the proportions are equally one-third, or 20-40-40 or 40-40-20 or 40-20-40—or any other numbers that leave a measurable percentage in each of the three groups—the overarching conclusion still holds: the celibacy policy flies in the face of human nature and human need.

Surely a disproportionate number of homosexuals is drawn to the priestly vocation, importantly because of its maleness. And clearly, the abuse of boys is more the result of homosexuality than of pedophilia. If it were the latter, then girls and boys would be equally victimized. Moreover, the vast majority of victims have been adolescents, not pre-puberty children.

The pandemic first came to light in 2002 in the United States, in the Boston Archdiocese. Cardinal Bernard Law bore the brunt of the intense criticism, which ultimately led to his reassignment to the Vatican. I remember thinking at the time how the priestly culture must have sympathized with the perpetrators. After all, virtually all had to grapple with sexual pressures and find release in some form or other.

It is noteworthy that the pandemic had surfaced only in the advanced democracies until recent years. But those of us who have lived in the Third World are aware that it is rife, for example, in Latin America, where many priests are widely believed to have live-in women. In Latin America, one hears less of homosexual activity among priests, perhaps because having a live-in woman is relatively common.

More recently, and particularly in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, numerous cases have made the headlines.26

Nuns: victims, and victimizers

Very little attention has been paid to the Catholic female clergy––the nuns. However, it is clear that they have frequently been abused sexually by priests. Nuns have also engaged in abuse:

Rape and sexual molestation were “endemic” in Irish Catholic church-run industrial schools and orphanages, a report revealed today [May 20, 2009]. The nine-year investigation found that Catholic priests and nuns for decades terrorised thousands of boys and girls in the Irish Republic, while government inspectors failed to stop the chronic beatings, rape and humiliation.27

The Catholic Church in Kerala, India, which has barely recovered from the Sister Abhaya murder case, allegedly murdered by two priests and a nun, finds itself in another controversy. 52-year-old Sister Jesme, a former nun from Kerala, has blown the whistle on the alleged sexual abuse that nuns have to face in convents. Sister Jesme has written a book that talks about the sexual harassment that she faced in the convent at the hands of both priests and nuns.28

Following recent reports about sexual abuse of children by Dutch priests, it now appears that some nuns also took advantage of their charges. Tuesday’s edition of newspaper De Telegraaf contains the story of Herman Harends, who says he was abused by nuns at a Roman Catholic boarding school he attended in the 1950s.

Radio Netherlands Worldwide and newspaper NRC Handelsblad published their report on sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic church two weeks ago. Since then,more and people have come forward, saying they, too, were childhood victims.

Mr Harends and his two brothers attended a boarding school in the southern Dutch town of Tegelen.?“I have not spoken out before because it is a hard claim to substantiate,” he explains. “I’m not looking for atonement or apologies; most of the nuns have died.”?

So, nuns are, after all, human beings like the rest of us, with desires and needs.

* * * * *

The aura of power and respectability that attaches to priests and nuns leaves them largely invulnerable to criticism, not to mention legal action, in many poor countries. It is unlikely that any poor, unconnected Catholic will seek legal remedies for clergy sexual abuse. And even if someone did summon the courage to report abuse to the authorities, the judicial systems are so weak and the influence of the church so strong in many and perhaps most Third World predominantly Catholic countries that the plaintiff would run the risk of being laughed out of court.

In the toll of the Vatican celibacy policy, one must also count those priests and nuns who have left their orders, many of whom have subsequently married. In my years with USAID in Latin America, I encountered several priests who left the priesthood to marry, and who continue their work in development as lay professionals.

I have to conclude that the policy of celibacy has been a costly, if predictable, failure. It should be rescinded.29


1. Op.cit., 182

2. Excerpted from a speech made in the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences of Buenos Aires.


4. The Latin Americans: Their Love-Hate Relationship with the United States, p. 67.

5. Magnus Blomström and Patricio Meller, eds., Diverging Paths (Washington, D.C: Inter-American Development Bank, 1991).

6. For an explanation of Costa Rica’s democratic evolution see Lawrence E. Harrison, Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind—The Latin American Case (Lanham, Maryland, and London: The Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, and University Press of America, 1985), Chapter 3.

7. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (London: David Campbell Publishers/Everyman’s Library, 1994), p.320

8. Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

9. Ellsworth Huntington, Civilization and Climate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1915). For a more recent argument on the impact of climate on culture, see Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture: A World View (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

10. Keith Rosenn, “Federalism in the Americas in Comparative Perspective,” Inter-American Law Review, Fall 1994, Vol. 26, No. 1.

11. Ibid., Chapter 18.

12. Democracy in America, p. 300. Tocqueville also concludes, presciently, that secularization of Catholic societies will make them more susceptible to democracy (p. 301).

13. Ibid., pp. 322-23.

14. Ibid., p. 299.

15. Ibid.,p.320

16. Ibid., pp. 231-32.

17. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , p. 117.

18. Rosenn told me the anecdote in an October 1995 conversation in his office.

19. David Martin, “Evangelical Expansion and ‘Progressive Values’ in the Developing World,” Vol. I collection of essays, pp. 2-3.

20. Ibid., p. 11.

21. Democracy in America, pp. 300-301

22. “Contradictions,” The Economist, 12 April 2003, p. 48.

23. “Spain Is Seeking to Integrate Growing Muslim Population,” New York Times, 24 October 2004,





28. sister-jesme/


About the author

Lawrence E. Harrison was Senior Research Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer (2002-2013) at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, where he also directed the Cultural Change Institute. He is the author of Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind; Who Prospers?; The Pan-American Dream; The Central Liberal Truth; and Jews, Confucians, and Protestants: Cultural Capital and the End of Multiculturalism, in which this article appears as Chapter 9. Harrison was co-editor, with Samuel Huntington, of Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. Between 1965 and 1981, he directed USAID missions in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Haiti, and Nicaragua. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Policy, and The National Interest.