Tuesday, March 03, 2009

When the Church endorses grand theft

As one of my eccentric interests, I like to read about the peculiarities of dictatorships around the world. They are a great lesson in what to watch out for, and how not to run countries, and the stories that come from the excesses are often too ridiculous for fiction.

The two common themes of most dictatorships are theft and murder. Most combine both, it is merely a matter of scale. Some do more murder than theft, Pol Pot and Hitler being good examples of that. However some do more theft than murder.

Dictators take money from citizens through taxation, through appropriation of land, appropriation of businesses, granting privileges and monopolies to their own businesses and raiding aid budgets, as well as sly deals with foreign companies as pay offs to trade with nationalised industries. What they do with that money can defy the imagination.

So what has that got to do with the Vatican? Well the picture above is of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire, with it standing out clearly on Google Earth. It is listed as the largest church in the world by the Guinness Book of Records. It could merely have been a monument to the more thieving and relatively less murdering autocrat Félix Houphouët-Boigny, President of Côte d'Ivoire from 1960 to 1993 when he died, with an estimated personal wealth of over US$7 billion.

The Basilica reflected his mad project in 1983 in shifting the capital from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro. It was a small agricultural town until he had built a series of large buildings and a airport capable of handling Concorde charters. The Basilica cost US$300 million in 1985 values, and took four years to build. Interesting for a country with a per capita GDP (PPP)of US$1,736 per annum, a literacy rate of just over 50%, and the 19th highest infant mortality rate in the world according to the CIA World Factbook. The Basilica is built of imported marble, and sits essentially in the middle of a jungle.

So what, an African dictator wasted money.

Well the Vatican didn't need to consecrate it (French - translated here). To give him his due, Pope John Paul II required that the government promise to build a hospital nearby before he would consecrate it. He laid the founding stone, which lays to this day as all that has been built of the hospital. Not that this would have made it ok - it is grand larceny. This behemoth of a building, is a grotesque palace paid for by thieving the wealth of the country, of people with an average life expectancy of 49 years. For the Vatican to essentially brush that to one side, and claim to be the bastion of morality for the globe is so ludicrously amusing if it weren't ignoring the tragic consequences. Even had the hospital been built, it wouldn't excuse this grand waste.

The Pope's dedication clearly endorses it:

" Par le Chef de l’Etat, cette basilique a été édifiée en hommage à Notre-Dame, en hommage au Christ rédempteur qui appelle tous les hommes à se rassembler dans l’unité de son Corps"

Treating it as if Houphouët-Boigny built it, then says by HIS generosity the social centre is being built next to it:

Et aussi, grâce à la générosité de Monsieur Félix Houphouët-Boigny, un centre social, la Fondation internationale Notre-Dame de la Paix

This is a church that according to Wikipedia:

"the president commissioned a stained glass window of his image to be placed beside a gallery of stained glass of Jesus and the apostles. This image of Félix Houphouët-Boigny depicts him as one of the three Biblical Magi, kneeling as he offers a gift to Jesus"

Imagine what a boost Houphouët-Boigny got by having essentially Vatican endorsement, not only for building the church, but also being a generous guy, with a quasi-religious Biblical significance!

No doubt the Vatican believed the thieving demagogue President when he said it would be a bullwark against Islam and animist religions. After all, that's what's important in the world isn't it? When Time magazine asked the Vatican about the money it said it was the President's money and land and "The size and expense of the building in such a poor country make it a delicate matter. But it is a project close to the President's heart, and he sees it as an experience of faith. We want to respect that."

Now you see what the Roman Catholic Church respects - the thieving of a poor nation by its faithful autocratic Catholic President, and the building of a monument to him with such money. Shame the Pope couldn't have simply consecrated some small modest building instead, as an act of defiance and protest, and asked for the people of
Yamoussoukro to get a reticulated clean water supply and sewage system instead. That would only save lives not souls though.


ZenTiger said...

The Pope certainly got done on this deal. In hindsight, the Hospital should have been built first (or in tandem). Pity the President had to die before he could fulfill his promise.

This is not all so cut and dried though as being a bad thing.

The thought was that such an impressive building could bring in tourists and other buildings would spring up around it, not just the hospital.

It could be a rally point on several levels. Makes a change from all of the humble Churches that people gather in across Africa to seek sanctuary and protection from relentless violence.

The work generated labour and also a sense of pride amongst many of the country's citizens.

However, the fact that no further growth has come from this makes the whole thing very disappointing.

No doubt the Vatican believed the thieving demagogue President when he said it would be a bullwark against Islam and animist religions. After all, that's what's important in the world isn't it?

A bulwark against Islam isn't a bad reason, but you are ignoring the amount of charity work the Catholic Church conducts in Africa, and the amount of their own assets (ie donations, people and time) they provide.

Caritas, the Catholic charity organisation has had a large presence in Cote D'Ivoire for 50 years.

Caritas Côte d’Ivoire promotes and supports programmes addressing, health and HIV/AIDS, education, peace and reconciliation, water, sanitation and the environment, micro-credit and income-generating schemes, care for the elderly, and psychosocial counselling.

Caritas Côte d’Ivoire’s 10 national staff, 500 diocesan staff and 1000 volunteers also work on promoting peace, increasing access to anti-AIDS drugs, ending forced labour of children and building grassroots economic self-sustainability. They help under half a million people.

I take your point though about the Church needing to take a harder line on dealing with such people.

Rather than seeing a small benefit (the hospital) as a positive step forward, perhaps its time to get really tough and accept only complete capitulation/acceptance from these people.

There was a very brave Pope that did this to a Roman Emperor, and chastised him for slaughtering a town of 5,000. Previous Popes had simply been executed when offering such criticism, but this time, it worked and the Emperor entered a monastery to contemplate his evil, and emerged many months later resolved to be more just.

I'd like to see more of that kind of leadership, and not just from the Pope, but our world leaders.

The short term consequences might be a little rough though...

libertyscott said...

Zen- The Pope got done? Yep, oops endorsed a dictator and grand larceny, I really got done. Um I think the people of Côte d'Ivoire are the victims here, with the Vatican cheering it on.

In hindsight? That's like doing a deal with the mafia to do work for them and say "in hindsight I should have asked for money up front". Was the Pope stupid?

Tourists? Yep, notice the grand hotels of Yamoussoukro? The regular flights? Please - it's an outrage and you know it.

Generated labour? Well so would have been building a functioning sewage and clean water supply for the city, and then people could have pride for longer than their 49 year life span.

I'd have thought a better bulwark against Islam would have been had the clearly pro-Catholic regime raised living standards more.

I'm not ignoring what the Church does in Africa, I acknowledge it does a great deal of good (and we'll disagree on the bad, regarding contraception). It doesn't make this right.

Gangsters often help poor people, finance small businesses, employ people, help the elderly, combat (other) crime - doesn't make them moral.

France donates fortunes to Africa, but has been complicit in maintaining murderous kleptocracies in the Central African Republic, DR Congo and the Comoros for access to minerals.

What I'd like is some acknowledgement of guilt and repentance from the Vatican for this, and for this church to no longer be recognised by the Vatican. The people of Côte d'Ivoire couldn't stand up against it, because they lived under autocracy.

It's easy for the church to wage its moral battle against homosexuals, prostitutes, the divorced, masturbators, the wealthy and the like - but when it hasn't the courage or even interest in confronting such grand scale evil, then its claim to have moral authority is greatly eroded.