Stalin famously said of the Church, “The Pope! How many divisions has he?” Less well known is Churchill’s response that Stalin “might have mentioned a number of legions not always visible on parade”. Indeed, the reach and influence of the Church are not easily described by statistics alone, yet the raw statistics are staggering enough.

The Church operates more than 140,000 schools, 10,000 orphanages, 5,000 hospitals and some 16,000 other health clinics. Caritas, the umbrella organisation for Catholic aid agencies, estimates that spending by its affiliates totals between £2 billion and £4 billion, making it one of the biggest aid agencies in the world.

Even these numbers only tell half the tale. Caritas does not include development spending by a host of religious orders and other Catholic charities, while most of the 200,000 Catholic parishes around the world operate their own small-scale charitable projects which are never picked up in official figures. Establishing like-for-like comparisons is hard, but there can be little doubt that in pretty much every field of social action, from education to health to social care, the Church is the largest and most significant non-state organisation in the world.

A sceptic might point out that that influence can be both positive and negative. So, for example, it might be queried whether the Church’s work in education or health would be more effective if control was switched to the state. In some ways, this is the wrong question – in much of the developing world, if the Church was not involved, the services would not be provided at all. But there is a good deal of research which has attempted to compare the performance of Catholic provision of education or health with that of other providers and, in general, Catholic institutions come out rather well.

The health analyst Kenneth White, of Virginia Commonwealth University, found Catholic hospitals in the US to be on average more efficient than equivalent secular hospitals. This was a particularly remarkable finding given that he also discovered evidence that Catholic hospitals, reflecting their mission to reach out to disadvantaged communities, were providing more compassionate care and stigmatised services (to groups that often face discrimination) than other providers.

In Africa, a recent research review found not only that maternal care at Church-run mission hospitals was of the same or better quality than at public facilities, but that Church hospitals were also more likely to offer services accessible to the poor.

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