South Africa

Op-Ed: The shaping of South African Catholicism – 200 years

By Anthony Egan 22 August 2017

The Catholic Church in South Africa, for better and worse, is an institution that is both thoroughly South African – mirroring the nation’s chequered past, uneasy present and uncertain future – yet also part of a global institution that has undergone (and continues to undergo) complex shifts in its thinking, demography and activity. The “global” has impacted and still impacts the “local”: sometimes the local church has had an impact on the universal church. So, how did this all start? In a series of articles I shall look at a number of key themes: colonialism, racism, human rights, education, healthcare, intellectual activity and ecumenism. By ANTHONY EGAN.

In 2018 the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the 200th anniversary of its official foundation in South Africa. As such it has participated – acted and been acted upon – in two centuries of our history, from the colonial to what we might probably call the post-colonial period. It has played a major role in primary and secondary education through elite colleges and mission schools, working within ‘Bantu Education’ while trying (ultimately successfully) to subvert it. It has made a significant contribution to health care from mission hospitals to antiretroviral drug roll-outs, engaging in the process in the development – and controversies – of medicine and public health. Catholic scholars and public intellectuals have engaged with fellow South Africans on every manner of issue – from philosophy, theology, history and literature to areas as varied as Jan Smuts’ theory of holism and the politics of race, revolution and reconciliation.

Inevitably too, and perhaps most importantly, the church has, alone and in co-operation with other churches, faith communities and civil society, been a voice for justice, democracy and human rights. It has also at times lived comfortably within colonial, segregationist, apartheid and democratic ideologies, turning a blind eye to injustice. Indeed it might more rightly be suggested that it often found itself on both sides of the divide because of its demographics – increasingly a mirror of South African society.

Before we embark on our historical journey we need to reflect on how the Catholic Church in South Africa came to be what it is today. The legal entity we call the South African Catholic Church falls under the jurisdiction of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, an association of bishops established in 1951 serving in South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland. For a number of decades it also included bishops in Lesotho and Namibia. In the 19th Century – before such states existed – the bishops served territories as far afield as present-day Zimbabwe: the whole of British southern Africa and the Boer Republics. At its “birth” in 1818 this whole territory was actually under a ‘mega-diocese’ (then called a vicariate) of Mauritius.

Why Mauritius? And why was Catholicism only established in ‘South Africa’ in 1818 – in fact, more accurately 1837?

Four years before the Dutch colonised the Cape in 1652, the Thirty Years War in Europe was ended by the Treaty of Westphalia. Since religion had been a key element in this war – between Catholic and Protestant states – one of the key points of the Treaty was the principle of cuius regio, eius religio: that the religion of the ruler would be the official religion of the state. Whatever toleration of religion existed in any state was at the whim of the ruler.

About the same time the United Provinces of the Netherlands was finally established after a long war of liberation fought against Catholic Spain. Though the new Netherlands was religiously mixed and relatively tolerant, this tolerance did not extend to its great mercantile enterprise, the Dutch East India Company – or to the territories it ruled on behalf of the Netherlands overseas. The DEIC was strongly Protestant, Calvinist, in belief and made it policy that Catholicism in its territories was prohibited. No Catholic Churches could be built, nor could priests or nuns live and minister, even informally. This policy was ruthlessly enforced at the Cape until 1804, even after it became part of the Dutch empire itself, so much so that even shipwrecked priests or bishops temporarily at the Cape were forbidden to function. This strongly anti-Catholic line was enhanced at the Cape by the arrival and integration of French Huguenots (Protestants) fleeing from persecution in Catholic France.

Photo: Father Tachard SJ.

A measure of the degree to which this was enforced is illustrated by an account of a visit to the Cape of French scientists and diplomats bound for Siam (now Thailand) in South-east Asia. One of the scientists, the Jesuit astronomer-priest Guy Tachard recounts how on their arrival at the Cape on May 22nd 1685, to acquire stores for the second half of their journey, their party was warmly welcomed by the Governor, Simon van der Stel, and his committee. Over the next few days, the Dutch took him and his colleagues on a tour of the colony. They showed them wildlife, took them to the top of Table Mountain, providing them with a small makeshift observatory to study the stars. Since Tachard and his party were laden with the most advanced scientific equipment of the time – as befitting an expedition funded by King Louis XIV – they used part of the time to calculate the longitude of Cape Town.

But one thing they were absolutely forbidden to do: celebrate the Eucharist or engage in any public ministry to what turned out to be a significant minority of Catholics in Cape Town. Since their ships were effectively French territory they could attend to services on board, but no citizen at the Cape was allowed to be present.

However much this offended the religious sensibilities of Tachard and his fellow priests, they apparently kept to the bargain. They were after all diplomats as well as clergy who thoroughly understood the implications of Westphalia and the risk of creating a diplomatic incident.

Protestant Christianity (and later Islam) thus had a religious monopoly, and significant religious head start, at the Cape for roughly 150 years. Colonists worshipped in Protestant, mainly Dutch Reformed churches. Protestant churches started mission work among the KhoiKhoi and Xhosa they encountered. After the British permanently annexed the Cape in 1806, Anglicans and Methodists entered both the ‘colonial’ and ‘mission’ fields.

Catholicism had a brief look-in for two years, between 1804 and 1806, during the era of the Batavian Republic in the Netherlands. Inspired by Enlightenment ideas of religious freedom, the Commissioner General of the Cape, De Mist, allowed three Catholic priests (Lansink, Nelissen and Prinsen) to minister as military chaplains to the Dutch garrison. Services were held in a room at the Castle in Cape Town – in effect the first Catholic chapel, however improvised it was.

This concession was swept away again after the second British occupation in 1806. The commander of the occupying forces, Sir David Baird, a Scottish Presbyterian, sent the chaplains packing together with the Dutch troops. Baird, who was generally generous, possibly did this to appease Dutch Calvinists.

Once the territory was confirmed as British by the treaty of 1814 that ended the Napoleonic Wars in Europe (barring 1815’s battle of Waterloo, of course), the Vatican tried to established a Cape Vicariate (a territory under a bishop that in due time would become a diocese). Edward Bede Slater, a Benedictine monk, was made its Vicar Apostolic in February 1818. Slater, who died in 1832, was forbidden by London to live at the Cape. Rome then extended his territory to Mauritius and Madagascar. Based on Mauritius, he only visited Cape Town once: for a few weeks in 1820 en route to Mauritius. He left behind a certain Father Scully, an Irishman, to set up a small chapel in Harrington Street, Cape Town.

Started in October 1822, the chapel was badly built – it was washed away during torrential storms that hit Cape Town in 1837. From accounts we have, the chaotic construction was a mirror of the conflicts Scully faced with his congregation, most of whom were relatively unchurched and fractious. Lawsuits over the church and disputes over who owned it must have worn Scully down. He left the Cape in July 1824. Over the next decade a handful of priests – English, Irish and Dutch, plus one Spaniard – engaged in itinerant ministry in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage and Grahamstown. Once again their ministry was confined to Catholic colonists and soldiers.

By the 1830s the political and religious climate in Europe, especially Britain, was changing. The complex post-Reformation situation of the Catholic Church in Britain was eased. Greater toleration of the Catholic Church in Britain had a knock-on effect in the colonies. By 1837 Britain was willing to allow a resident Vicar Apostolic at the Cape. The man chosen by Rome for the job was Patrick Raymund Griffith, an Irish priest of the Dominican Order.

It was an onerous task. The territory of the Vicariate – now split off from Mauritius and Madagascar – stretched west to east from Cape Town to Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), and northwards (in theory) as far as present day Zimbabwe. Covering this vast area Griffith had a handful of priests at first. Even as the number of clergy from Europe increased it was never enough to go around. For this reason, his focus was initially on ministry to Catholic colonists. This was partly a result of a “five mile rule” restricting the creation of new mission stations within five miles of existing ones. Given that much of the Colony had already been “colonised” by Protestant missionary societies there was limited room for him to manoeuvre. Even if he’d had enough clergy.

The sheer problem of geography rather than a sudden increase in Catholics – whether among colonists or from African missions – led Griffith to petition Rome to split his territory into two vicariates in 1846. As vicar apostolic, the bishop was supposed to visit Catholics under his charge regularly. Distances made it impossible. Moreover the socio-economic conditions of east and west were dramatically different. The western area included the growing city of Cape Town, the wine lands and farms of the present-day Western Cape; the east was a frontier zone of cattle farming and periodic wars over land and cattle between settlers and the Xhosa.

On July 30th 1847 Pope Pius IX created the Eastern Vicariate. Aidan Devereux, Griffith’s assistant, was ordained as bishop and Vicar Apostolic, setting up his base of operations initially in Grahamstown. Devereux, realising that his territory was itself unmanageable – in effect it stretched as far as the Portuguese colony in the east – petitioned the Pope in 1849 to set up another vicariate in Natal. This territory, established in its own right in 1850, would span not only the province later called KwaZulu Natal but also the then Boer Republics (Orange Free State and Zuid Afrikaansche Republic/Transvaal), Basutoland and later extend into the eastern parts of the Northern Cape around Kimberley.

Devereux also acknowledged that for the Church to grow missionary religious orders were essential. He approached initially the Jesuits and the Congregation of the Holy Ghost (also known as Spiritans), both of whom were unable at the time to send men to southern Africa. His luck changed when the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), a French congregation founded at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, agreed to come to Natal. He also encouraged congregations of religious sisters to come to South Africa to establish schools in particular. Communities from Germany, Ireland and France responded to his invitation and that of his successors: Dominicans, Assumptionists, Holy Cross and Sisters of Notre Dame, Franciscans and later Carmelites. Later congregations of teaching brothers – Christian Brothers, Marists and De La Salle – would add to what would become a major work of the Church in South Africa: primary and secondary education.

Photo: Priests and bishops who were involved in founding the Southern Cross in 1919/20.

The Oblates, already established in France and Canada, chose to give up a mission to Algeria to come to South Africa. It would prove to be a definitive decision for them – and for the Catholic Church in South Africa. From a fairly small contingent starting in Durban and Pietermaritzburg (where Vicar Apostolic bishop Jean Francois Allard was based), the OMI presence in the country would create one of the largest parts of the congregation anywhere in the world. Their influence would spread from Natal westwards and northwards almost as far as present-day Zimbabwe. They virtually established Catholicism in present-day Lesotho, provided the backbone of the Church in the Northern Cape (shared in its western parts with the Oblates of St Francis De Sales), the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

Colonial politics inevitably influenced the expansion of the Catholic Church in “South Africa”. In British-controlled territories after the 1830s, the Church was generally tolerated and the nationalities of priests – and increasingly congregations of religious sisters and nuns – did not matter much. Given the mixed colonial demographic, it was generally a good idea to have British or Irish clergy, though Germans, Flemish, French or Dutch missionaries were also welcome. Among the latter, most spoke passable to good English, were useful even communicating with non-English colonists – and worship at the time (until 1965 in fact) was conducted in Latin anyway.

In the Boer Republics, however, the non-English speakers were in fact essential. Prohibitions on Catholicism trekked with the Boers into the hinterland with varying degrees of intensity. Priests from England or Ireland were seen not only as Roomse Gevaar but even perhaps as British spies. The bishops of both the eastern and western vicariates realised that non-English speaking clergy might have an easier time breaking through the religious and political barrier.

A Flemish priest, Father Hoendervangers, was sent to Bloemfontein to minister to Catholics in the Orange Free State, many of them British troops stationed there during a British occupation. Hoendervangers was respected by Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and the idea – if not always the practice – of religious toleration grew in the Free State, continuing after the re-establishment of a Boer Republic.

The Transvaal Republic held on longer to its prohibition of Catholicism until, as part of an economic treaty it struck between itself and Portugal (in effect giving the Republic a trade route to the sea that did not rely on going through British territory), it adopted a policy of religious toleration. The establishment of a convent school in Potchefstroom by Dominican Sisters – at one point the only school in the Republic – mirrors this development. Deep unease with the Roomse Gevaar was moderated by acknowledging the usefulness of such an establishment: some burghers sent their children to the school; they came back still good Calvinists and better educated.

By the turn of the century, the Catholic Church in South Africa was growing. It had also started to expand beyond serving colonists and was evangelising among African communities. One of the key moments in this transition came about almost by accident.

James David Ricards, bishop of the Eastern Vicariate from 1871 to 1891, was one of the most energetic bishops of the period. A writer and scholar as well as a pastor, he strongly believed like Devereux in the need for religious orders to build the local church. Apart from bringing in such congregations to run schools for boys and girls – the Jesuits to St Aidans College for boys, the Assumption Sisters to the girls’ convent, both in Grahamstown – he believed that the presence of contemplative orders inspired Catholics to greater holiness and provided an example that might evangelise non-Catholics.

In the Catholic Church, contemplative orders of men and women do not engage in pastoral work. They do not teach in schools, run hospitals, lecture in seminaries, let alone establish institutes promoting social development or justice. They live together, pray together, and do work together such as farming to support themselves. More often than not this is done partly or fully in silence. Such an order is the Trappists, a network of monastery communities that was historically known for its austerity – and silence.

Bishop Ricards, after much lobbying in Europe among Abbots of the Trappists, recruited a group of them – mostly Germans, Austrians, Czechs and Croatians, some of them ex-soldiers, many from a farming background – to come to South Africa to set up a new monastery at Dunbrody on the Sundays River near Port Elizabeth. The community under its Abbot, Franz Pfanner, stayed there from 1880 to 1882, when it moved to land near to Pinetown, outside Durban, Natal. The Jesuits took over Dunbrody, making it the base for the Society’s new “Zambesia Mission”, which looped past the Boer Republics into present-day Zimbabwe and northwards to Zambia.

Photo: Mariannhill Monastery, KwaZulu-Natal.

In Natal the Trappists founded the monastery of Mariannhill, but soon Abbot Pfanner concluded that their contemplative life needed to be modified by extensive mission work among the Zulu people. From the monastery he and his congregation established a network of mission stations and schools. The Trappists, together with the Congregation of the Precious Blood, were in a few decades working very effectively throughout southern Natal and the Transkei.

While this grew the Church in South Africa, particularly among Africans, it was not without difficulties. It flew in the face of the Trappist principle of silence, dividing the Trappist Order both at Mariannhill and worldwide. Though by 1900 Mariannhill had grown so big that it was largest Catholic monastery of any order in the world, the Trappist order decided that it could no longer remain within its fold: Pfanner was ousted as abbot and the monastery was expelled from the Trappist community. It was reconstituted as the Congregation of Missionaries of Mariannhill (CMM) in 1909.

Given its extensive work among the Zulu and Xhosa, it is worth considering here how the CMM reflected the Church’s attitude to race. In many respects the CMM clergy were a mirror of the Church’s complex attitude to Africans – and globally to indigenous peoples – in an age before it recognised the importance of cultural diversity. At Mariannhill and elsewhere, Catholicism came as a package: Christianity plus European culture. Though the universalism implicit in Catholicism suggested “fraternity” in the faith, and many missionaries produced grammars and ethnologies of local peoples, European racial views intruded as well. At best, and in the missionary work of the CMMs and OMIs (like many of their Protestant counterparts) one saw the best of intentions, the result was paternalism.

This had uneasy consequences for the Church. Local African vocations to the priesthood and religious life were mostly discouraged. The careers in ministry of the first few African priests (ordained in the 1890s) proved disastrous. Most women religious created separate congregations for African sisters. African Catholic laypeople were largely a silent, if not silenced, group – though they were by 1950 the majority of the Church.

Although many of the earliest churches and schools were not segregated in the 19th Century, by the time the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference was established in 1951 – the rapidly-expanded number of vicariates now dioceses, their vicars apostolic now bishops and archbishops – de facto segregation had occurred. In a local Church still plagued by the ghost of prohibition, consolidated by the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the victorious National Party in 1948, and caught in an international Catholic fear of Communism, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church were confronted with tough choices as they faced the apartheid era. That they rose on many occasions to the challenge courageously, often at the cost of division within the Church, was both the result of seismic shifts within global Catholicism in the second half of the 20th Century and the courage of many South African Catholics – clergy and religious, black and white. DM

Main photo: St Mary’s Cathedral – the so-called “Mother Church” in Cape Town in 1908.

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