South Africa

Maverick Life, South Africa

Op-Ed: Church, colonialism and mission – two hundred years of Catholicism in South Africa

Op-Ed: Church, colonialism and mission – two hundred years of Catholicism in South Africa

Although the Catholic Church started out in South Africa at a decided disadvantage compared to the other European-founded churches, its status as a latecomer and sometime victim of social discrimination did not significantly alter its subsequent position in – and on – the colonial system. Very quickly it adapted itself to the 19th century southern African culture, in effect creating two “churches” – the church of the colonists and the church of African missions. This split shaped the first 150 years of Catholicism in South Africa and its legacy remains to this day. By ANTHONY EGAN.

It is almost a cliché to say that Christian missions in the 19th century served European colonialism. One does not have to be a Marxist – though it possibly helps – to see the process of evangelisation and conversion of “native” peoples to Christianity as hand in glove with forced conversion to European systems of economy and governance, with colonised peoples (including Christianised ones) living at best ambivalent and usually subordinate positions within the colonial order. Even the most universalist and inclusive visions of missionaries, often proclaiming the equality in principle of all God’s children, were visions – until the mid-20th Century – of an equality rooted in a faith permeated consciously or unconsciously by European cultural assumptions.

At the extreme, missionaries have been seen in South Africa and elsewhere with some justification as the friendly face of the colonial state, the ideology that sapped first peoples of culture and social structures that gave them the space to resist domination and assimilation into the European world system. Within the Christian churches too, the distribution of power within institutions was also heavily weighted towards foreign-born (European) clergy, clergy born of white colonists, and colonial laity, particularly those who controlled church finances.

While there were exceptions in almost every denomination – far-sighted missionaries who saw value in African culture and sought to translate Christianity into these cultures, missionaries who challenged the racist status quo, and even a smattering of far-sighted colonial laity who shared these values – the dominant image for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries in South Africa is of churches who were, as theologian James Cochrane put it, “servants of power”.

Throughout its long global history of mission – before and after its arrival in South Africa – the Catholic Church’s practice expressed this ambivalent position wherever it evangelised. Conversion of first peoples in the Americas, for example, accompanied or sometimes preceded colonial conquest by Spain, Portugal and France. While there were some notable exceptions – priests and theologians like Las Casas, Montesinos and Vitoria defending the human rights of Amerindians, the Jesuit Reductions in Paraguay and northern Argentina, and occasional attempts to inculcate the faith into non-European thought systems – for the most part until the 20th Century, Catholic missionary activity resonated with the critique presented above.

This was itself bolstered up by the centralisation of the Catholic Church after the Reformation and the introduction of a rigidly universal way of proceeding as church. Liturgy and worship (in Latin) and a seminary system for priests based on a single ratio studiorum curriculum of studies (taught in Latin, moreover) made the church the same everywhere. In Catholic countries and colonies church and state worked closely together, with the latter often giving the church extensive privileges and power over areas such as education and healthcare. Where the Catholic Church was a minority in country and colony, such as England and South Africa, the relationship was more strained; the upshot in many cases was that Catholicism was a more closed community with an even stronger sense of being part of a single, universal, centralised institution. But that closedness did not normally translate into opposition to the colonial order.

The colonial church: Compromise and conformity

With its history of being repressed and marginalised in South Africa, it might be assumed that the Catholic Church – once it got established – would have been more critical of colonial power than its Protestant counterparts, more sympathetic to African resistance to colonialism.

This was not the case.

There were, I would argue, a number of reasons for this. First, the experience of suppression had a deep and lasting impact on the Catholic Church in South Africa. Even in the early 19th Century, as prohibitions were lifted, the church was well aware that the territory it was entering retained strong anti-Catholic sentiments. Though, after initial prohibition, the freedom to function was granted in the Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, the residue of anti-Catholicism remained throughout the territory of modern South Africa well into the 20th century. That, and the vulnerability of an overwhelmingly foreign-born clergy to deportation, was even a constraining factor in speaking against apartheid in the minds of bishops (and Vatican officials) until well into the 1960s.

Second, for much of the first 50 years of its existence in South Africa, the Catholic Church’s ministry emphasised Catholic colonists spread very thinly in cities, towns and villages across a vast area of land that had limited means of communication. The tiny number of priests in the country had to cross difficult terrain to reach pockets of Catholics. They travelled by ox-wagon, on horseback and later along the network of railways, stopping off for a day or two in a place to administer sacraments and encourage their flock, before heading out again. Such a “travelling priest” would cover a circuit of thousands of kilometres each year.

In some places colonists built small chapels or churches; in some cases an older priest might settle there and establish a permanent parish. Many other villages served by “travelling priests” would simply borrow a venue – a dining-room in a hotel, a school hall, even in one Free State town the local Masonic Hall – for worship when their priest arrived. The priest would stay with a parishioner or sometimes with a sympathetic citizen. On a number of occasions the host would be a non-Christian. There are accounts of a priest staying with a village doctor, a Jew – who would have sympathised with his Catholic patients and guest because a similar phenomenon of travelling rabbis existed.

While in many places – in towns with Catholic parishes and in areas where there was this ad hoc arrangement – Catholic worship was in theory “open” to all races (though often observing a spatial segregation within the assembly), one should also remember that until the turn of the 20th Century African urbanisation was limited. As segregationist ideology hardened from the late 19th Century onward – reaching its apex/nadir after 1948 – black Catholics were less likely to feel welcome in the “white” urban and suburban parishes. Given the church’s unease in what it perceived to be an anti-Catholic culture and a sometimes unwritten agreement to conform to the norms of the society, in some places satellite worship centres would be created in the African “locations” on the fringes of white towns. These became the nuclei of today’s extensive township parishes.

Since whites entering townships for any reason (apart from police and later, in the 1980s, army) entailed obtaining permits, few ventured there to worship. An interesting exception in the 1970s and 1980s was a small group of Catholic charismatics in Johannesburg, who apparently ignored restrictions and visited black counterparts for “praise and worship” meetings. White clergy assigned to township parishes were confronted with the choice: either commute or live there with permits (thus conforming to apartheid law), or live there illegally.

Finally, one must admit that the church itself often imbibed, consciously or unconsciously, the dominant racial ideology or at very least a pragmatic decision to conform to segregationist laws. This cannot be explained simply by the influence of its initial focus on colonial Catholics. Clergy from Europe brought with them not only the universal values of Catholicism which they would apply without adaptation to Africa. They also were influenced by the intellectual currents of a Europe that was colonising the world: the stark dichotomies of civilisation (which meant almost exclusively European civilisation) versus Barbarism (the non-European/non-white Other), Western enlightenment versus superstition. At its worst this included what today we know as pseudoscientific race theories that questioned whether black people were even human.

Paradoxically, too, the best philosophies of the 19th century – liberty, equality, fraternity, democracy and later socialism – were the last ideas that the Catholic Church adopted. In the century following the French Revolution and Napoleonic era, the rise of liberal democracy and the workers’ movements were anathema to the church, who saw them as anti-clerical (which many were), promoting separation of church and state (which they certainly did) and a threat to faith itself.

Photo: The Catholic Church’s 19th Century unease with the modern state: Germany’s Chancellor Bismarck in a ‘chess game’ with Pope Pius IX.

Only later, as the 20th century began, did Catholicism start to make (often grudging) peace with these progressive forces, constructing through Catholic Social Teaching a series of dialogues with liberal democracy and social democracy. These ideas, pioneered by a handful of clergy like Mariannhill missionary Bernard Huss and later embraced by leaders like Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, forced a church still dominated politically and economically by a white lay minority and a foreign-born missionary majority to finally confront apartheid after 1948. As we shall see in a later article, the acceptance of these ideas at every level of a still white-dominated church was a difficult process. Arguably the process continues.

The ‘missionary’ church: From paternalism to inculturation

Beyond the constraints generated by a shortage of priests, there was also the problem in many parts of the country of a “five mile rule” limiting the establishment of rural mission stations. One could not build a mission within five miles of another. Given the centuries’ head start of other churches in the country, the Catholic Church’s missionary work among Africans was thus limited to areas that had not yet been comprehensively “colonised” by other churches. It took on various shapes and forms.

Religious orders played the greatest role in African missions in South Africa. While some, like the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and Jesuits (SJ) operated in both the colonial towns and rural missions, others – notably the Mariannhill Missionaries (CMM) (emerging from the Trappists) and later the Franciscans (OFM) – concentrated on rural evangelisation. A brief examination of a few of these congregations illustrates this.

Photo: St Eugene de Mazenod, founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate

On their arrival in Natal the Oblates of Mary Immaculate set up their base in Pietermaritzburg, the colony’s capital. Three priests (one a bishop), a deacon and a lay brother constituted this group. As frequently happened in mission territories the superior of the mission, Marie Jean Francois Allard. was made Vicar Apostolic and bishop of the new territory, arriving in 1852. The Vicariate, which later moved its headquarters to Durban, becoming the Archdiocese of Durban in 1951, would be under OMI bishops until the appointment of a Franciscan, Wilfred Napier, in 1992.

Photo: Bl Joseph Gerard OMI, missionary to the Basutho

They found a rough and ready colonial arrangement. Father Murphy, a diocesan priest from the Eastern Cape who had spent time in Natal, had warned that drunkenness and debauchery among the community was common. Civil marriages and concubinage was common, as was marriage between Catholics and non-Catholics, a practice frowned upon by the Church at the time. Bishop Devereux in the Eastern Cape had tried – at a distance – to resolve such issues drawing on the subtleties of canon law (Church law) which recognised the validity of non-Catholic marriage so long as it did not include a formula allowing divorce. Even African customary marriage was recognised, insofar as it did not allow for polygamy.

These challenges, together with rumours that the Portuguese Catholics at Delagoa Bay (now Maputo, Mozambique) had rebelled against the church, made Allard’s early ministry in Natal worrisome. (Moreover, he had been less than keen to go to Natal in the first place). Added to this he had to establish permanent congregations in Pietermaritzburg, Durban and – significantly – Bloemfontein, the latter falling within the Vicariate even though it was in the Republic of the Orange Free State. In the latter, the Norbertine Father Hoendervangers had established a Catholic community. There, and in Fauresmith, Smithfield and Harrismith he’d managed, despite government resistance, to obtain land or promises of land.

Three years after his arrival, Allard started the first mission to Zulus in Natal, sending two of his small band of priests to live in a kraal to learn the language. This had been part of the plan of the Vicariate from before its inception and had been a priority of Eugene de Mazenod, the founder and superior general of the Oblates. But, following a clear pattern elsewhere in South Africa, Allard’s priority was summed up in a letter: “We have to minister to Catholics first.” He was also quite pessimistic about the Zulu mission, seeing them as “uncivilised” (owing in part to their alleged nudity, and berating the colonial government for doing nothing about it!) and having no religion. The latter were common perceptions among Christian missionaries in South Africa, and were further intensified by the current Catholic perception that outside the Catholic Church the chances of salvation were limited to non-existent.

Allard came under heavy criticism from De Mazenod for dragging his feet. This could not have helped Allard, who had an obsessive streak that frequently alienated those around him. He found it difficult to adjust to the pastoral flexibility Rome counselled in mission territories. He had a tendency to mistrust both the British colonial authorities and the Boer government in the Free State, despite reassurances from Devereux that the Brits weren’t all that bad and Hoendervangers’ successful wooing of the Boers. During his 23-year tenure as bishop, conflict with his clergy would lead to a few priests quitting the church. (He would in fact be recalled under a cloud, albeit one deftly handled by his superiors to preserve his dignity).

Although the start was shaky, the Oblate mission in the Vicariate grew steadily. Their work in particular in Basutoland (present-day Lesotho) would net them many converts – and the first southern African candidate for sainthood in Joseph Gerard, a French missionary seen today as the most significant figure in the emergence of Catholicism in the kingdom. As the Oblates moved northwards to the Transvaal and westwards to the Northern Cape diamond fields, other congregations like the Oblates of St Francis de Sales (OSFS) moved from the west coast eastwards into the Kalahari areas.

The OSFS mission in the most inhospitable areas of the Northern Cape worked with the Khoikhoi (then called Hottentots), the Baster peoples and the Batswana. Notable here is how they would build a “cathedral in the desert” at Pella, transporting materials by wagon from the coast.

Even the work among the Zulus in Natal grew, dramatically increasing through the work of the Mariannhill community, both before and after their expulsion from the Trappist order. By the early to mid-20th Century Mariannhill’s mission work extended throughout present-day KwaZulu-Natal and southwards into the Transkei, in some cases deep into the Eastern Vicariate itself. The missionaries made learning Zulu and later Xhosa a priority, some of them – notably Fr David Bryant – becoming key figures in developing standard Zulu grammars. Mission schools were prioritised. This served a dual purpose – education itself and deepening Catholic beliefs among the people.

One should not underestimate the latter point. For the Mariannhillers (and by extension the other men and women religious orders dotted around South Africa in 1900 and afterwards), the first priority was getting the faith established and strong. Second in line was a “civilising mission” that would westernise African peoples. If English Protestant missionaries’ vision was of creating a class of black Englishmen, the Catholic vision was of black Catholic Europeans.

Largely in response to seeing the emergence of African nationalism, a few missionaries like Bernard Huss started to think in terms of a gradual assimilation of an African Catholic elite into the colonial society. But, in terms he expressed that found their way into mainstream missionary correspondence, this was going to be a slow process.

Although the Jesuits had turned down an invitation to work in Natal in the 1850s, by the 1870s a sprinkling of Jesuit works had arisen in the Eastern Cape. In 1875 the Jesuits took on St Aidan’s College, a boarding school for “sons of colonists” created by the Diocese in Grahamstown. The school, which struggled financially from the beginning, was the largest single work of the Jesuits in South Africa for almost 100 years. (It closed in 1973.) Beyond the school the Jesuits served parishes in Graaff-Reinet (where it also had a novitiate to train Jesuit candidates), Cape Town and Transkei. It would also set up a mission for a short time in Vleeschfontein (present-day North West province) as the society moved northwards past the Boer Republics into Southern Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe.

This move was partly the result of very limited access to missions in the Eastern Cape but primarily the result of a plan developed in the 1980s to expand Catholic missions northwards. Obtaining land at Dunbrody on the Sundays River, near Port Elizabeth, from the Trappists, the Jesuits set up a mission farm that also served as a headquarters (seminary and proto-provincialate) for what they called the Zambesi/a Mission. Suffering from severe drought for most of its existence, Dunbrody struggled to maintain its viability – even as the Jesuit presence in Southern Rhodesia thrived. Heavily in debt, it was sold in 1932 following a disastrous legal dispute with the Cape government over underground water rights.

What is most interesting about the Jesuit missionary presence in 19th century South Africa is how it shines a light on the complex coexistence of the colonial and missionary church. Reports in the Zambesi Mission Record, the Jesuits’ in-house magazine of the time, and the publications of St Aidan’s College reveal a general acceptance of colonial society and a rather patronising attitude to African culture. They were glowing in their admiration for Cecil John Rhodes, who though not particularly religious admired the Society of Jesus and gave then land for their missions in Zimbabwe. Moreover, while Jesuits’ attitudes to Protestants on the rural missions were universally hostile, their urban counterparts were more generous. Particularly in Grahamstown, the Jesuits’ attitude to non-Catholics was civil, sometimes even with a hint of warmth.

Another aspect of the Jesuits’ mission work was intellectual. Many of the Jesuit missionaries were accomplished amateur naturalists, who wrote eloquently of geology, flora and fauna they encountered. They were also amateur anthropologists, whose description of African customs – though substantially accurate – were laced with a patronising tone characteristic of many of their professional counterparts of the time, both anthropologists and missionaries (of every denomination). It goes without saying that they were men of their times.

Times change, of course. Although the practices of the segregationist and later apartheid state would successfully maintain the “two Catholicisms” of the 19th century well into the 20th century, the Catholic Church as an institution changed ahead of the state. A renewed missionary effort after the First World War shifted the church’s focus to the development of local clergy, something that had been lacking before particularly in South Africa. By the 1960s too, the Eurocentric assumptions of Catholic belief had also taken a knock. Drawing on ideas previously rejected, notably the Jesuit missions in China’s attempt to interpret and teach Christianity through Confucian philosophy, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) actively promoted the inculturation of religion. In South Africa the church initiated numerous projects in this regard, the most notable being the Lumko Institute in Transkei (later moving to Germiston, near Johannesburg).

Lumko started initially to train clergy in African languages. This expanded into developing African church music and new forms of liturgical celebration, notably the use of traditional dance. A new generation of black South African theologians – inspired by counterparts elsewhere on the continent – started to develop a home-grown African Catholic theology. This project was delayed however by the renewed church engagement in the struggle against apartheid. Many rightly saw that before one could have an African Catholic theology there needed to be liberation from colonialism’s pervasive legacy, apartheid.

It is to the church and race, the church and the struggle against apartheid that I shall turn to in my next articles. DM

Main photo: Catholic Cathedral, Pella, Northern Cape, South Africa (SATOUR)


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