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Op-Ed: Race and Catholicism in South Africa

South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Race and Catholicism in South Africa

Framed by the important 1957 Statement on Apartheid of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, this article examines race and racism in the church. Having teased out the meaning of race and racism, I document the struggle of the Catholic church to deal with conscious and unconscious racism in its 19th and 20th Century history. By ANTHONY EGAN.

The 1957 Statement on Apartheid of the then 10-year-old Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) has been hailed – by Catholic and non-Catholic scholars alike – as the first statement by any church institution in South Africa to theologically condemn racism and apartheid. The emphasis on theological is important: it dived into Christian tradition for its justification and applied theology to the political crises of South Africa in the 1950s. It did not simply condemn an action of the state but the ideological foundations of apartheid itself.

On apartheid:

White supremacy is an absolute. It overrides justice. It transcends the teaching of Christ. It is a purpose dwarfing every other purpose, an end justifying any means… [The logic of separate development in the name of people pursuing their own distinctive social and cultural evolution] sounds plausible as long as we overlook an important qualification, namely, that separate development is subordinate to white supremacy. The white man [sic] makes himself the agent of God’s will and the interpreter of His providence in assigning the range and determining the bounds of non-white development.”

This, the SACBC concludes, is blasphemy because there is “in each human person, a dignity inseparably connected with his quality of rational and free being”. The fundamental insight distilled from centuries of thought is that humanity as a species, not just Christian humanity or Catholic humanity but all humanity, is imago Dei: literally the image and likeness of God. To discriminate on the grounds of race is to deny this inherent imago Dei. Thus apartheid is a fundamental evil, an intrinsic evil.

However flawed parts of it are (as we shall see below), this proclamation of the SACBC set the church as institution firmly in opposition to apartheid. It was not (as a future article in this series will show) the first expression of official opposition, but it was for its time the strongest and a pointer to what would be a consistent and systematic challenge to the state until 1994.

Having said that, I must warn readers in advance. This essay will present a less than pretty picture of the Catholic church and race in South Africa. Despite the clear and courageous 1957 statement and similar texts before and after it by the SACBC, there existed – and arguably still exists – a mindset that lends itself unconsciously to racism in different forms in the South African church. I have already alluded to the ways in which the church was both pragmatically and practically wedded to the colonial system of 19th and 20th Century South Africa. Despite the church’s theological objections to segregation, apartheid and racism, it did not escape from the culture in which it grew and flourished. Like other European-originated churches it was, to coin a phrase of theologian Charles Villa-Vicencio, “trapped in apartheid”. More controversially, I shall suggest that part of this can be ascribed to the church’s own theology and practice, a theology and practice with which it continues to struggle.

Defining racism in church and society

Defining racism briefly (a necessity in an already long article) is a daunting task. Sociologist David Wellman, writing from a North American context, sums it up as:

… not simply about prejudice… Racism can mean culturally sanctioned beliefs which, regardless of the intentions involved, defend the advantages whites have because of the subordinated positions of racial minorities [or majorities in colonial societies like South Africa, I must add]… Thus racism is analysed as culturally acceptable beliefs that defend social advantages that are based on race… a defence of racial privilege.”

To this I would add James Blaut’s theory of diffusionism: that Europeans had (possibly still have) the assumption that they are the centre of history and culture and that this culture should be spread (diffused) to the non-European Other. “Europe” (including North America) is normative, the template against which other cultures are judged – and usually found wanting.

The advantage of this definition is that it includes not simply prejudice (sometimes based on 19th and 20th centuries racial pseudoscience) but also power, notably economic power. “Europe” (which is shorthand for the Global North) held – and arguably still holds – economic, political and cultural power throughout the period. The underlying values (including Christianity, liberalism and Marxism) that judge, defend or critique the colonial project are, paradoxically, part of the values of “Europe” itself.

Steve Biko observed in 1972 that though Christianity had gone through cultural adaptations in its early history, by the time it got to South Africa “it was made to look fairly rigid”. It helped define the norms of the colonial order and expected indigenous people to “cast away their indigenous clothing, their customs, their beliefs which were all described as being pagan and barbaric”. Knowingly or not it served the colonial project, even when it critiqued its excesses. Though not always overtly racist in practice, its assumptions – built into the very fibre of its theology, even dare I say the positive theology of the 1957 Statement – by privileging the European and “Othering” the African made it an ambiguous discourse that could both support and critique a racist society.

Institutional ambiguity and institutional ‘racism’

For most of its history in South Africa, and to some degree still, the Catholic church’s understanding of race in its own institutions is formed by this ambiguity. It accounts for its complex relationship with racism. The racism of a colonial, then segregated, then apartheid state – and arguably that of living in the present day “post colony” (to use Mbembe’s intentionally ambiguous term) was part of the social glue that held South Africa together. Within this contest some white Catholics have been profoundly and openly racist; others have been radically anti-racist.

There are also suggestions that their faith may at times have made some of them less racist: a survey published in the mid-1970s of white Christians in three churches (Presbyterian, Catholic and Dutch Reformed) showed that the more committed Catholics were to the faith, the less racist they were.

This makes sense. Deeper involvement beyond geographically (and racially) segregated parishes would bring them into church structures and organisations that crossed the racial divide and more reflected the universal nature and vision (theology) of Catholicism.

Even here, however, for much of the time there may still have been an undercurrent of institutional racism operating. I use the term “institutional racism” with caution here, but the history I describe seems so shot through with racial (and ultimately racist) assumptions that I can do no other. In using this term I must issue a firm qualification: as the 1957 Statement on Apartheid eloquently put it, racism is inimical to Catholic theology, to Christianity and to common decency. However, the underlying Eurocentrism of most dogmatic formulations and theological assumptions of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular makes it easy for a non-racial theology to be undermined by cultural presuppositions that generate a disconnect between theory and practice that lead to “racist” practice, however unintended.

The most blatant disconnect between church theory and practice can be found in the way the church dealt with African vocations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was very difficult for African men to seek ordination in the church, or for African women to join sisters’ congregations. This was not a uniquely South African phenomenon. For centuries the Catholic church was wary of ordaining “native clergy” in countries as varied as Brazil, Peru, Congo and the Philippines, believing that the “natives” were physically incapable of maintaining church disciplines such as celibacy. Many religious orders in the Philippines, for example, only started to admit “natives” in the early 20th century. And clear social and economic class distinctions between foreign and local clergy existed in the Philippines until the end of the 19th century.

Though not to exonerate the local South African hierarchy and religious orders, it shows that problems existed within the way the church was governed at the time, despite commitment from Rome to indigenous clergy from at least 1920 onwards. The encyclical Maximum Illud of Pope Benedict XV explicitly called on the church in “mission lands” to recruit local, indigenous candidates for the priesthood and religious life. A series of articles in Catholic publications like the South African Catholic Magazine suggest that white Catholics in general, and clergy in particular, while accepting the Pope’s message, believed that adopting Benedict’s exhortation would be quite challenging.

Challenging, at very least, to the status quo and to patterns of existing practice, one might add.

In the case of religious congregations of women, one finds a succession of “solutions” tried by German, Irish or French sisters from the 19th Century onwards. One model was to create “local” congregations, copies of the European original under the leadership (i.e. Provincial Superior and Novice Mistress) of sisters from the founding order. Another model was the creation of “diocesan congregations” – local orders set up under diocesan bishops, run by and imbued with the spirituality of one or other European congregation. The logic of these new congregations was rooted in the assumption that African sisters would find adapting to the institutional cultures of the founding orders difficult to impossible. That the reverse might be in order – European sisters adapting to African culture, or creating a synthesis of cultures – was apparently unthinkable.

By the time many of the missionary sisters’ congregations changed their mind on admitting African women, the damage was done: vocations everywhere were starting to decline. As we shall see when we look later in this series at Catholic education and healthcare, the net effect was the closing down of large parts of a substantial network of schools, hospitals and nursing homes originally founded by missionary sisters. In contrast, many of the new congregations thrived and continue to exist, at least until the 1990s, which was marked by a dramatic drop in all South African vocations.

Among diocesan and religious priests there was by 1920 an already complex story emerging. In 2008, a book, The Other Side of the Story: The Silent Experience of the Black Clergy in the Catholic church in South Africa (1898-1976), was published by historian George Sombe Mukuka. Based on his Masters and Doctoral research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, it recounts the often difficult experiences of the first black Catholic priests in South Africa.

Mukuka’s central thesis is that European missionary control of the Catholic church in the 19th century was informed by notions of European cultural, educational and political supremacy that demanded the acceptance and compliance of local African cultures and especially the nascent African clergy. Those who bucked the system – who challenged this hegemony – got hurt. Mukuka recounts the ongoing struggle by black African priests for full participation in – and ultimately identification with – the Catholic church in which they served. It starts in the then Natal in the area around present-day Mariannhill with four young men who travelled to Rome to train as diocesan priests. Returning with doctorates, they found themselves treated very much as perpetual assistant priests, subject to discrimination in state and, as Mukuka points out, the church. Drawing on very limited documentary evidence – often representing the “other side” of their conflicts – and on interviews (many of which are grassroots recollections of what might be called “folk memory”), the author tells of their conflicts with religious authorities and their ultimate marginalisation.

Father Edward Kece Mnganga (1872-1945), ordained in 1898, was placed as an assistant to Mariannhill priest A T (David) Bryant, an eminent ethnographer, historian and Zulu linguist. Initially doing very well – popular in the parish and developing a successful mission school – Mnganga began to feel that Bryant was undermining his work. Whenever he was away, for example, Bryant would – Mnganga argued – expel his most promising students. Confrontation ensued and Bryant and Mnganga apparently came to blows. Bryant then accused Mnganga of threatening to kill him, had him declared insane and shipped off to a mental asylum in Pietermaritzburg, where Mnganga remained for 17 years.

For Father Alois Majonga Mncadi (1877-1933), ordained in 1903, the issue with his superiors was that he was unwilling to live alone. He wanted family members to live with him and – to make matters worse – he bought a farm for himself, which his bishop ruled was against canon law prohibitions on priests’ trading. Similar problems arose between Fathers Andreas Mdontswa Ngidi (1881-1951) and Julius uMkomazi Mbhele (1879-1956). Ngidi was also accused of being a radical African nationalist and complained bitterly that his superiors stole his writings and tried to obstruct his pastoral work when it entailed what we would today call development work among the Zulu people. Mbhele, too, clashed with his superiors over pastoral work, his refusal to sell his farm, and was suspended for a while after allegations that a divorced woman was living on his farm.

In the 1920s, the farm-owning priests brought their complaints with their bishops to Bernard Gijlswyk, the Apostolic Delegate of the Holy See to South Africa, arguing that they were not in violation of canon law, since they employed farm managers to run their farms. They also denied the claim that they were disobedient to their bishops and unwilling to be assigned to other parishes. The dispute was never resolved. Despite suspensions and controversies – including accusations (and counter-accusations to their white clergy accusers) of sexual misconduct and drunkenness – they remained priests until their deaths.

Ngidi found an outlet for his development work interests in the Catholic African Union (CAU), a self-help movement started by the liberal Mariannhiller Bernhard Hüss as an alternative to the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), a black trade union perceived by many in the church (wrongly) as dominated by the Communist Party. He and Mbhele were also highly regarded for their work in Zulu linguistics and Bible translation. But, in a church still dominated by foreign missionaries and rooted in European Catholic culture, they were lonely figures.

Apart from these few “turbulent” pioneers, very few black men were recruited to the priesthood. A trickle were recruited by the mid-20th Century into religious orders – but more often than not as brothers. Among many male clerical religious congregations at this time, the vocation of the brother was seen as a kind of spiritual “second prize” for men who were deemed not quite fit for the priestly state. This reflected again the kind of mentality (which was then, as now, contrary to the theology of vocation) we have seen played out above: the African priest as culturally “Other”, possibly unsuited for the Catholic clerical life.

Well into the 20th Century, black clergy still struggled to fit into the Catholic church. The first African bishop in South Africa, Bonaventure Dlamini of the diocese of Umzimkulu (which he served from 1954-1968), had less confrontation in his life than the first four priests mentioned above, but no fewer problems. Once the diocese he would lead was carved out of Mariannhill, most of the missionaries withdrew. Finances were tight and frequently mismanaged – in fairness, Dlamini had not been trained to run diocesan finances. Staffing was difficult and some of his appointments were questioned as nepotism, particularly by white laity deeply hostile to their black bishop.

By the 1960s the training of local African clergy was largely done within South Africa at a number of seminaries – though the seminaries were still segregated until the mid-1970s. Seminarians and some black priests in the 1960s drew strength from the Black Consciousness Movement, formed black solidarity groups and started to openly and vocally challenge the hierarchy about the disparities between black and white clergy. More than that, many argued for a more inculturated church in line with the new ideas that had emerged particularly after Vatican II (1962-1965). Many still felt subordinated – in diocese or religious order – to white clergy. Even as seminary formation came to include courses in anthropology, religious inculturation, liberation theology and engagement with racism, the underlying atmosphere of formation remained Eurocentric.

Today, in the post-apartheid era (where local clergy are almost entirely black and the vast majority of missionaries come from other parts of Africa), the church still battles with the question of extent of inculturation, institutional culture, shifting demographics in parishes and church organisations. As Mukuka concluded in 2008: many things have changed, much remains to change.

Back to 1957

Having examined this rather unpleasant aspect of the church’s history, it is worth returning to the 1957 Statement on Apartheid. The excellence of its analysis and critique notwithstanding, the latter parts of the text are deeply flawed. Its prescription in a decade where all progressive nationalist movements were demanding an end to discriminatory laws and universal franchise – either immediately or very soon – is equivocal. The SACBC calls for moderation and gradualism. They say:

A gradual change it must be: gradual, for no other kind of change is compatible with the maintenance of order, without which there is no society, no government, no justice, no common good.”

The key to this is found earlier in the document where they acknowledge black frustration, but warn against anarchy and the possibility of “atheistic communism”, having noted that there were “profound differences between sections of our population which make immediate total integration impossible”. They observe that:

People cannot share fully in the same political and economic institutions until culturally they have a great deal in common. All social change must be gradual if it is not to be disastrous.”

In this the SACBC seems to have placed itself – knowingly or unknowingly – in the camp of opposition parties like the United Party, its later breakaway the Progressive Party, and the Liberal Party, all of whom endorsed gradualism – from very gradual (United Party), through moderately gradual (the Progressives) to rapid gradualism (the Liberals). The Liberals by 1960 would reject gradualism in favour of immediate universal franchise and by its state-enforced demise in 1968 embrace social democracy very close to the African National Congress.

Beneath whatever conscious or unconscious alignment, however, we see the dynamics of race at play in this statement. When the statement speaks of having culture in common, the underlying assumption is that the common culture is western and European (as Biko would later remark). This is not crude racism based on pseudo-science, prejudice or simply a battle for economic supremacy, but formed by religious cultural assumptions that lead nonetheless to a kind of racism.

If one wants further confirmation of this let us look to the final part of the document, an appeal to white Catholics. Given the economic strength of white Catholic laity at the time, the appeal – in effect to work towards greater integration in the church – was courageous, but shows limitations. The SACBC commendably admits that though segregation in principle was rejected in all Catholic institutions, in practice it existed and urged that Catholics “pursue more vigorously the change of heart and practice that the law of Christ demands. We are hypocrites if we condemn apartheid in South African society and condone it in our own institutions [my italics].” The SACBC acknowledged that there were cultural and linguistic differences between black and white Catholics and appeals for working towards unity, concluding, “A different colour can be no reason for separation when culture, custom, social condition and, above all, a common faith and common love of Christ impel us towards unity.”

But what was the underlying culture of Christian unity? Though not stated, because in so many ways it was taken for granted, it was the European culture of mid-1950s Catholicism, which held not only its theology as normative but also its expression – its most obvious feature being its worship conducted in a (dead) European language, Latin, and its theology interpreted through the lens of Greco-Roman philosophy. It would take the church’s renewal at Vatican II (1962-1965) to weaken (but not break) these cultural assumptions that prioritised the European over the cultures of the rest of the world. Worship in vernaculars, theology interpreted through other cultures, the use of African music and dance – all of this would be pursued in the South African church. Up to a point.

Theological orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxis (right actions) had – have – their limits. These limits were and are decided ultimately from Rome and from a European mindset.

As often happens, extreme positions on the Catholic church and race in South Africa – whether that it was (and is) a racist institution, conversely that the church is not now nor ever has been racist – are mistaken. There were many cases where Catholics, whether individuals or institutions, were racist, sometimes horrendously so. To their credit, leaders of the church did their best to stamp out such behaviour and attitudes.

Yet, ironically, the official discourse of the Catholic church was – and is – framed within a dominant European cultural and intellectual framework that most who lead the church took – and take – for granted. Sometimes the subtle and unsubtle merged into hurtful practices at variance with the universal and inclusive vision of Christianity. Even today, within the limits of orthodox Catholic thinking, Eurocentric assumptions still privilege European over non-European culture. If the church is to move beyond racism, Catholics and other Christians need to be conscious of these assumptions and the tensions they create in a pluralistic society and world. The Catholic church’s struggle with racism and apartheid, to be discussed in future articles, was at a certain level “a struggle within”. DM

Photo: Catholic Good Friday church service, 29 March 2013. Photo: GCIS


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