South Africa

Op-Ed: Developing a voice of resistance – the beginning of the Catholic Church’s opposition to apartheid

By Anthony Egan 11 December 2017

Focusing on the statements of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), this article argues that the official church discourse of resistance to apartheid was cautious – even muted – and drew heavily on the papal public theological discourse of Catholic Social Teaching. The caution and complexity of these statements reflected internal tensions over race, justice and ongoing Catholic unease in an environment hostile to Catholicism. By ANTHONY EGAN SJ.

The discourse the Catholic Church used in early 20th Century South Africa to express concern about political and social question was Catholic Social Teaching. Modern Catholic Social Teaching, although drawing on the church’s moral traditions, is rooted in a series of crises in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, crises that stripped the Papacy of political power, challenged the Church’s claims to represent the poor, and even in the crisis of how Christians understood faith itself.

Modelled and governed from the European Middle Ages along the lines of a feudal monarchy, the rise of liberal democracy was seen by the Catholic Church first as a threat, later as a challenge and – in the wake of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism – finally as the ‘least worst’ option in global society. Though the Church maintained to a significant degree its traditional governance structures internally, it accepted democracy as the better option in the world as a whole. Modern Capitalism, Socialism and the rise of trade unions also destabilised and challenged the Church’s thinking: though both systems had elements resonating with Catholic thinking about economics, at their extremes neither found official favour.

After a period of hostility to these features of modernity, the Church under Pope Leo XIII applied its theology to the new, irreversible social context, setting up in the process a critical (and it hoped constructive) dialogue with society. Termed Catholic Social Teaching (or Thought), Leo and his successors initiated a critical and ever-evolving dialogue with the world. On matters of governance, this meant a growing but not uncritical acceptance of liberal democracy as the better form of government, the defence of property rights balanced against increasingly the rights of workers to a just wage, the defence of human rights against dictatorship and the promotion of human freedom. Underlying all these moral teachings – issued periodically by popes, by bishops’ conferences and occasionally by individual bishops – was an application of key moral principles to changing social contexts. These included: human dignity and solidarity, dignity of work and rights of workers, participatory democracy (including the importance of subsidiarity in government), stewardship of creation and the option for the poor and vulnerable.

In secular terms, one might say that Catholic Social Teaching adopted (and still holds to) a kind of ecologically-conscious social democratic vision not unlike the thinking of philosophers like John Rawls. Within this broad tradition, some individuals gave its tenets different ideological spins: more free market oriented Catholic philosophers stressed more heavily capital and property rights, while liberation theologians emphasised its socialist dimensions.

Above all, at local levels Catholic Social Teaching was applied to specific context. In this and in future articles, I shall illustrate how it was applied by the Church in South Africa.

Photo: Bishop Francis Hennemann, Vicar Apostolic of the Western Vicariate [ie Western Cape], 1933-1950.

Bishop Franz (Francis) Hennemann, a Pallotine priest who was bishop of the then Western Vicariate (centred in Cape Town) was something of a prophet in the 1930s. While many bishops equivocated about segregation and apartheid, Hennemann drew on Catholic Social Teaching to issue a remarkably prescient warning – twice.

On 24 March 1939, he issued a letter to priests in the Vicariate on “the various schemes for what is known as ‘Segregation’”, warning that it might cause “strife and bitterness”. He stressed that human rights were “inherent” in every person and that legislation based solely on race should be “opposed and condemned as unjust”. Christian principles of justice and charity demanded opposition to any laws attempting to restrict opportunities for employment, property ownership, development of abilities and faculties, and insisted that “we consider all men (sic) as our brethren, and treat them with one consideration”.

Responding nine years later (2 September 1948) to the triumph of the National Party and its programme to introduce apartheid, Hennemann reiterated what he’d said with greater vigour and was specific in his condemnation of restrictions and plans of DF Malan’s government, notably restrictions of “non-Europeans” in use of Cape railways and the planned disenfranchisement of coloureds in the Cape Province.

Calling apartheid “noxious, unchristian and destructive”, he denounced in particular its implementation “in the name of Christian civilisation”. Cited by the National Party as a means to counter Communism, he warned that they were equating Christianity with whiteness. Noting:

The truth is, there is no such thing as ‘white civilization’, and there never was. If it is ‘white’ exclusively, it is not Christian, and if it is Christian, it is not ‘white’.”

He warned that apartheid and its “white civilisation” could in fact “open wide the doors of South Africa to the world’s most formidable enemy to-day – Communism.”

Hennemann’s language is significant. He drew on the human rights discourse of Catholic Social Teaching to insist that all South Africans had rights regardless of race, that representation and access to property and personal growth through dignified work was something to be promoted and extended rather than curtailed. His warnings about the promotion of communism by the state’s actions were not simply a reflection of the wider Catholic Church’s global fear of communism but also a recognition that by equating segregation with Christianity and African nationalism with communism, the state was in fact promoting communism among those on the receiving end of segregation.

The latter was a trope found explicitly and implicitly in success South African Catholic political discourse: the more the state reduced freedom for all, the more radical opposition would become.

Written after the 1950 Suppression of Communism Act and during the turbulent period of protests in the 1950s, which started – significantly – with the 1952 Defiance Campaign, the SACBC’s 1952 “Statement on Race Relations” and 1954 “Pastoral Letter” (on mission schools, to be dealt with in a later article) were exercises in cautious criticism. The situational analysis in 1952 stressed historical circumstances that led to apartheid, against a background of human sinfulness, deep division brought about by white prejudice, black resentment and the common liberal trope of the times, that ‘non-Europeans’ were “in various stages of cultural development, of which the majority is still totally unprepared for full participation in social and political life patterned after what are commonly called Western Standards [sic]”. The solution the SACBC envisaged was “prudent and careful planning and in the practice of charity and justice”.

The tone then was cautious, even patronising, a significant step back from Bishop Hennemann’s more forthright statements. Much of the statement is rooted in classical Christian virtues (like justice and charity) mitigated by the virtue of prudence. The latter, clearly echoing Aquinas’ insistence that prudence – careful thinking that balances extremes to attain a good and workable course of action – interprets other virtues, fitted well into the white liberal (and the then Liberal Party) prognosis for the country: gradualism.

Egregious discrimination based on race was unacceptable; summed up in the phrase “(c)harity and justice must supply the driving force, prudence will be the guide”, the statement called for gradual evolution towards full participation for ‘non-Europeans’. The explicitly theological condemnation of apartheid that would appear in 1957 (as I described in a previous article) was absent, or at least made circumspect by the language of prudence.

It was however a first, tentative step in the journey of institutional opposition to apartheid by the Catholic Church in South Africa.

The Freedom Charter 1955

By 1960, the political crisis in South Africa had intensified. The decade of defiance had reached something of a climax: the African National Congress and its allies in the Congress Alliance had produced the Freedom Charter in 1955. It was essentially an alternative Constitution for South Africa, demanding full democratic rights for all citizens plus a more socialist or social democratic economy to redress past inequalities. Though invited to participate, the Catholic Church (together with most other churches and white opposition parties, including the Liberal Party) had made no formal contribution to its drafting. Within a year a bloc within the ANC had broken away to form the Pan Africanist Congress, and the state had intervened by arresting 156 members of the Congress Alliance and charging them with treason. The great Treason Trial would last five years, yielding no convictions, but by the mid-1960s the ANC, the PAC and other allies would be banned.

As the SACBC gathered for its meeting at the end of January 1960, it realised that something stronger needed to be said about the situation. Issued in February 1960, its Pastoral Letter insisted that politics was a religious matter, that it was “subject to the law of God” and that people were justified in struggling for their legitimate rights – peacefully. (The latter point was tested in the decades that followed as the ANC and PAC embarked on armed struggle and the state cracked down on opposition with increased ferocity).

Given that theirs was a dual task – speaking to South African Catholics and to people outside the Church, Christianity or any form of organised religion – the tone of the document took on two aspects. The first underlying theme emphasised theological anthropology, that all humanity was under God’s providence, that all were equal in the sight of God, and that Christian faith was rooted in the command to love. The command to love was not simply reduced to personal relations but to the social and in justice.

This meant that Christian love was expected to embrace “(t)he essential unity of the human race, and the fundamental rights that follow from it…Justice is giving our neighbour what is his (sic) due, love is going beyond that, seeking understanding of one another, rendering aid, tolerating injuries, associating in a spirit of friendship and human solidarity with those with whom our particular circumstances brings us into contact.”

The other theme, perhaps with an eye to a wider, secular community, was human rights. While couched in theological terms, the SACBC outlined its commitment to human rights for all. These rights included rights to life, religious freedom, marriage and family life (implicitly attacking the Mixed Marriages Act), the right to work and access to material goods. The SACBC explicitly condemned segregation, the migrant labour system (as an enemy of family life) and proposed a “franchise based on justice”. The latter insisted that “colour should not be the criterion; the qualification (to vote) should be the ability to exercise the vote in a truly responsible manner”. How this qualification would work is not examined in detail but, if one follows the thought patterns of earlier SACBC statements and those of white opposition parties in the 1950s, it would have entailed some elements of basic education, property ownership or income.

Ironically, on this point, while the SACBC were in accord with parliamentary parties like the Progressives, they were behind the Liberal Party. By 1960 the Liberals had accepted the notion of universal suffrage without qualifications, having concluded – rightly, I would argue – that that time had passed. (By the time of their state-assisted demise in 1968, the Liberals had moved further left, endorsing social democracy closer to the vision of the Freedom Charter).

Not all bishops, I suspect, were happy with this compromise document. A growing number of them, centred around the young Archbishop of Durban, Denis E Hurley OMI, saw the need to take a stronger stand against apartheid. While studying in Rome during the 1930s, Hurley had done his Licentiate in Theology (in South African terms a higher Master’s degree, in some countries considered equivalent to the first year/s of a doctorate) in Catholic Social Thought. His studies and his encounter with black and Asian students from around the globe had convinced him that apartheid was both unworkable and evil. Backed by a group of Catholic theologians (mostly Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Franciscans and Dominicans) quietly doing innovative theology that would become mainstream after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and by a group of white Catholic laity emerging from the university student movement where they’d mostly gravitated towards the Liberal Party and National Union of South African Students, Hurley’s struggle was an uphill battle.

With the SACBC comprising a significant bloc of expatriates and white South Africans still deeply concerned about anti-Catholic hostility from the ruling National Party, any attempt to speak about race and justice was muted. Compromise was essential.

In 1958, Pope Pius XII died. The College of Cardinals elected Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, the elderly Patriarch of Venice, as an interim pope. Their desired candidate, Montini (later Paul VI), was considered too young. Against all expectations, Pope (now Saint) John XXIII decided that the Church was in urgent need for renewal – aggiornamento, updating so that it could more adequately engage with the modern world. His convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) for this purpose.

Meeting in January-February 1962, the SACBC plenary had the Council in mind when they produced their new Pastoral Letter. Archbishop Hurley was by then on the preparatory committee for Vatican II, assisting in preparing the position papers and proposals that the bishops of the world would address at the Council. Within South Africa, too, the bishops were faced with numerous concerns: the banning of various liberation movements shortly after their 1960 statement, a state of emergency in 1960, the emergence of a sabotage campaign to end apartheid and the beginnings of a guerrilla struggle. In tandem with all of this was a state cracking down on opposition, the hardening rather than softening of apartheid, and global phenomena such as decolonisation and rapid secularisation of society.

With a nod to the latter, perhaps, the 1962 Letter started with concern about “aggressive anti-God forces” seeking to undermine Christianity and “exploit every grievance against injustice”. This is a singularly odd statement for a document that otherwise reiterates the SACBC’s growing opposition to domestic injustice. Having noted that the Church was a spiritual bulwark against godlessness and injustice, the text endorses John XXIII’s call for aggiornamento and the SACBC’s insistence that Catholics had a duty to exercise civic responsibility.

The latter responsibility, the bishops said, meant that

“…we dare not remain silent and passive in face of injustices inflicted on members of the unprivileged racial groups. Colour must never be permitted to offer an excuse or a pretext for injustice. ‘We must use every lawful means suggested by our Christian conscience in order to counteract and overcome the injustices pressing down on unprivileged groups through the toleration of a starvation level of wages, of job-reservation (sic), of the evils which flow from compulsory migratory labour, particularly when the people who belong to these groups are denied the elementary right to organise in defence of their legitimate interests.’”

Drawing on the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, the Letter concluded: “Here then is the Christian test which must be applied to racial prejudice. As long as we have acted like that towards anyone who differs from us in colour, so it is that we have acted towards Christ Himself.”

The significance of this document in the Church’s struggle with apartheid – and indeed its own struggle with racism within itself – is twofold. By its appeal to scriptural texts (as opposed to an earlier emphasis on traditional Catholic moral philosophy) it anticipates the tone and texture of many of its later statements. The passion of tone of the later parts of the Letter would also mark future statements. Secondly, in its comments about specifics it anticipates not simply more concrete official statements about apartheid, but anticipated how the Church would in the wake of Vatican II put its words into concrete action, supporting labour unions and non-violent protest movements.

In the meantime, as the ink on the 1962 Pastoral Letter dried, the Catholic bishops of South Africa prepared themselves for the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II would not simply shift the Church’s role in political life; it would be the moment that seismically shifted the whole of South African Catholicism. DM

Photo: Shootings at Sharpeville 21 March 1960


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