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A crusader who helped change S. Africa

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Durban, South Africa

When he became a bishop here, on March 19, 1947, Archbishop Denis Hurley chose a crest, as all new bishops must. Below the heraldic design of his coat of arms run these scriptural words: "Where the Spirit is, there is freedom." Few bishops have so well lived out their motto.

Interviewed shortly before the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop, he explained his choice. "It was 1947, and when I thought about what was happening in South Africa at the time and the lack of freedom among its black people, these words were an inspiration for what I hoped I could do about the situation."

For the last 50 years Hurley has lived by the words of his motto. Now 81, he works as a simple parish priest, throwing himself into his pastoral work among the poor, still concerned about how to bring them true freedom.

During the decades of racial oppression here he became a stalwart of antiapartheid action: protests, marches, court cases, symbolic visits to individuals and communities under particular threat from government policies.

As one human rights activist used to quip, with reference to the reassuring presence of the archbishop in protest marches: "When you're in the hurly-burly, there's no one like the burly Hurley."

A book of selected writings and speeches by the archbishop, Facing the Crisis, was published to coincide with his anniversary. It shows that his passion for justice in South Africa began to express itself almost as soon as the miter was symbolically placed on his head.

Early activism

At just 31 years old, the youngest Catholic bishop in the world at the time, he immediately began to challenge the racial segregation in which he had been brought up as an unquestioning white South African -- and, perhaps even more extraordinary -- to challenge the lack of action by the Catholic church to oppose apartheid.

As he freely acknowledges, the Catholic church in South Africa was politically and theologically conservative in those years: inward-looking and threatened by the feeling that it led a precarious existence in a hostile society whose leadership still regarded the Catholic church as the Roomse Gevaar (Roman peril). The Catholic church of the era had almost no sense of ecumenism and its relationship with other Christian denominations Hurley now describes as one of "ongoing, simmering animosity."

The year he was appointed bishop, the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference was established, providing the Catholic church with an official mouthpiece.

Hurley became the first elected president of the conference in 1951 and served as its leader during the critical years until 1961 and again during a second crucial period, 1981-87. Through his influence, the conference became increasingly outspoken and active against apartheid and other forms of injustice.

The bishops issued their first official statement on race relations in 1952 and in 1957 declared apartheid "intrinsically evil" -- decades before it was declared a heresy by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. But as well as criticizing the government for its policies, the bishops were frankly critical of church institutions that were also riddled with the practice of segregation.

This had to change, they said.

In May 1957, Hurley's criticism took on a prophetic note. "Woe betide our country," he warned, "when the full consequences of its present policies rise up to plague it, when our country finds itself the pariah state of the world -- excluded from football federations and Olympic games, debarred from international conferences for fear of boycotts by other nations, banned from certain harbors and airports, refused diplomatic representation and suffering from economic disinvestment."

Decades later, his predictions were fulfilled. But he is far from a wild-eyed prophet: Mild, almost shy at times, he is an excellent raconteur who loves a good joke. A keen follower of cricket and rugby, he felt as deprived as the most avid sports fan when his predictions proved true and an international sports boycott kept South Africa isolated.

Flabby Christians

His view on the controversial matter of the church's role in political questions, his deep concern about apartheid and its consequences for South Africa, and his proposed solutions were spelled out most fully in the influential Hoernle Memorial Lecture he delivered in 1964.

His remarks must have astonished many with its frank criticism of church leadership. At one point he noted that communists, then seen as the mortal enemy of the Catholic church, had taken a leading role to counter apartheid:

"Can we really reproach the communists, misguided though we judge them to be, when they enter the field of social reform left wide open for them by Christians, with a crusading zeal and sense of conquest that make Christians look like flabby and ineffectual windbags if not downright supporters of an evil system? Let us make no mistake about it -- only crusaders succeed in the field of social reform.

"If Christianity wants to have any say in the alteration of South Africa's social pattern, its representatives will have to become crusaders fully possessed of the flame of conviction, a fire of zeal."

Hurley possesses an abundance of crusading zeal. He may have inherited it from his staunchly Catholic Irish parents. His father, a lighthouse keeper, tended the light on Robben Island (later to become the prison where prominent antiapartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela, were held) among other locations.

They were always poor but proud of their Irish ancestry and their Catholic faith. Hurley recalls that as a child he found the combination a little confusing, and once, asked what his religion was, he answered, "Irish."

At a celebration of his anniversary on March 19, Natal University sociology professor Fatima Meer, an antiapartheid activist who was banned and put under house arrest for many years, paid tribute to Hurley's zeal.

She said his voice resonated with the victims of the Group Areas Act (under which residential areas were officially segregated, and everyone of the 'wrong' race-group forced out and their land confiscated or sold) when he joined them in decrying the law as "daylight robbery." He campaigned relentlessly both in South Africa and internationally against the policies of migrant labor, which separated families, keeping wives and children in the rural areas and permitting men to work in the cities only if they were on their own; and forced removals, used by the government to uproot hundreds of thousands of black people from their traditional homes and dump them in bare rural veldt with not even the most basic facilities.

If the cause was right

Hurley protested vigorously against the laws that permitted detention without trial, and he gave evidence on behalf of conscientious objectors refusing to do military service and activists facing the death sentence. He condemned the atrocities of the South African Defense Force in Namibia and ended up in the dock facing criminal charges as a result.

"Where others looked over their shoulders and on either side before joining a protest to ensure that the company was right, his only concern was that the cause was right," Meer said.

As his status grew, he used it to "bear down on evil wherever he found it -- whether a powerful and dangerous government or a powerful and dangerous employer." His home was firebombed, and the government threatened to ban him. He was labeled a political priest and an "ecclesiastical Che Guevara," Meer recalled.

On March 21, now a South African public holiday celebrating human rights, all the bishops of southern Africa came to Durban to celebrate Hurley's jubilee in Emmanuel Cathedral with him. They paid tribute to his role during the worst days of apartheid, saying that his leadership had given them courage.

His long term in office spanned exactly the years of apartheid. The National Party government introduced this policy when it came to power in 1948, the year after Hurley was ordained as bishop; it ended when the first democratic government was elected in 1994.

Vindicated in his constant opposition to apartheid and other forms of injustice, he was among the specially invited guests watching the culmination of democratic change at the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela.

But while he is best known in South Africa for his contribution to the fight against apartheid, he also has an international reputation as a philosopher and theologian whose work has helped shape the direction of Catholic thought -- and of the church itself.

"Facing the Crisis" includes an important new essay explaining the key role played by the archbishop at crucial moments in the Second Vatican Council.

As Vatican II began to get off the ground, it seemed unable to jettison the church's traditional bureaucratic approach. There was growing concern from progressive thinkers that Vatican II would refuse to deal with burning issues on the minds of bishops from all parts of the world.

However, Hurley was one of a small group of influential prelates who were able to turn the situation around, ensure that these issues were presented and thus help shape the council into a gathering more responsive to the real issues of the time.

His contribution to Vatican II and to the subsequent implementation of its philosophy as well as his opposition to all forms of injustice has been recognized by the growing list of honorary doctorates in philosophy and theology awarded to him by foreign and South African universities, culminating three years ago when he was appointed chancellor of the University of Natal.

But his outspoken views have not always brought rewards, even from his church. Just as his criticism of injustice in South African apartheid society won him few friends in high places, so his views on some issues of current Catholic teaching have also proved unpalatable to the more doctrinaire in Rome.

While the Vatican recently ruled that the question of ordaining women priests could not even be debated, the archbishop has long said he is not "satisfied" by the theological grounds on which women's ordination has been ruled out.

He has also expressed intellectual and pastoral questions about the Catholic church's outright ban on contraception. And the tightening Vatican clampdown on theological debate also clashes painfully with the open approach to intellectual discussion encapsulated in his motto.

If he had any chance for a cardinal's red hat, these views appear to have ensured it will not come his way.

Now retired, he works in a difficult and dangerous inner city parish, based at Durban's Emmanuel Cathedral. In his house next to the cathedral, the paint peels off the walls and hawkers outside his window shout their wares to the block-long queues at the black bus stops. As a parish priest he continues to wrestle with the problems of poverty in society, problems that have troubled him since, as a young student in Rome, he was gripped by the possibilities of Roosevelt's New Deal and explored the economic difficulties of ordinary people in his 1938 licentiate thesis.

During the celebrations of his anniversary he took up this recurring theme once again, some 58 years later.

He said that ecumenism had flourished in South Africa, in the face of the joint enemy -- apartheid. Now the ecumenical Christian movement, together with people of other faiths, had a new challenge -- the plight of the poor.

"Otherwise it could so easily happen that millions of our people find themselves excluded through poverty from the fruits of the victory over apartheid and the establishment of democracy," he warned.

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 1997