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Growing up Catholic in South Africa


It was a matter of some pride in our family that my grandfather had donated the new bell for Johannesburg’s Roman Catholic cathedral sometime in the 1930s. The old bell had cracked and lost its voice -- a public relations disaster, given the competitive chimes of the nearby Dutch Reformed church and Anglican cathedral.

My grandparents lived near the city center on Kerk Street, just around the corner from the Catholic cathedral, and we often visited them on a Sunday afternoon. Tea would be served in the dining room on a green velvet tablecloth, under a large engraving of “Alan Wilson’s Last Stand.” If the Ndebele won that skirmish in 1893, surrounding and wiping out the major and his “gallant patrol,” they were to lose the war. Before the end of the decade, Cecil Rhodes would carve out Rhodesia from territory north of the Transvaal.

By the turn of the century, my grandfather was serving as a young redcoat in the Boer War, a conflict that prepared the way for the Union of South Africa with its all-white parliament. The long cool veranda of my grandfather’s house is fixed in memory, and I can still hear the mellow chime that would ring out for the “Angelus” in the early evening.

The parish church my parents belonged to was in Yeoville, several miles from downtown Johannesburg. Saturday mornings meant catechism instruction -- the Baltimore version -- under the direction of the Ursuline nuns. Because I attended a state school, such immunization against the perceived threat of secular and Protestant environments was required by the bishop.

On Sundays the congregation at Mass was all-white, with the occasional exception of a black domestic servant in the back row. Africans were expected to worship at mission churches in segregated townships on the other side of the city.

Our pastor, Fr. Roux, served the parish for years and was much loved. The church was our bulwark, providing a fixed moral universe and nurturing a lifeboat sense of community. Sadly though, it did not move the faithful beyond matters of personal sin and the demands of charity. The presence of social sin was never raised.

Even a kindly priest like Fr. Roux would not have thought to condemn white supremacy from the pulpit; nor would he have addressed the grotesque maldistribution of land (13 percent for the African majority). Racism and class privilege were generating one of the world’s most polarized societies, yet this did not trouble the white hierarchy or concern white parishes. At best a certain noblesse oblige was encouraged: My first and only lesson in the ethics of race relations was to be polite to the servants.

Leaving the status quo unchallenged, the bishops tended their white congregations conscientiously, committing 75 percent of the country’s priests and nuns to serve in white parishes, schools and hospitals. Africans had to make do; their communities were “missionary” territory.

In spite of this neglect, by the time my grandfather donated the cathedral’s bell, the missions had produced a majority of South Africa’s Catholics. Still, when the African National Congress -- founded in 1912 to oppose segregation -- was eventually goaded to move from ineffectual moral appeals to passive resistance in the Defiance Campaign of the 1950s, the Roman Catholic hierarchy looked away. Not even the banning of the ANC in 1960 and the imprisonment or exile of its leaders could stir the church from its inertia.

A lone antiapartheid activist in the hierarchy, Archbishop Denis Hurley, would confess in the 1970s that Roman Catholicism in South Africa had lost its salt. He was deeply anguished to discover that the majority of white priests were not disturbed by apartheid and resented his engagement in the political arena.

While in 1956 the bishops had issued a pastoral letter condemning apartheid in principle, they failed to witness against it. Seminaries remained segregated until the late 1970s. My Aunt Muriel, an Ursuline nun, was never troubled by the absence of black sisters in her community. Only in the 1980s was there a token integration of Catholic schools.

By this time, white Catholics were being conscripted into the army as it played a central role in repressing the liberation movement. Their chaplains enjoyed officer salaries and wore military dress -- until an End Conscription Campaign in the mid-1980s pressured the bishops to take priests out of uniform. Even so, it puzzled my devout family when a cousin became a conscientious objector and refused to take up arms against the African population.

I only began to understand the evils of apartheid after I left southern Africa in 1952 for Oxford. Following graduation, my first academic appointment was at the newly launched University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. There I learned from my students, many of whom were black South Africans. It was at the time of the Defiance Campaign, and these young protesters had fled across the border with apartheid’s police in hot pursuit.

By the time I wrote The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa, a study of the ANC, a degree of estrangement had set in with my parents. They perceived my book as dangerously subversive and declined to read it. Both went to daily Mass. My brother, a loyal Catholic, too, lived comfortably with the regime’s propaganda and thought my opposition to apartheid “communistic.”

When mass protests against apartheid gathered strength in South Africa’s cities during the 1980s, the bishops finally offered some support for the liberation struggle -- a move that disturbed the Vatican. But the response came too late, leaving the vast majority of white Catholics unprepared for the country’s political transition. They were at a loss when it came to negotiations for a new nonracial constitution and the urgent need to redistribute resources (including health care and education).

Except in rare cases, white Catholics simply lacked a gospel-based moral imagination. It was only in 1990 -- the year in which Nelson Mandela was released and apartheid abandoned -- that the bishops launched a pastoral program with a social justice component to be taught in Catholic parishes. Church schools are still struggling to provide a revised syllabus for South African history, one that no longer focuses exclusively on the white experience.

The history of the church in South Africa provides important lessons for Catholics everywhere: Roman Catholicism has failed time and again to spearhead movements for social reform. In the 19th century, during the industrial revolutions of Europe, conservative, anti-modernist hierarchies lost the working class. Then there was the failure of the Vatican to take any lead in the struggle against slavery.

The church’s record in this century is as baleful. If the hierarchy failed to shape the consciousness of white Catholics in South Africa, the Vatican’s record in fascist Europe during the 1930s and ’40s is even more disturbing. Why were Catholic Bavarians -- among the most fervent of Hitler’s supporters -- never threatened with excommunication?

It is surprising that the pontificate of John Paul II is so frequently celebrated for its moral vision, for under his leadership the listening, consultative hierarchy envisioned by Vatican II has not emerged.

Moreover, his role in undermining communist regimes during the Cold War must be set against his failures; for example, the suppression of liberation theology in Latin America and the ingratiating accommodation by papal nuncios during the military dictatorships in Argentina and Chile.

Without the humility and repentance to face up to its lamentable record, the institutional church will have little to offer the world of the 21st century -- just as it failed my parents and all those essentially decent white South African Catholics.

Peter Walshe teaches in the Department of Government at the University of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 1999