Friday, June 22, 2007

The Catholic Church, Political Accommodation & Apartheid

The arm chair pundit in the comfortable and safe Ivory Tower often has quick, neat and easy answers for Catholics who live under iniquitous political systems throughout the world. He will confidently assure persons of our Faith that they simply must stand up, be counted, attack the evil regime, rouse the Faithful and drive full steam ahead. Disregard the cost whatever it might be. There is to be no quarter to error or evil.

It sounds gallant, appealing and slightly romantic but it can also be factually damaging for the Catholic Community in certain world areas. In fact in some situations, to follow the heated advice of the pundit might be imprudent. On the contrary, one might cautiously ask “How far can one go, without compromising one’s own conscience, in “accommodating” to a regime clearly in conflict with Catholic teaching and belief?” Or how far should one go? On my Ordination to the priesthood in 1948, I was such an all knowing pundit. Fresh from a world of protected inexperience, I was assigned to work in the then Union of South Africa where that very year the social policy called Apartheid [1] was enacted into law. I would, I fantasized, be a young St. Athenasius, the Hammer of Bigots, challenging, persuading and changing the social and religious face of that Nation. Ah! The shallowness and arrogance of youth.

Apartheid (the last syllable rhymes, interestingly, with hate) was the brain child of Domne Danie Malan, Prime Minister and Dutch Reformed clergyman. Dr. Malan and his associates were highly intelligent, emotionally tough and highly motivated by fear. There was an unbalanced population ratio. Only 1 out of every 7 South Africans was white. But he usually lived very well, with poorly paid, ever available servants, (the males being called “boys” and females “nannies.”) private tennis courts and the occasional swimming pool. He worked hard but his immediate social persona was “baas” or top level guy in the multi-racial society. This superiority was operational, vis-à-vis the non-white, in all situations.

Apartheid was a total social program in which a specific population categorization was determined. One was either a)European [2] / Caucasian or b) non-European. There was no significant “gray” area. The “separateness” was absolute. Trains, buses, theatre seats, water fountains, Church seating, living areas, schools, hospital sections, markets, shops, swimming pools, beaches, all were separate and off limits from both racial directions. The disgraceful American Jim Crow practice was “Sodality Boy” level compared with Apartheid because South African oppression was Legal. Apartheid’s “taken- for- granted- you –are- inferior” impact on the non-European created massive damage to a whole people’s self concept and self esteem. While the American racist shame was brutally effective, it was illegal. As bad as we were with our history so seriously tainted by our own bigotries and oppressions [3], Apartheid was far worse. It was intentionally and conceptually evil.

Apartheid was a prime example of the false equation between the legal and the moral. For example, Parliament passed an act entitled “The Immorality Act” in which immorality was defined as sexual behavior, in or out of marriage, between persons of different races. Should a white male copulate with a non-white woman [4] it is an “immorality” subject to an immediate punishment usually directed to the Non-European. By some strange mental manipulation the male did not act “immorally.” Only the non-white person did. However, it was widely accepted that “legal” equals “ moral”. Nevertheless, such a political pall hung over the whole country in which the Catholic Church was called to proclaim the love and justice of Jesus Christ. What does the Catholic Church do in such a political climate? How do Catholics protest such injustice and evil? How does the Church balance iniquity against the need to minister to God’s children living under such a regime?

An immediate dilemma surfaced in the matter of Catholic schools which were actually financed by the Apartheid government. Even though the fierce Dutch Reformed white majority (of the total white population) lived as if the St. Bartholomew’s massacre was yesterday and even though they referred to Catholics as “die Roomse Gevaar” ( Trans. the Roman danger), nuns, in full habit, Brothers, Priests-in-collar and lay faculty were paid generous salaries every month. Monies were supplied for maintenance, books and the miscellany of academic life. Catholic teaching was overtly part of the daily instruction. Daily Mass was offered during school hours. (Imagine the ACLU and apoplexy were that scheme to operate here!) The Government clearly recognized the “taming” power of religion in society and hence supported our efforts as subsidiary to theirs. In effect, they left us completely free to do our Godly work except for an annual perfunctory visit from the Regional Department of Education which viewed Catholic schools with awe and admiration. [5]

Similarly, in the Paulist Mission program, we, clearly identified as clerics, freely traveled to different cities, and dorps (towns) preaching “Roman” Catholicism, urging Non-Catholics to join our Religion. We preached to non-Catholics to convert, not to dialogue! No one ever tried to interfere. My one exception was when I preached in Domne Danie Malan’s home village, Graaf Reinett, where young Zealots shouting anti-Catholic epithets, stoned the building in which I was explaining the beauty of the Catholic Faith. Otherwise, I never encountered any legal or social difficulty. The Police expected us to sign in and out of every place we visited. Routinely, we refused but, at every occasion, they looked the other way. We constantly broke the law. They knew it and did nothing about it.

Were we complicit with an evil regime? Were we being cowardly and compromising by working there? Were we being disloyal to Jesus by living under Apartheid? There was many intra-Paulist agonizing discussions on this matter and we always seemed to conclude that it was right that Hecker’s sons were working in that beautiful country so stained by greed and selfishness. Would not Catholics and others be in deficit were we not there? Rationalization or justification? Paulists, overwhelmingly, argued that, granting the negatives, it was right to live and work there!
The positive aspects of our work were too concrete to ignore. Was it Machiavellian? Did the good end justify the problematic means? We worked with consciences, which, though clear, were pained by the suffering of so many of God’s children. Statistically, the overseas Paulists who labored so joyfully and successfully in Southern Africa were pleased that they had devoted those years to the African missions.

Being nauseous from the revolting, insulting treatment of our Catholic “non-Europeans” (including brother priests),on the one hand, and sensing, on the other hand, how valuable we were to our brothers and sisters in their search for God, made for sharp inner angst. How does one handle that problem? Does the Church pack up and leave in a huff, leaving the Catholics (of all hues) without shepherding? Does one mount great demonstrations which, in that country would have involved danger of loss of life, property and freedom to evangelize? One can, as did I whenever possible, preach the loving and just doctrine of Jesus Who sees everyone as loveable and worth dying for! One can write, as did I, in Catholic periodicals about Social Justice and the need to treat everyone as one’s brother. The political effects were immediately negligible, if incrementally, for future impact, useful.

There were little things we could and did do. When we arrived at our new parish in Johannesburg, we found three pews in the rear of the Church marked with signs “for non-Europeans.” We instantly removed the signs indignantly announcing that the Church of Jesus was no place for such blatant bigotry. A few of the devout Catholic parishioners protested our action even though they considered themselves as fine practicing Catholics. When the abundant pleasures of this world are close at hand, few are interested in the nobler things of life. It is only when “Pressure” such as when overwhelming and threatening non-white populations are clearly about to engulf the Privileged Few that people will listen and act.

Barring some French Revolution type uprising, the power of Government with its military, police force and “spy” system, is too strong to overturn. The practical question is how does a believing Catholic function under any iniquitous system? How did Pope Pius VII negotiate with Napoleon? I recall that the Pope forgivingly viewed the Emperor’s injustices as “frenzies of human ambition” and that “the Concordat was a healing act, Christian and heroic.” How did we deal with Hitler? And Concordat? Was it wrong? My visceral reaction, being half Jewish, is powerful. I know that had I lived in Munich, in 1938, I very well might have ended up in Dachau. Yet, a reasonable argument might be made, justifying the Church’s “silence” under the Nazi regime in order to protect and serve as many of our Flock as possible.

Some moralists teach that one goes as far as one can (in some kind of “agreement”) without compromising one’s basic conscience (do we battle what that means?). Obviously, there are limits beyond which no Catholic can travel but, using that nasty word, practically, one must find ways to “accommodate” within the moral Catholic conscience. Otherwise, we keep running away. And Catholics lose. The Ordinary [6] of the Diocese of Johannesburg, the largest and most important in the country, was Bishop Whelan whose father was Irish and mother, Afrikaans [7]. He was highly favored by the Government and was rumored to be sympathetic to Programs coming out of Pretoria, the real Center of the Governing class. Yet, as our Bishop, he did encourage, non-verbally, much of the apathy we found in that Catholic family. Nevertheless, within his ambiguous but protective leadership we were able to do “the job.”

However, is there, apart from the heated ramblings of the uninitiated, any real guideline? We Paulists found our own working principles as outlined above. Others, elsewhere, have not. One thing we do know is that it is probably better not to jump precipitously but rather to work within the system and nudge gradually for change. The Ivory Tower pundit dislikes such talk. But perhaps he might consider that we should not analyze the other’s morality until we, as the Native American axiom goes, have walked in his moccasins.


[1] A clumsy word invented by the Nationalist Party attempting to describe the “equal but separate” development of Caucasian and all other racial groups.
[2] In my early years under Apartheid, I would, with more than a juvenile flair, list myself as non-European since I came, not from Europe but from the United States. My smart alec stance brought me and my work nothing but grief. I stood up not for God nor my Church nor my charges but really for my own egotism.
[3] Can one forget the Dred Scott decision of 1858?
[4] “Non white” could mean colored ( the product of earlier sexual relations between a white man and a black woman), or Native (Full blood African) or Asian (a conundrum for Apartheid since it might involve Indians, Chinese or Lebanonese)
[5] They viewed Catholic hospitals, run by Nuns, in a similar fashion. It was an “in” joke that Apartheid government leaders used these Catholic facilities rather than Government ones.
[6] a term used to describe the ruling Bishop of any Diocese. He has full, ultimate authority and jurisdiction within that Diocese.
[7] Meaning great family influence from the Dutch Reformed Tradition of South Africa. Such influence tended to side with the “volk” of African history who were the Apartheid Afrikaaner people.

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