Page 4, 1st September 1972

1st September 1972
Page 4
Page 4, 1st September 1972 — White Church or black?

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White Church or black?


blem of identity. And the problem presents itself very crudely as the question, "Is it to be a white Church or a black Church?"

The obvious reaction to this question would he that of course the Catholic—that is the Universal —Church cannot be either black or white, but must be capable of embracing all races and nationalities. But that is not a practical, or indeed altogether a correct reaction.


For the Church is called upon, as part of its saving mission to men, to indigenise itself in the different cultures of mankind, that is to say to make itself "at home" in these different cultures, so that people of different cultures may all feel "at home" in the Church.

There are indeed serious dangers, and therefore important limitations, on this idea of the Church being at home in particular cultures and vice versa; the history of the Church in Europe illustrates the dangers and the need for limitations all too well. But still, indigenisation is an esssential part of the Church's mission.

Now in South Africa, an Afrikaner, especially if he is a Nationalist, will classify the Catholic Church, together with the Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches, as an "Englishspeaking Church," and there is some truth in such a description. And a 'black man, if he has attained to "black consciousness," will classify the Catholic Church, together with these others, plus the Dutch Reformed Churches, as a "white Church." The crucial question is, what •truth is there in this description, and in so far as it is true, should it be?

As regards control of the Church, it is certainly true; all the bishops and ordinaries in the Republic and South-West Africa (I think there are 38 of them) are with a few exceptions, white.

Of the clergy, not much more than 20 per cent are black, and I imagine a very much smaller percentage of the sisters. As regard finance, all the property of the Church is officially "white-owned," an overwhelming proportion of the income is, I presume, whitecontributed (but a lot of it comes from abroad), and much more than 50 per cent of it is spent in the interests of white rather than black Catholics.

As regards membership, at least 75 per cent—probably more—is black. So the statement by a black man that the Catholic Church is a white Church is more than a statement, it is a complaint; and on the face of it a just one. A Church that is predominantly black in membership ought surely to be predominantly black in control, in ethos, in culture and in interest—and should one add, also in finance?

The grave challenge that faces the Church in South Africa is the challenge to make itself blacker in •these respects. Failure to do so will mean failure in its mission, and this failure will, in my opinion, be marked or illustrated by the Catholic Church in the country soon ceasing to be predominantly black even in membership.

In other words, the great majority of its black members will forsake it, either for a post-Christian paganism, or for the so-called Independent Churches, of which there are several thousand in South Africa, and which in all the respects mentioned above are as black as black can be.

And this would be a great pity, not just for the institution which is the Catholic Church, but above all for black people in South Africa, because they have a great deal to learn and profit by from the true idea of catholicity that is enshrined, however imperfectly, in the Catholic Church. In turn, the Catholic Church as an institution has a lot to learn about ethos, culture, control (and, I would add, about Christianity) from the Independent Churches.


The Church is doing something to meet this challenge. Last February the bishops published an excellent joint pastoral, entitled "A Call to Conscience," which showed that they are aware of the secular interests of blacks in South Africa, including of course black Catholics, and of their demand for justice in social, political and economic matters—a demand which the bishops endorsed.

Politically, the Catholic Church has very little power in South Africa to implement such demands. But at practical level there has been the work of Fr. Cosmas Desmond, O.F.M., and his book "The Discarded People," which won him the accolade of house arrest from the government. It must be said, however, that while Fr. Desmond has been loyally supported by Archbishop Hurley of Durban, and also by his Franciscan colleagues, the attitude towards him of some other bishops and clergy has been distinctly cool, Then again, there has been progress, both at diocesan and national level, at setting up clergy councils, who will doubtless play an increasing part in the government of the Church and the formation of policy; and in the National Priests' Council the black clergy are given a considellably greater representation than actual numbers would entitle them to; thus, supposing that in South Africa as a whole there are four white priests to one black, in the priests' council there are something like four whites to two blacks.

But for all this, and doubtless other positive approaches that I do not know about, the Church is not meeting this challenge with anything like the energy or imagination that are needed. It is not that the Church is racialist, though more than one embittered black man can be found to say that it is. But this accusation is false of all the bishops, nearly all the white clergy— and I fear of no more than some of the white laity!

The trouble with the Catholic bishops and clergy is not that they are racialists, intent on keeping the "kaffirs" and the "coolies" and the 'hotnots" (common contemptuous terms for Africans, Indians and Coloureds respectively) in their place; but that the whole Catholic tradition of Church government makes them unconsciously paternalistic—and that nowadays is almost as dirty a word (rightly so) as racialist.

And with this paternalism is likely to go an unconscious assumption that somehow Christianity and European culture, European values, go together. Unconsciously, if not explicitly, I would guess that most of the Catholic clergy (most of them either Irish or German) endorse Hilaire Belloc's calamitous dictum "The faith is Europe, and Europe is the faith."

Thus for most of the bishops, and clergy, the supreme value in intra-Church relationships is not justice, or even charity, but authority, and its counterpart, obedience. And when black Catholics and black clergy demand a much greater share in authority, proportionate to their membership, too many white bishops and clergy are tempted to write off this kind of demand as a mixture of disobedience and unseemly ambition.

There have been a few disturbing signs that the traditional authoritarian attitude of at least some probably most, of the bishops blinds them to both the nature and the gravity of the challenge. In February 1970 five black priests pub lished a "manifesto" in the secular press outlining in vivid, and some people thought immoderate, language their grievances about the white domination of the Church.

Apart from an occasional expression of hurt feelings, it produced no visible reaction at all fromthe hierarchy. In August 1971 the full bishops' conference was invaded by a demonstration, this time of black laymen, with one or two black priests in support. I was present, as a member of the bishops' theological commission, and wish I had space to describe the scene, which I thought did ctedit to the patience and stamina of all concerned, bishops and demonstrators alike.


But this time the demonstrators were very forthright, not to say rude, in the things they had to say in particular about Cardinal McCann of Cape Town and Bishop Boyle of Johannesburg. And this time there was a delayed reaction from Bishop Boyle, which can only be called distressingly negative. The leader of the demonstrators was a Johannesburg layman, active in labour and social affairs, Mr. Drake Koka.

A few months later Bishop Boyle was at last constrained to set up in his diocese a Justice and Peace Association. This body elected a cornmittee, Mr. Koka among them, and this committee elected Mr. Koka as its chairman. Bishop Boyle demanded his resignation, and when this was not forthcoming, and the committee in fact stood by Mr. Koka, the committee was disbanded, and another, presumably more pliant body substituted for it.

I suppose the bishop's resentment at Mr. Koka's offensive remarks about him was understandable; but it seems to me that bishops, like Queen Victoria, ought to learn how to work with subordinates whom they find offensive and distasteful. Mr. Koka is a loyal Catholic, who has never suggested, as have one or two prominent black Catholics, walking out of the white Church and setting up an authentically black Church in place of it.

The last disturbing incident is the one I have been personally involved in, the management of St. Peter's Seminary for black students for the priesthood, and in particular the case of one senior student, Mr. Daniel 'Mtombeni.

About the seminary in general, which is clearly a sensitive nerve point in the matter of black-white relations within the Church, the bishops seem to have taken the line that the only way of dealing with long-standing difficulties is to pursue a tough policy of strict discipline, very much on pre-Vatican II lines. They have at least supported the new rector (new in 1971), Fr. Dominic Scholten, 0.P., in his enforcement of such a regime, and I would guess that they gave him instructions on such lines.

To my mind this demonstrates a painful failure in both nerve and imagination. About Mr. Mtombeni, a bare year before he was due for ordination the rector first suspended him for six months, then refused finally and permanently to have him back in the seminary, %I the grounds of scandalous conduct. But he never told Mr. Mtombeni what the precise scandalous conduct alleged against him was, or what evidence there was of it.

In the first five months of the year I saw a lot of Mr. Mtombeni, and acted as his adviser and friend in his efforts to secure this very important information, which the most elementary canons of justice would surely entitle him to receive. But two requests to the rector reecived no reply; an appeal to the Cardinal, as chairman of the Seminaries Commission of the bishops' conference, only elicited after two months a reference back to Mr. Mtombeni's diocesan superior, Bishop-elect 'Murphy of Port Elizabeth.

So between us we decided that Mr. Mtombeni's only remedy lay in wider publicity. He authorised me to send a statement of the case to the Catholic paper, the Southern Cross. The editor declined to print it. He then sent a more dramatic account of his tribulations to the SAOS Newsletter, the quarterly organ of the militant students' "black consciousness" movement. This was duly published, under the title of "How the Roman Catholic Church has let me down."

I leave it to readers to imagine the possible consequences of such a publication in such an organ for the Church's image and standing among the more articulate section of black people in South Africa. A further letter of mine to the Southern Cross was still not published; and so to bring this serious matter to the attention of white Catholics in South Africa, I wrote a letter to the Tablet, which has some circulation in the Republic, and gave an interview to the Johannesburg Sunday Times, which was published just after I had sailed from Cape Town on July 30.

Such publicity must of course have been most irritating and embarrassing to the ecclesiastical authorities. But if it will stir them to some sort of positive action, then I will not regret it.

Since beginning to write this article, I have received two items of very welcome news, one of which indicates that the publicity campaign of Mr. Mtombeni and myself may not have 'been in vain. On August 9 the Southern Cross published a judicious leading article on the case, which at least will throw it open to public discussion, and will, I am sure, be taken note of by the bishops.

The second piece of news is that Mgr. Buthelezi has been appointed assistant Bishop of Johannesburg. This will create a vacancy for another bishop in the diocese of Umzimkulu, which Mgr. Buthelezi has been administering, and it is almost 100 per cent certain that a black bishop will be appointed. It will also, one hopes, ease black-white relations in the critical diocese of Johannesburg.

Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will assist the bishops of South Africa, not only with prudent judgment, but also with imaginative flair.

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