The shaping of South African Catholicism – 200 years

30Aug 2017
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
The shaping of South African Catholicism – 200 years

THE Catholic Church in South Africa, for better and worse, is an institution that is both thoroughly South African – mirroring the nation’s chequered past, uneasy present and uncertain future – yet also part of a global institution that ....

has undergone (and continues to undergo) complex shifts in its thinking, demography and activity. The “global” has impacted and still impacts the “local”: sometimes the local church has had an impact on the universal church. So, how did this all start? In a series of articles I shall look at a number of key themes: colonialism, racism, human rights, education, healthcare, intellectual activity and ecumenism. 

In 2018 the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the 200th anniversary of its official foundation in South Africa. As such it has participated – acted and been acted upon – in two centuries of our history, from the colonial to what we might probably call the post-colonial period. It has played a major role in primary and secondary education through elite colleges and mission schools, working within ‘Bantu Education’ while trying (ultimately successfully) to subvert it. It has made a significant contribution to health care from mission hospitals to antiretroviral drug roll-outs, engaging in the process in the development – and controversies – of medicine and public health. Catholic scholars and public intellectuals have engaged with fellow South Africans on every manner of issue – from philosophy, theology, history and literature to areas as varied as Jan Smuts’ theory of holism and the politics of race, revolution and reconciliation. 

Inevitably too, and perhaps most importantly, the church has, alone and in co-operation with other churches, faith communities and civil society, been a voice for justice, democracy and human rights. It has also at times lived comfortably within colonial, segregationist, apartheid and democratic ideologies, turning a blind eye to injustice. Indeed it might more rightly be suggested that it often found itself on both sides of the divide because of its demographics – increasingly a mirror of South African society.

Before we embark on our historical journey we need to reflect on how the Catholic Church in South Africa came to be what it is today. The legal entity we call the South African Catholic Church falls under the jurisdiction of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, an association of bishops established in 1951 serving in South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland. For a number of decades it also included bishops in Lesotho and Namibia. In the 19th Century – before such states existed – the bishops served territories as far afield as present-day Zimbabwe: the whole of British southern Africa and the Boer Republics. At its “birth” in 1818 this whole territory was actually under a ‘mega-diocese’ (then called a vicariate) of Mauritius.

Why Mauritius? And why was Catholicism only established in ‘South Africa’ in 1818 – in fact, more accurately 1837?

Four years before the Dutch colonised the Cape in 1652, the Thirty Years War in Europe was ended by the Treaty of Westphalia. Since religion had been a key element in this war – between Catholic and Protestant states – one of the key points of the Treaty was the principle of cuius regio, eius religio: that the religion of the ruler would be the official religion of the state. Whatever toleration of religion existed in any state was at the whim of the ruler. 

About the same time the United Provinces of the Netherlands was finally established after a long war of liberation fought against Catholic Spain. Though the new Netherlands was religiously mixed and relatively tolerant, this tolerance did not extend to its great mercantile enterprise, the Dutch East India Company – or to the territories it ruled on behalf of the Netherlands overseas. The DEIC was strongly Protestant, Calvinist, in belief and made it policy that Catholicism in its territories was prohibited. No Catholic Churches could be built, nor could priests or nuns live and minister, even informally. This policy was ruthlessly enforced at the Cape until 1804, even after it became part of the Dutch empire itself, so much so that even shipwrecked priests or bishops temporarily at the Cape were forbidden to function. This strongly anti-Catholic line was enhanced at the Cape by the arrival and integration of French Huguenots (Protestants) fleeing from persecution in Catholic France. A measure of the degree to which this was enforced is illustrated by an account of a visit to the Cape of French scientists and diplomats bound for Siam (now Thailand) in South-east Asia. One of the scientists, the Jesuit astronomer-priest Guy Tachard recounts how on their arrival at the Cape on May 22nd 1685, to acquire stores for the second half of their journey, their party was warmly welcomed by the Governor, Simon van der Stel, and his committee. Over the next few days, the Dutch took him and his colleagues on a tour of the colony. They showed them wildlife, took them to the top of Table Mountain, providing them with a small makeshift observatory to study the stars. Since Tachard and his party were laden with the most advanced scientific equipment of the time – as befitting an expedition funded by King Louis XIV – they used part of the time to calculate the longitude of Cape Town.

But one thing they were absolutely forbidden to do: celebrate the Eucharist or engage in any public ministry to what turned out to be a significant minority of Catholics in Cape Town. Since their ships were effectively French territory they could attend to services on board, but no citizen at the Cape was allowed to be present. 

However much this offended the religious sensibilities of Tachard and his fellow priests, they apparently kept to the bargain. They were after all diplomats as well as clergy who thoroughly understood the implications of Westphalia and the risk of creating a diplomatic incident.

Protestant Christianity (and later Islam) thus had a religious monopoly, and significant religious head start, at the Cape for roughly 150 years. Colonists worshipped in Protestant, mainly Dutch Reformed churches. Protestant churches started mission work among the KhoiKhoi and Xhosa they encountered. After the British permanently annexed the Cape in 1806, Anglicans and Methodists entered both the ‘colonial’ and ‘mission’ fields. 

Catholicism had a brief look-in for two years, between 1804 and 1806, during the era of the Batavian Republic in the Netherlands. Inspired by Enlightenment ideas of religious freedom, the Commissioner General of the Cape, De Mist, allowed three Catholic priests (Lansink, Nelissen and Prinsen) to minister as military chaplains to the Dutch garrison. Services were held in a room at the Castle in Cape Town – in effect the first Catholic chapel, however improvised it was. 

This concession was swept away again after the second British occupation in 1806. The commander of the occupying forces, Sir David Baird, a Scottish Presbyterian, sent the chaplains packing together with the Dutch troops. Baird, who was generally generous, possibly did this to appease Dutch Calvinists. 

Once the territory was confirmed as British by the treaty of 1814 that ended the Napoleonic Wars in Europe (barring 1815’s battle of Waterloo, of course), the Vatican tried to established a Cape Vicariate (a territory under a bishop that in due time would become a diocese). Edward Bede Slater, a Benedictine monk, was made its Vicar Apostolic in February 1818. Slater, who died in 1832, was forbidden by London to live at the Cape. Rome then extended his territory to Mauritius and Madagascar. Based on Mauritius, he only visited Cape Town once: for a few weeks in 1820 en route to Mauritius. He left behind a certain Father Scully, an Irishman, to set up a small chapel in Harrington Street, Cape Town. 

Started in October 1822, the chapel was badly built – it was washed away during torrential storms that hit Cape Town in 1837. From accounts we have, the chaotic construction was a mirror of the conflicts Scully faced with his congregation, most of whom were relatively unchurched and fractious. Lawsuits over the church and disputes over who owned it must have worn Scully down. He left the Cape in July 1824. Over the next decade a handful of priests – English, Irish and Dutch, plus one Spaniard – engaged in itinerant ministry in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage and Grahamstown. Once again their ministry was confined to Catholic colonists and soldiers. 

By the 1830s the political and religious climate in Europe, especially Britain, was changing. The complex post-Reformation situation of the Catholic Church in Britain was eased. Greater toleration of the Catholic Church in Britain had a knock-on effect in the colonies. By 1837 Britain was willing to allow a resident Vicar Apostolic at the Cape. The man chosen by Rome for the job was Patrick Raymund Griffith, an Irish priest of the Dominican Order. 

It was an onerous task. The territory of the Vicariate – now split off from Mauritius and Madagascar – stretched west to east from Cape Town to Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), and northwards (in theory) as far as present day Zimbabwe. Covering this vast area Griffith had a handful of priests at first. Even as the number of clergy from Europe increased it was never enough to go around. For this reason, his focus was initially on ministry to Catholic colonists. This was partly a result of a “five mile rule” restricting the creation of new mission stations within five miles of existing ones. Given that much of the Colony had already been “colonised” by Protestant missionary societies there was limited room for him to manoeuvre. Even if he’d had enough clergy.

The sheer problem of geography rather than a sudden increase in Catholics – whether among colonists or from African missions – led Griffith to petition Rome to split his territory into two vicariates in 1846. As vicar apostolic, the bishop was supposed to visit Catholics under his charge regularly. Distances made it impossible. Moreover the socio-economic conditions of east and west were dramatically different. The western area included the growing city of Cape Town, the wine lands and farms of the present-day Western Cape; the east was a frontier zone of cattle farming and periodic wars over land and cattle between settlers and the Xhosa.