An analysis of the socio-political role of the Roman Catholic Church in contemporary South Africa

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This study attempts an analysis of the form and content of the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church in South Africa to the policy and practice of apartheid during the period 1948-1989. It is argued that the divisions, tensions and contradictions of the Catholic Church reflect the socially divided character of the broader society. It is suggested that some of the policies, teachings and social practice of the South African Catholic Church serve to reproduce and reinforce the existing societal relations of domination, thus contributing to the hegemony of the dominant social group, while others undermine the same and point toward a transformation of social relations in a democratic society. In some instances the Church has contributed to the nascent hegemony of the dominated group. Literature focusing on the Catholic Church during times of social upheaval is reviewed. Recent analyses of the role of the Christian Churches in apartheid South Africa are considered. Various approaches to the Sociology of Religion are discussed and the relevance of a contextual approach to the analysis of the Church is argued. Gramsci's concept of hegemony as a tool of political analysis is discussed. A brief .historical overview of the Catholic Church in South Africa is given. It is contended that the Catholic Church in South Africa must be understood in terms of its colonial, missionary and racist history. An ecclesiological overview of the Roman Catholic Church in terms of its - history, traditions, organization, authority structures, governing procedures and beliefs is sketched. The ·social Teaching' of the Catholic Church during the twentieth century is outlined. The importance of the Second Vatican Council, the emergence of the Theology of Liberation and the increasing centrality of social justice in Church teachings is discussed. The implications of these developments for the pastoral practice of the Church is emphasized. The response of the Catholic Church to the introduction and implementation of 'separate development' is considered. Content analysis is used as a research method. The study therefore falls within the realm of hermeneutic or interpretative sociology. The gradual transition from an attitude of paternalism to committed involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle is traced. The Catholic Church's response to the Bantu Education Act, which was the primary focus of its opposition to apartheid in the 1950's, is evaluated. The challenge of the Black Consciousness movement is acknowledged. It is argued that the realities of apartheid society have had a profound impact on the Church, severely compromising its unity. The related processes of reform, repression and resistance are examined. It emerges that while the Church's championship of human rights has been unequivocal, its support for some of the strategies employed in the struggle against apartheid has been more tentative. It is argued that the Catholic Church's participation in the anti-apartheid struggle has facilitated a growth in ecumenism and increased contact with secular organizations. The Catholic Church has become part of a broad anti- apartheid alliance. It is suggested that while there have been important changes in the Church's self-understanding and perception of its role in, and pastoral mission to, society, these changes have been uneven and ambiguous. They have not been reflected throughout the Church and have underlined the divisions within the Church. There has been considerable reluctance on the part of many white Catholics to endorse the anti-apartheid stance of the hierarchy. However, the S.A.C.B.C.'s commitment to social justice is in tune with modern Catholic social teaching. Finally, it is argued that the Catholic Church has challenged white domination and undermined the hegemony of apartheid in South African society.

Bibliography: pages 272-287.