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Roman Catholic Church as a human rights perpetrator




SCHOLARS say churches tend not to talk much about the secular law with regard to the rights of children and their abuses. Rather, the Roman Catholic Church tends to refer much to the biblical (Bosch, 1999:376).

The literature consulted by this study showed that the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of dominion and discovery shaped European states’ political behaviour. Countries such as the United States codified some of the papal decrees and a number of European courts use it as point of reference (inter ceatera papal bull, 1452:345).

In terms of human rights violations, the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of dominion and discovery led to colonisation, slave trade, deprivation of property rights, undermining of people’s cultures, hegemonic behaviours by the European states and wars which affected largely women and children.

The study of church-state relations helps to understand how the relationship would impact on the human rights discourse.

In the case of Zimbabwe, the rise of African Independent Churches (AICs) was as a result of human rights violations by Western-founded churches.

However, while some arose to challenge the human rights violations by the Western-founded churches, they equally stand accused of violating the rights of women and children by importing certain toxic cultural practices into their theologies.

This is to say, there are human rights violations in both AICs and Western- founded churches.  The issue of theologies that violate the rights of women and children cut across all religious spheres.

In Luke (6:20-26), Jesus explains that the Kingdom of God is for the poor and the needy. Winter (1994:200) argues that the early church taught civic education among its members.

Bosch (1999:180) argues that the early church had most of its adherents among the slaves, women and foreigners. He added the early church began to preach and practice love and acts of charity which also included almsgiving and care for widows, travellers, slaves, sick, imprisoned, and the poor.

Von Harnach (1967:147) contends that the early church was driven by the love of Jesus which they expressed through charitable work. In Acts 2:45, the Christian congregation would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to the poor.

Balch et al (1986:55) say that women played the same roles as men and this is in line with Galatians (3:28), which argued that the baptized community should be an egalitarian

community where there is neither Greek nor Jew…slave nor free…male or female. 

The ecclesiastical abuse of women and children is therefore unbiblical, but a papal decree and wrong practice that may not have sufficient scriptural justification.

With the creation of states and emperors the duo took over the responsibility to care for the poor and the vulnerable. Of course the church only continued with charitable work at a relatively small scale.

Similarly, the African Traditional Religion (ATR) had their mechanisms to respond to human security considerations. When the ATR was antagonised by Western-founded churches, the colonial governments failed to replace the role which was being played by ATR.

In so doing, it created a gap which was later filled by AICs. Balcomb (2014:56) argues that the Western-founded churches and the colonial governments failed to dialogue with African cultural aspects like the rites of passage, African instruments and worshipping style, prophetic ministry, liturgy and failure to create harmony with the traditional leadership.

Instead of creating a complementorship and synergies with ATR, the Western-founded churches began to antagonise them resulting in a religious polarity and human insecurities.

Balcomb (2014:56) goes on to argue that the problem of Western-founded churches is that they came to Africa wrapped in Western culture; and the missionary enterprise sought to market to the African people both the gospel and the package that wrapped the gospel.

While in Africa these churches continued to transmit the gospel in the Western culture, seemingly whispering that repentance was synonymous with behaving and living a Eurocentric life.

On the other hand, these missionaries came to Africa with a pre-conceived notion of a dark continent that they had to illuminate through the introduction of some western civilisation, western culture and of course religion.

Western churches lost the opportunity to be relevant to Africa by their failure to be more contextual to the needs of the African. Balcomb (2014) goes on to advise Western founded churches that they could still make African Christians children of God without abandoning their God given culture because it is

neither a sin nor an affront to their participation in the Kingdom of God (ibid, 2014:56). Samuel Huntington asserted that, whenever there is a clash of civilisation, the superior one subdues the weaker ones.

Huntington’s political philosophy helps to explain how the doctrine of discovery was able to dislodge ATR.

According Zvobgo (1996:1), AICs came at a time when the Africans were fed-up of colonisation and Western-founded churches. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, used the colonial government to take land from the natives.

Land is at the core of ATR and it is an identity to an African man. To date, Western-founded churches own substantial amounts of land, properties and social utilities.

In some instances, the congregants were used as cheap labour. Weller (1984:204) argued that, whilst the Western founded churches were able to build churches, hospitals, colleges, universities and schools, they failed to understand the psychology of Africans.

Bax (1997:10) postulates that Western founded churches never came together to blame the Human Rights violations by the colonial government or showed any support for the liberation struggle.

However, outside the confines of theology, some clergyman would in their individual capacity support the liberation struggle. In post-independence Zimbabwe, those individual clergymen who supported its struggle were recognised in their individual capacities and the negative attitude towards Western-founded churches remained.

Bax (1997:10) argues that in 1959 the Presbyterian clergy in Zambia blatantly refused to be part of the non-racial negotiations for union. The attitude of the Presbyterian clergy in Zambia, South Africa and Zimbabwe changed drastically after these countries attained their independence.

Zwana (2010:10) adds that the problem of Western-founded churches is that they failed to contextualise and to use traditional artefacts and African elements such as sadza and maheu for Holy Communion.

He went on to state that language, artefacts and symbols are central to any culture, and AICs were successful in that regard. Zwana also notes that Africans showed they were ready to leave the shelters and comfort of the Western-founded churches to worship in the open spaces because AICs successfully managed to speak to the hearts of the Africans.

The doctrine of one centre of power is perhaps a borrowed phenomenon from the Catholic Church since the doctrine of papal infallibility and the doctrine of discovery existed first before states existed in the present form.

States only existed through the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. In Europe there is hegemonic political behaviour which is based on absolutism yielding to limited human rights and democracy.

The Roman Catholic Church since its formation has never respected the rights of women and children and the most respected philosophers of all centuries were Catholics.

Early philosophers like Aristotle would argue to say women and children are the same and they must be denied basic rights like food and nutrition (Heard, 1997:1). Heard argues that the human rights discourse started in Europe by philosophers in order to search for a moral standard for political organisation and behaviour. He goes on to state that human rights did not come from opposition politics as is the popular belief but from philosophical debates (ibid, 1997:2).

Thomas Aquinas, in his volume Summa Theologia, takes the debate further and introduced terms such as “right thinking”, and Hugo Grotius added the term, “de jure belli et paci” which means immutability of what is wrong and right. However, the scholars agreed that the ecclesiastical moral standards were the benchmarks for the development of human rights, up until the reformation period when ecclesiastical beliefs were shaken by rationalism, and later, political philosophers like Emmanuel Kant.

Kant says the state has a moral obligation to safeguard the rights of its citizens where a state is expected to formulate laws that will be universal and should respect equality, freedom and autonomy of citizens.

However, in a rebuttal to political ideas of Kant who argues for the state as the guarantor of citizens’ rights, John Locke in his work Two Treatise on Government, argues that, human rights are God ordained and given to humankind (ibid, 1997:4).

The idea of states as the guarantor of rights of citizens is becoming more and more complex, with some churches beginning to assume the statehood status, for example, the Vatican City, which is the citadel of the Roman Catholic Church and the Islamic Republic of Iran which is also another classic example.

The Catholic Church is perhaps the only Christian church with a statehood status. The United Nations awarded the Vatican City state recognition, meaning the Vatican City, like any state, can enter into agreements, engage in diplomatic relations and is entitled to have armies like any other sovereign state.

The nuncios are the Pope’s representatives/ambassadors.

While the early Catholic Church could have laid the foundation for the birth of human rights, the church later started to formulate theologies and doctrines that oppose human rights.

Just like Machiavelli’s Prince was the tutor of tyrants and dictators, the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of discovery and dominion laid the foundation for slave trade, property and Human Rights violations, colonisation, and cultural erosion amongst other vices.

Within the Catholic Church itself, there are gender disparities. The nuns are inferior to the priests. To add on, there are also unreported human rights violations in the church’s formation houses and seminaries where nuns and priests are trained.

The Roman Catholic Church stands accused of gender and human rights violations and there are a number of cases of sexual abuse involving Catholic bishops on women and boys, most of whom are in “mass auxiliary teams”.

In Africa, the church was an active participant in colonisation and AICs emerged as a protest (Mukonyora, 1993:147).

Pope John Paul 11’s Vatican 11 became the turning point and the church began to reconstitute and reform itself. The Vatican 11 document was grounded research, able to articulate the real challenges that were affecting the church.

The issue of the African agents of the gospel was the Vatican 11’s greatest religious milestone and an effective mobilisation strategy. Weller (1984:10) posits that Western religion when it came to Africa failed to contextualise the gospel, resulting in it lacking its Africanness.

The Vatican 11 was a positive step therefore in the contextualisation of the gospel and the church coming out openly that it no longer condoned injustices and human rights violations. The church went on to form the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) to fight injustices in all the facets of life (ibid, 1984:11).

According to Mukonyora (1993:147), the perception of conversion by early missionaries who were predominantly Roman Catholics was misguided in that it involved forcing Africans to change their values, norms and ethos.

The early missionaries predominantly pushed for their values, norms and ethos, ignoring the fact that Africans had their own values, norms and ethos as well before the coming of the missionaries.

There is therefore an urgent need for the Catholic Church to institute thesis and anti-thesis of its recruitment strategies to avert continuously losing congregants, catechists, priests, nuns and especially seminarians in the formation houses. While Vatican 11 recognised African agents of the gospel, these have been subjected to various racial and Human Rights violations at formation houses and seminaries.

The Roman Catholic Church produced a very important document but lagged on monitoring and evaluation to ensure that its goals are achieved and implementation problems addressed.

According to Bourdillon (1973:28), early missionaries created enmity with Africans by labelling their culture devilish and non-existent, and the Vatican 11 document was very articulative in addressing the past mistakes by early missionaries.

While at policy level African agents of the gospel were legally recognised, in practice the missionaries’ colonial mentality which was already institutionalised in their formation houses and seminaries took centre stage.

With the Vatican 11 resolution, Africans joined seminaries and formation houses in numbers; but only few would qualify and endure the treatment at these centres. Though Africans are by nature resilient, a number of them are found to have dropped out for various unknown reasons from seminaries.

Some of the reasons may be found in the failure by the Church to Africanise its practices to fit into the contextual environment of the African society. The Anglican Church and the prosperity gospel preachers are the major beneficiaries of these defections.

Since the Catholic Church has assumed statehood status, it must have clearly defined strategic plan documents, public relations officer for image building and image repair processes.

The strategic plan document must address issues to do with pneumatology, especially the doctrine of charismatics, celibacy in light of sexual abuses involving nuns and priests, livelihoods of priests and nuns and human rights abuses by the church on nuns and priests, especially those in the formation houses and seminaries.

According to Banana (1991:30), missionaries institutionalised their hegemonic character.  Banana alluded to the pouring of information from a superior mind into the empty pupil.

However, with African states managing to decolonise themselves politically, few post-independent African states continued to give political protection to Western-founded churches.

The position previously occupied by the Western founded churches was replaced by AICs (ibid, 1991:31). The church-state relations tilted in favour of AICs and few priests and nuns who directly supported the revolutionary struggle continued to enjoy state protection in their

individual capacity, for example, Fr Fidelis Mukonori (SJ) and the late Archbishop, Patrick Chakaipa. 

Catholic priests who became critical of the post-colonial African states were exposed of their misdemeanours, for example, Archbishop Pius Ncube who, unlike members of AICs, had his sexual scandals covered extensively. Thus, the Western-founded religions inclusive of the Roman Catholic Church must adopt survival strategies before these churches become ruins in Africa. The relevance of the Westernc-founded churches in Africa is continuously diminishing.

The Roman Catholic Church, like most Western-founded churches, did not plan for post-independent strategies in Africa. They failed to formulate context specific strategies in order to improve their church-state relations contextually.

The other aspect is that, while the Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice is instrumental in limiting the excessive use of force by the state on its citizens, its open criticism on democracies made the Roman Catholic Church to be seen as an agent of regime change and neo-colonialism.

According to Baur (1994:17), what missionaries forget is that in their attempt to evangelise, they end up colonising states religiously. Thus, there were three major forms of colonisation in Africa, namely: religious, political and economic through the slave trade which, in turn, shaped how Africans perceive Westerners. To be continued…

About the writer: Matthew Mare is a Zimbabwean academic who holds two bachelor’s degrees, five master’s qualifications and a PhD. He is also doing another PhD and has 12 executive certificates in different fields. Professionally, he is a civil servant and also board member at the National Aids Council of Zimbabwe.

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