Catholic Church issues mea culpa on apartheid

by Jean-Michel Berthoud,

The Catholic Church in Switzerland dealt with apartheid “hesitantly” and allowed itself to be influenced by business interests, a church-commissioned study has found.

Historians looked into the church’s approach to South Africa’s racial segregation regime between 1970 and 1990 and found “a cautious and rather hesitant approach towards the issue of apartheid” prevailed.

Church leadership often reacted defensively and with foot-dragging to demands to tackle apartheid more robustly, according to the report commissioned by the National Justice and Peace Commission of the Swiss Bishops Conference.

“The position of the church leadership reflected the circumstances in Swiss society at the time,” historian Bruno Soliva, co-author of the study told

“The Catholic Church was firmly rooted in the conservative milieu; the church leadership in particular was linked to the middle classes and took up their interests, partly subconsciously,” Soliva said.

From 1980 there was a new tendency in the Catholic Church towards more conservatism, “also through the Polish Pope John Paul II”, Soliva said. “This strengthened the position of those circles that feared a communist revolution in South Africa.”

At the presentation of the report in September, Abbot Martin Werlen, speaking on behalf of the Bishops Conference, said that from today’s viewpoint it was regrettable that the Swiss church leadership did not act more forcefully and courageously against apartheid.

read more on swissinfo

Demonstrators protest in Johannesburg in 1960 shortly after the Sharpeville massacre that left 69 black Africans dead after police opened fire (AFP)

The Swiss Catholic Church was also influenced by its counterpart in South Africa which never took a clear position on the use of sanctions as an instrument against the apartheid system.

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