African Scribe logo
Current issue: Vol.1, No. 3 July 2001

Go to Content page Feedback


Should the Vatican Compensate for Colonialism/Slavery?

By Cathy Majtenyi

At the World Conference Against Racism, held recently in South Africa, there was much talk of compensation for the evils of colonialism and slavery. As a major institution during the days of colonialism, the question arises: should the Vatican also be included in the compensation debate?

Should the Catholic Church compensate Africans for the evils of colonialism that she knowingly or unknowingly has participated in or perpetuated?

At the World Conference Against Racism, held from August 31 to September 7 in Durban, South Africa, and at its NGO Forum that took place the week before the conference, there was much talk about why and how European and North American countries must pay reparations to Africans and African-Americans for colonialism and the slave trade. It was argued that European and North American economies directly benefited from these exploitive practices, which robbed Africans of much of their human and natural resources. It is only just that Africans, therefore, should be compensated for their losses, argued a wide array of human rights and social justice groups.

In the end, after dramatic walk-outs by the delegations of Israel and the United States over the Zionism-equals-racism question - some observers arguing that the real reason why the U.S. pulled out was so that it could avoid apologizing for the slave trade, which would potentially open up the government to many lawsuits - and after mixed opinions from African governments on the issue of compensation, Western countries agreed that slavery and the slave trade were "appalling tragedies in the history of humanity," and that they express "profound regret" for the "suffering caused by colonialism."

"Significant" apology

For Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to United Nations offices in Geneva and head of the Vatican's delegation to the conference, this admission by the Western countries was a major feat. Calling the apology "significant," Archbishop Martin told African Scribe that the final declaration is "a beginning to re-examine areas of history that were presented not too long ago as glorious." The next step must be to ensure that the abuses of the past never happen again, he said.

Before and during the conference, the Vatican delegation rolled up its sleeves and jumped right into the compensation debate. At the start of the conference, the Vatican released its submission, titled, "The Church and Racism: Towards a More Fraternal Society," which consisted of a 23-page introductory update to the original text published in 1988. In it, the Vatican says that people are entitled to reparation "if personally and directly they have suffered injury (material or moral) As far as possible, reparation should erase all the consequences of the illicit action and restore things to the way they would most probably be if that action had not occurred. When such a restoration is not possible, reparation should be made through compensation (equivalent reparation)."

Admittedly, how and in what form this reparation comes about is very difficult and complicated to ascertain, says the Vatican's document. The bottom line, however, is that: "the Holy See wishes to emphasize that the need for reparation reinforces the obligation of giving substantial help to developing countries, an obligation weighing chiefly on the more developed countries. This is not only a moral obligation; it is also a requirement resulting from the right of each people to development."

Should Vatican also compensate?

However, in its documents, speeches, and presentations, the Vatican missed - or purposely chose to ignore - a key question: If the Vatican has called for Western countries to provide some form of reparation or compensation to restore the wrongs of the past, does not the Vatican have the same obligation? As a partner who chose to look the other way when abuses were being committed - or even actively participate, in some cases - should not the Vatican provide some sort of reparation or compensation for its role in colonialism or the slave trade?

That the church aligned itself with repressive structures in African countries in the past is without doubt. South Africa, where the conference was held, provides a case study. "There was a close relationship between colonization and early missionary evangelisation," Fr. Dabula Mpako, general secretary of the African Catholic Priests' Solidarity Movement, explained at one workshop. He described how early missionaries coming to South Africa accompanied, and ministered to, racist colonizers who laid the foundations for apartheid. Fr. Mpako said Catholic missionaries initially set up schools and hospitals to serve white settlers; when the missionaries eventually offered these services to black communities, the services were often second-rate. "The church of the early missionaries accepted the ideology of white European superiority," he said.

For its part, the universal Church is well aware of the sins of its past. The Vatican has gone as far as to confess its own guilt in history. The document describes how, in the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II made "requests for pardon in the name of the Church" for racist and discriminatory acts, the slave trade, the treatment of American Indians, and other "forms of counter-witness and scandal" that had taken place in the past millennium.

In the case of South Africa, the Church had been very vocal in opposing apartheid for more than a decade before its official demise in 1994, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban told those gathered at a Mass held during the conference. In a somewhat apologetic homily, Cardinal Napier had rhymed off a list of the measures that the South African Catholic Church took to fight against apartheid. These included: releasing a pastoral plan in 1989 with recommendations on how to implement social justice and bridge the gap between races in the Southern Africa church; issuing a declaration in 1990 that called apartheid an evil and a sin; and formulating a National Peace Accord in 1991 to bring peace between and amongst black and white political parties. "They [the measures] may not seem to have been much," Cardinal Napier told the congregation. "In all honesty they were not, and never could be enough." However, "they were the genuine efforts of a Church seeking to be a community serving humanity," he said.

But how - and in what form - the Church's reparation and compensation can come about is also a complicated matter. For instance, in an interview with African Scribe, controversial Sri Lankan theologian Fr. Tissa Balasuriya suggested that the Vatican return to their original owners works of art and other goods that were "brought over by force" or taken away from communities by missionaries, or give land back to communities.

However, that and other approaches are not satisfactory, because reparations can only happen between the specific individuals directly involved, Archbishop Martin told African Scribe. What's important to note, said Archbishop Martin, is that the Church has had a positive influence overall despite the fact that, in the early stages, there might have been "confusion" between the church and colonialism. "I would say that the contribution that the church has made over the centuries since then has been very, very favourable to those populations," he said. "At times, the church has been their only defender, and very often today the same. The most important contribution now is to strengthen our commitment to finding ways to empower those individuals and communities for the future."

Archbishop Martin's point about the Church being committed to empowering people, and his view that the abuses of the past must never happen again, may be the Church's best "reparation" and "compensation" strategies. And there's lots of work to be done. According to Fr. Mpako, the Vatican's conference document and admission of wrongdoing are good starts and should lauded for "unequivocally" condemning racism. However, in stressing that people need to change their hearts at an individual level, the document is weak in pointing out the collective, "systemic" nature of racism, Fr. Mpako told a workshop. "There is the tendency to focus on changing the heart in fighting racism," he said. "But if you focus on the systemic nature of racism, you are going to talk about how we are going to change the system at the same time as how we are going to change the heart."

Paternalism and guardianship

And nowhere does this need to be changed more than in the Church's hierarchy, said Fr. Mpako, where paternalism is still the order of the day in many places. For instance, he explained that there is a mentality among missionaries and white priests that most Africans are not "ready" to take over church projects, programs, and leadership structures. "There is an idea of guardianship," he said. "The African is presented as a child who is under the perpetual guardianship of the European, who will decide when the African has evolved enough to be able to be given full responsibility of his or her life." Nkululeko Godfrey Devulana, a lay Catholic with the Diakonia Council of Churches, an ecumenical social justice group in South Africa, agreed. He bemoaned the overwhelming presence of foreign priests in many black communities in South Africa, and said that community members often feel that the priest does not listen to them. He told a workshop that many people superficially go along with what the priest says. "It's a survival skill," he said. "I will agree with you because I need to survive."

As the Church becomes more African, there will be struggles. Fr. Mpako said that, in the inculturation process of elevating and promoting African culture in the church, some whites might get offended as their cultural influence diminishes. "Of course they [Europeans] are going to feel uncomfortable as we push up the African culture," he said. "So be it."

The after-effects of colonialism and the slave trade reach far beyond the physical plunder of Africa and her peoples - they cut to the very soul of the continent. Seeing as the Church is primarily concerned with matters of the soul, it must do what it can to restore equal and just relationships within the Church hierarchy and between the Church and society, so that the current situations that Fr. Mpako and Mr. Devulana described can become things of the past. In the words of "The Church and Racism: Towards a More Fraternal Society," the "moral obligation" of reparation "is also a requirement resulting from the right of each people to development."

Cathy Majtenyi is a Comboni Lay Missionary and Managing Editor of Africanews, a monthly internet feature service.


African Scribe is guest on PeaceLink web site