Swiss 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.

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.

Christian caution

The centre-right Christian Democrats, which rejected a boycott against South Africa, also played a braking role on the issue of apartheid. It is difficult to establish whether the party had an influence over the church leadership, according to Soliva. There are fewer written sources on this matter than oral witness statements.

“There were meetings between the church and the Christian Democrats but the issue of South Africa was seldom discussed. The political centre in Switzerland did not really concern itself with apartheid. It was an issue with the Social Democrats, on one side pushing for sanctions, and the Radicals and the Swiss People’s Party on the other side against sanctions.

“Christian Democrat parliamentarians were often on the boards of large or medium-sized banks. There were also Christian Democrat politicians in bank management, “although this was mainly the preserve of Radicals”.

Business as usual

Bishops were little interested in economic issues but influenced by business representatives or state officials in the service of the economy. “Business figures were especially effective when they warned of a communist revolution in South Africa.”

But the banks and business lobbies probably had a greater influence on the Protestant Church than on the Catholic Church.

“That is because in those days businessmen and bankers were more likely to be Protestant. The Catholic Church had to reject neo-liberalism on the grounds of their social teaching,” said Soliva.

“There was, however, in both churches a certain level of distrust towards business circles. But they didn’t want ruin things completely with them.”

The churches as a whole were less under pressure from business people and rightwing conservative circles than the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund and the Protestant charity Bread for All (Bread for Brothers at the time), according to the historian.

Reds under the beds

The issue of apartheid in South Africa was discussed in an international anti-communism context.

“At the same time there was also an older ‘philosophical’ anti-communism that persisted in the Catholic Church. And the church leadership distrusted the Liberation theology that had emerged from South America, suspecting that it was infiltrated by socialism.”

The church also bowed to the criticism of rightwing conservative groups.

“They reacted in a contradictory way: They always took the position that human rights must be defended. But when it came to bravely going public and for example also supporting economic sanctions against the apartheid regime, they were afraid of conflict,” Soliva said.

Grass roots

The Catholic Church leadership was overburdened, the historian says.

“They wanted to avoid these conflicts and often simply do nothing or too little. A decisive part of this was that apartheid was an important issue in church circles at that time; there were grass-roots church groups like Student Christian Youth as well as the Cairo working group of the Theological Movement for Solidarity and Liberation.”

“A bit more engagement and decisiveness on the part of the Swiss Catholic Church in its commitment to human dignity and the rights of all people in South Africa would, in hindsight, have boosted the credibility of the church leadership,” Soliva said.

“The Church leadership would have done better to have taken more notice of the voices of the engaged grass roots and the experienced members of mission societies earlier and to have done so earlier;” the study concludes.

“Human rights issues transcend the stereotypical left-right divide and the considerations of the time run the risk of being overtaken by history.”

(Adapted from German by Clare O’Dea)


swissinfo is an enterprise of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). Its role is to inform Swiss living abroad about events in their homeland and to raise awareness of Switzerland in other countries. swissinfo achieves this through its nine-language internet news and information platform.

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