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The Church should not be ashamed of its missionary past

Why are liberal Catholics so self-righteous about the Church in Africa?

By on Monday, 3 December 2012

Mideast Egypt Syria

I have been reading Everybody Matters, a memoir by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland (1990-1997) and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002). The author was born in 1944, and is thus a year older than I am; so it is instructive to read about her experience of a Catholic upbringing in County Mayo at a time when Ireland was much more of a Catholic country than it is today. The author grew to adulthood in the 1960s when all the old social and cultural certainties were being challenged. She was very aware of the real injustices surrounding her in Irish society: the fears of the homosexual community when their behaviour was still regarded as a criminal offence; the stigma attached to illegitimate children and their mothers; the cruel treatment meted out to the traveller community. There was also, as we learnt much later on, widespread abuse of vulnerable children in the industrial schools run by the Church.

The culture in Ireland has now changed completely and the author has played her part in this. The Catholic Church, from being an institution wielding too much temporal power at the expense of real charity or proper evangelisation, has been purged and humbled. There is now recognition among faithful Irish Catholics that true holiness of life has little to do with a public parade of pious behaviour. The kind of hypocrisy that coloured Irish life when the author was a young adult barrister practising at the Bar in Dublin is today a thing of the past.

Mary Robinson herself would not cavil at being described as a liberal Catholic, critical of the Church. She interprets the Gospel entirely in a socialist way, as being concerned with justice and peace, fairness and equality: changing the conditions of people’s lives rather than an inner conversion to Christ. She has questioned the all-male priesthood and as an early sympathiser with feminist issues, “the subtle violence of keeping one sex in a box” as she puts it.

However, one early memory she recalls with later indignation rather makes me smile. This is when she refers in her schooldays to “buying black babies in Africa”; she comments: “Only later did I appreciate the underlying racism and appalling nature of this exercise.” In my own Catholic primary school, a convent, we also helped to “save” black babies in Africa, but I do not see this as “racist” or as “appalling” in hindsight. The very worst one could say of this quaint practice was that it was paternalistic. Today paternalism is regarded as shockingly patronising and only one step away from actual “racism”. All that happened in those more innocent days was that we gave sixpence or a shilling a week to the class teacher for a black baby from the missions whom we had “adopted”; the more the sum increased, the nearer the baby climbed a ladder towards baptism and becoming a member of the Church.

What in principle is wrong with that? After the Second Vatican Council the whole idea of working in the missions came into question: who were we to impose our (western) religion on poor Africans? This was a form of exploitation almost as bad as colonialism itself; and as we were all now ecumenical, we should respect African native beliefs and not try to change them, and so on. But in the 1950s, choosing to become a priest or religious and then spending your entire life working in conditions of great hardship to bring the Good News of salvation to those trapped by witchcraft, paganism and superstition, was seen as self-sacrificing, a noble thing to do. Further, the mission schools were often of a high educational standard. The White Fathers, who worked in North Africa among the Muslim populations, often became distinguished Arabic scholars. And the film “Of Gods and Men” tells its own heroic story.

I am sure Mary Robinson did good work in highlighting injustices around the globe during her time as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – but she needs to avoid a certain self-righteous and Left-wing attitude when pointing to the Church’s missionary past.

  • teigitur

    The Irish have an impressive record of missionary work. Everything from the Monks travelling all over Europe and setting up monasteries( and thus early welfare system), to more latter-day missionaries all over the world working selflessly for others. I know one or two and stand in awe of them.
     How sad then, that Ireland is well on the way to needing missionaries itself. As for Mrs Robinson, she has some good ideas of justice, but principles are sadly misguided. Always a whiff of the smoked-salmon Socialist.

  • Jeannine

    My childhood pennies were sent to the African missions to feed, educate, clothe, & treat the illnesses of the poor. I never heard anything negative or political about the African missions. I learned this firsthand.
    In the parish of my youth, for a few summers my pastor would welcome an African priest who was educated by the white missionaries. These sub-Saharan priests would be used by my parish so that the parish priest can take his annual month-long vacation. It was a win-win situation. The Africans considered staying at my parish to also be a vacation. At the pulpit & elsewhere they would tell stories of African living & what the Catholic Church achieved in their homeland.
    The African people are so appreciative of what the Catholic Church, through the European & American religious orders, accomplished to improve their quality of life & to spread the Word of God to their countries, that some of them view the 1st world as missionary territory & willing let some of their religious leave their beloved Africa to re-evangelize us in gratitude.
    I’m a post Vatican II child; I don’t have the pre-post Vatican II hangup. I find it amazing that people like Mary Robinson, who grew up before Vatican II, can not go beyond their Catholic Church prejudice to really see the actual good the missionaries accomplished & continue to do so in Africa, despite some from the native population converting to the Catholic faith.

  • Patrickhowes

    Very true and well written article Francis.Having lived in South America for the last 6 years,I do not know where many of the poorest would be,if it were not for the Missionary work of the Church.Babies are not black in Chile,but I can assure you the Church has saved an awful lot.

  • Benedict Carter

    “Why are liberal Catholics so self-righteous about the Church in Africa?”

    The answer is simple. Because they are no longer Catholics, but have turned their inbuilt need to worship to new gods: the progressivist-liberal ideology that springs directly from atheistic Marxism and feminism. 

  • Ghengis

    If the bible and magesterium are wrong then its implausible that there is any right or wrong; therefore feminists and Marxists have no basis for saying they are right on anything. Either traditional morality is generally correct or there is no morality that is correct. Catholics are scared of feminists and Marxists, not because these left wingers are right, but because they have such strong conviction that they are right; most Catholics barely have any convictions about anything other than a sense of guilt that socialists give them about the poor. Its time Catholics believed more in their faith than the feminists and Marxists believe in theirs.

  • NewMeena

    Self-righteousness and Catholicism go together like bread and butter.

    After all, Catholics “know”, you know. Others are full of “errors” and have not the foggiest idea of  the truth,  

    Witchcraft and superstition has apparently been replaced by Catholicism in some places in Africa. Well, you said it! 

  • scary goat

     From my experience, generally Catholicism and humility go together like bread and butter.  The most arrogant and self righteous people I have ever come across are atheists.

  • rjt1

    The modern-day Pharisees demand perfection of our forebears.
    The missionaries went out to preach the Good News at Christ’s command. Yes, they made mistakes. They had their human limitations. Who does not?

  • Kevin

    What an unexpected headline. Who ever thought the Church should?

  • maxmarley

    Amen to that 

  • Rizzo The Bear

    You are so right. Mary McAleese is another one.

  • Vorsichtig Bitte

    If Christianity stops trying to evangelize (as it seems to me that the Church of England has done in its own country) then not only is it ignoring the express direction of its founder, but it is leaving the field open to Islam which most certainly does believe in missionising and conversion.

  • Yorkshire Catholic

    The problem comes when missionaries consciously try to extirpate the indigenous cultures that they find. American Protestant missionaries in Cambodia forcing people not to wear traditional amulets, for example. But since Francis Xavier, Catholic missionaries have generally espected and tried to preserve local cultures.

  • Peter

    Worship of God is worthless without charity to the needy.

  • rjt1

    And charity to the needy will be misguided and may be empty without the prayer and sacraments which allow us to share in the life of God.

  • NewMeena

    “If the bible and magesterium are wrong then its implausible that there is any right or wrong; therefore feminists and Marxists have no basis for saying they are right on anything.”

    What a breathtakingly arrogant statement.

    It would not simply be Feminists and Marxists who would be wrong about everything, but also the great majority of Mankind.

    And why would this (supposedly) be so?  
    Well that’s an easy one: it would be because they do no accept the so-called “truth” of the Bible and the R Catholic Church.

  • NewMeena

    You will not be surprised to know that my experience is the opposite.

    Why do you suppose that this is?

  • NewMeena

    And Catholic ones making naked indigenous peoples wear knickers.

    PS: is one allowed to use this word (you know which one) which may be read here by Catholics?

  • Charles Martel

    I am always slightly annoyed when I hear about all those hypocrites in the pre-Vatican II Irish church, and how much better it is now that people are honest. All this means is that the sinners who used to be in the Church have now left it. De La Rochefoucauld once said ‘hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue’. No one is saying hypocrisy is a good thing, but there are worse things in life.

  • Jacob

    The problem is that we waste our time being concerned with what these people think.

    If more Catholics jut went out and spread the Gospel and didn’t get discouraged by the secularists who go to church, they would create powerful institutions that couldn’t be ruined by the banality of people who are threatened by the Church.

  • rjt1

    One might also add that the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing missionary activity to fruition transcends the faults and limitations of the missioners. Hence the criticisms of the carpers tell us more about them than about the evangelisers of the past.

  • NewMeena

    Of course.  Orthodox Catholics are always right on matters of faith and morals.

  • teigitur

    At last you are getting it…..oh wait…..!

  • Jalet

    Vatican II wants missionaries to continue being missionaries.

    VATICAN II declared this in #7 of it’s decree Ad Gentes:
    “Therefore, all must be converted to Him, made known by the Church’s preaching, and
    all must be incorporated into Him by baptism and into the Church which
    is His body. For Christ Himself “by stressing in express language the
    necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mark 16:16; John 3:5), at the same
    time confirmed the necessity of the Church, into which men enter by
    baptism, as by a door. Therefore those men cannot be saved, who though
    aware that God, through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something
    necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it.”
    (Dogmatic constitution by Vatican II: Lumen Gentium 14) Therefore though
    God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the
    Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him
    (Heb. 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (1 Cor. 9:16), and at
    the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. And hence missionary
    activity today as always retains its power and necessity.”