Roman Catholicism

Haiti Table of Contents

Before the Haitian Revolution, Roman Catholicism in particular and the church in general played minor roles in colonial life. Plantation owners feared that religious education for slaves could undermine their basis for control, and they expelled the education-oriented Jesuits in 1764. Roman Catholicism gained official status in several postindependence Haitian constitutions, but there was no official Roman Catholic presence in the country until the signing of a Concordat with the Vatican in 1860. (The Vatican had previously refused to recognize the Haitian government.) The Concordat provided for the appointment of an archbishop in Port-au-Prince, designated dioceses, and established an annual government subsidy for the church. An amendment to the Concordat in 1862 assigned the Roman Catholic Church an important role in secular education.

The small number of priests and members of religious orders initially ministered mainly to the urban elite. Until the midtwentieth century, the majority of priests were francophone Europeans, particularly Bretons, who were culturally distant from their rural parishioners. Roman Catholic clergy were generally hostile toward voodoo, and they led two major campaigns against the religion in 1896 and 1941. During these campaigns, the government outlawed voodoo services, and Catholics destroyed voodoo religious objects and persecuted practitioners. Roman Catholic clergy, however, have not been persistently militant in their opposition to voodoo, and they have had relatively little impact on the religious practices of the rural and the urban poor. The clergy have generally directed their energies more toward educating the urban population than toward eradicating voodoo. In the 1970s and the 1980s, the use of Creole and drum music became common in Roman Catholic services. Incorporating folk elements into the liturgy, however, did not mean that the Roman Catholic Church's attitude toward voodoo had changed.

Nationalists and others came to resent the Roman Catholic Church because of its European orientation and its alliance with the mulatto elite. François Duvalier opposed the church more than any other Haitian president. He expelled the archbishop of Portau -Prince, the Jesuit order, and numerous priests between 1959 and 1961. In response to these moves, the Vatican excommunicated Duvalier. When relations with the church were restored in 1966, Duvalier prevailed. A Haitian archbishop was named for the first time, and the president gained the right to nominate bishops.

The mid-1980s marked a profound change in the church's stance on issues related to peasants and the urban poor. Reflecting this change was the statement by Pope John Paul II, during a visit to Haiti in 1983, that "Things must change here". Galvanized by the Vatican's concern, Roman Catholic clergy and lay workers called for improved human rights. Lay workers helped develop a peasant-community movement, especially at a center in the Plateau Central. The Roman Catholic radio station, Radio Soleil, played a key role in disseminating news about government actions during the 1985-86 crisis and encouraging opponents of the Duvalier government. The bishops, particularly in Jérémie and Cap-Haïtien, actively denounced Duvalierist repression and human-rights violations.

In the aftermath of Jean-Claude Duvalier's departure, the church took a less active role in Haiti's politics. The church hierarchy strongly supported the suppressed 1987 Constitution, which granted official status to Creole and guaranteed basic human rights, including the right to practice voodoo. The alliance with the lower classes left the Catholic Church with two unresolved problems in the late 1980s: its uneasy relationship with voodoo and its relationship to the more radical elements of the political movement that it had supported.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress