Originally: The Catholic Church and Us

From the early days of independence through the first half of the twentieth century, the (Christian) education provided to Haitians was exclusively Catholic. Protestants were few and far between. Today, Catholics remain the majority, but indications are that Protestants are gaining ground by the day. In any case, whether Catholic or Protestant, Haiti is a predominantly Christian country. Yet it is clear that the Catholic Church has done more to date than any other institution to weave and preserve the moral fabric of our country.

Personally, I still value the Catholic education I received, first from my parents, then from the Brothers of Christian Instruction  who ran the Ecole Frère Paulin in Jeremie where my brothers and I went to elementary school. I am inclined to think that Protestants also cherish their religious education.

Over the years, my faith has faltered a great deal, but not so the education I received.

Recently, the long protracted death-bed of Pope John Paul II, his death, funeral, and the election of his successor, Benedict XVI, broadcast live on television, conjured up for me  memory of the Catholic liturgy that so marked my childhood. The ritual was familiar to me, and I was able, like all those of my generation who studied in catholic  schools, to hum along with some of the hymns of the day. It filled me briefly with delight, almost with happiness.

And then I got to thinking about the Catholic Church in Haiti. What has become of it? Can it still set the moral standard? Hasn’t the Church in Haiti gone too far in following trends? I take the liberty to submit these questions to my country’s Catholics, who may be able to answer them based on their own experience.

Since Vatican II, the Church has had to make many adjustments. Many new structures came into being. But what link is there in Haiti between authorities like the Conference of Bishops (for the bishops), the Haitian Conference of Religious (for priests, nuns and brothers), and the grassroots ecclesiastical communities (Ti kominote legliz or TKL, for the faithful and active members of the lay community)? And what about all these charismatic groups in search of spiritual renewal that are popping up all over the place? Do they all follow the doctrine and teachings of the Church?

I know these questions may be surprising from a man of little faith. But I consider them necessary given the spiritual confusion that afflicts Haitian Catholics, especially the young. I fear that priests’ sermons alone are not enough to counter this confusion, particularly while certain priests exhibit questionable behavior outside the church (and even within it). It’s not that there are so many bad priests in Haiti. According to my empirical estimates, they barely amount to a fraction of one percent. But the Church itself teaches that the wheat must be separated from the chaff. It must ask itself whether it hasn’t been too complacent with respect to renegade priests. This observation is quite simply a call for vigilance.

It is wonderful that the Church continues to multiply its social works and is even involving itself in development activities. During the 1960s father Rio in Laborde, in the Les Cayes region, was cited as an example. He set up an NGO that met with great success. Subsequently, and to this day, many priests have undertaken similar projects with varying degrees of success.

But, in my opinion, these activities should not be the first or foremost occupation of priests. There is no need to be a priest or a member of a religious order to open an orphanage or take in children off the streets, especially as these activities are never managed strictly enough, opening them up to criticism that is not always unfounded. The Church’s image has often suffered from this, and its stature diminished. Don’t they say that charitable organizations abroad are somewhat hesitant to participate in fundraising efforts benefiting the Church in Haiti, because they do more to enrich certain priests than to relieve the suffering of the poor? But, what don’t they say?

After John Paul II’s visit to Haiti in 1983, and his proclamation that “things must change here,” the Church became galvanized to the point of starting an extraordinary campaign that would undermine Jean-Claude Duvalier’s regime until his departure. It was waged on all fronts, and the message was unified when Radio Soleil denounced the great social inequality and injustice reigning in Haiti.

Subsequently, the Conference of Bishops even took the initiative to organize a forum at Villa Manrèse on the need for national agrarian reform. This was bold and risky. After more than 150 years, the expression “agrarian reform” had practically vanished from the Haitian sociopolitical vocabulary. But the Church had broken the taboo. Indeed, even after this Church initiative, the National Association of Haitian Agronomy  Professionals (ANDAH), which was organizing a seminar on agrarian reform a few months later in Cap-Haïtien, cautiously titled its seminar “Agrarian Structures and Land Reform” to avoid placing the words “agrarian” and “reform” together. They did not want to alarm the authorities. This shows how important the Church’s initiative was!

I was one of three moderators at the Villa Manrèse forum, along with Guy Malary and Father Fyot (a Jesuit economist working for the finance ministry at the time). Several ANDAH members were also there. The debate was quite lively among the priests who wanted radical agrarian reform—starting with the distribution of Church land—and the representative of the high-ranking clergy who, supported by Father Fyot, only wanted to propose the distribution of government land.

After this stormy, inconclusive forum, the Conference of Bishops gave the impression that its decisions were not being made as a collegial body. It seemed winded and fearful of excesses. Perhaps this is why it was unable to anticipate the massing of parish priests on the front lines. Using impassioned rhetoric drawn from an often poorly assimilated liberation theology and catchy turns of phrase like the Church’s preferential option  for the poor (an overused legacy of Vatican II), many of these priests found it more rewarding to embark upon a ministry that was more political than Christian.

In fact, this ministry was not even political; it was merely partisan and often sectarian. The declared preferential option  for the poor in some cases only masked a hatred of the rich and elites in general.

It’s so much easier to deliver impassioned sermons than to preach Christian morality by example!

The great solidarity movement that seemed to arise before and in the immediate wake of Duvalier’s departure, and in which the Catholic Church was a catalyst, began to crumble, and populism took root within the Church. Not enough can be said about the role priests played in the dissemination and consolidation of post-Duvalier populism in Haiti. Yet Catholic teachings have never been populist. Indeed, the opposite is true.

Worse yet, some priests who returned from exile, basking in the glow of their status as activist intellectuals among the first to stand up to François Duvalier (who had expelled them), leaped into the political arena, genuinely hoping to contribute to building a more just and egalitarian society. But they proved to be quite selective, participating in debates on the Constitution and supporting certain worker and peasant claims, while being rather indifferent, for example, to the claims of the National Federation of Haitian Students (FENEH), which was very loudly  demanding university autonomy.

Similarly, in July 1987, when ANDAH sent an official letter to the Conference of Bishops requesting that it issue a formal statement of support for Jean-Rabel’s Gwoupman Tèt Ansanm, many of whose members had just been massacred, it received no response. At the time, it was said that the enthusiasm with which the students had welcomed the contributions of the amiable René Théodore (who presented himself officially as a communist) was not to the liking of the high-ranking Catholic clergy, which had begun to warn against “the bad elements that have infiltrated us.”

This did not, however, keep most  of the-impassioned-sermons-priests, or some intellectual priests from becoming, two or three years later, holy warriors for the Lavalas movement and the priest from St. Jean Bosco… That could be called the culminating moment of the schism within the Catholic Church of Haiti, when the hierarchy seemed to have been taken hostage once and for all by the grassroots ecclesiastical communities. So when in 1991 the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, François W. Ligondé, summoned up John Paul II’s “Have no fear,” the Church was already either too polarized to follow, either too cowardly to accept, or too compromised to intervene with any credibility. It abandoned Ligondé to his fate….

Without this schism and its terrible consequences, a Haitian cardinal would likely have participated in Pope Benedict XVI’s recent election. His name might have been Constant, Gayot or Ligondé, but there would have been a Haitian cardinal. At least this is my  firm belief .

So where does the Catholic Church stand in Haiti today? I don’t have an answer to that question. But what little faith I have left, I put in this Church to pull itself together. If for no other reason than as a tribute to—and in remembrance of—all those priests, members of religious orders, and active members of the lay community murdered over the last fifteen years under circumstances that remain unclear. And I think that if the Church could find its bearings, our country could more easily find its way.

The Church (both Catholic and Protestant) must therefore rediscover its unity. First, it must reject the populist stance and return to Christian teachings, which, like any serious teachings, prohibits more than it allows, while populism burdens itself with no restrictions. And the Church must do what is necessary to enforce these prohibitions.

The Church must avoid any appearance of partisanship. For many years now, each administration has taken steps to have one or two bishops in its camp, not counting  the priests who have acquired the habit of letting themselves be co-opted with disconcerting ease. Priests (and pastors) must preach by example. The old adage “do as I say, not as I do” is obsolete and can no longer be applied.

The decentralization of the Church cannot mean the decentralization of faith. I believe we must be wary of the idea of a tropical, colorful church that would choose to apply the preferences of the flock and cast a blind eye on what the flock doesn’t like. The Church cannot follow the trends of the day. If the new Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, denounced the “dictatorship of relativism,” the Church in Haiti must further denounce and struggle against the dictatorship of nihilism that affects the vast majority of Haitians (both Catholic and Protestant), who act as though they believe in nothing, least of all in Christian values.

As for me, I support the right of women to decide for themselves whether or not to end a pregnancy. The Church opposes this. I am for the celibacy of priests and against same-sex marriage. The Church is too. (But then why do homosexuals want to be married in the Church?) I do not yet support the idea that there should be female priests. Nor does the Church. I am for the pill and the use of condoms. The Church is against them. My personal position, as an individual, is therefore not always in harmony with all the teachings of the Church. But I do not consider myself qualified to judge or criticize Church doctrine or John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

I am admittedly a man of little faith, but I recognize that the Catholic Church in Haiti has its work cut out. I wish it the best of luck.

Ericq Pierre