Decolonization

In parallel to the East-West conflict, the fifteen years between 1945 and 1960 were marked by the rapid and unforeseen crumbling of European colonial empires, the rise of the ‘Third World’, and a reconfiguration of North-South relations. The Catholic Church played a critical role in these processes, but was itself deeply affected by these changes. Therefore, this research group addresses the Vatican’s role in global decolonization with two independent projects.

At the University of Fribourg, a project will analyze the actions and the organization of missionaries in West-Africa and in Belgian-Congo in particular. While some of them favored change and anti-colonial ideas, others clung to traditional colonial models. Hence, we are not only dealing with a conflict between colonial powers and decolonization movements, but also with a divide within the Church that accompanied the re-coupling of global geopolitics. In this context, a PhD project at the University of Leuven (Sam Kuijken) will engage with the creation of alternative North-South movements through non-governmental organizations that went beyond traditional forms of Catholic mission. In the re-arrangement of alliances along the North-South and East-West axes, Catholicism gave rise to new political actors, such as humanitarian organizations and Christian-social movements, which projected visions of an alternative “global civil society”.1 Ultimately, an analysis of such NGOs can show that the process of decolonization was not only driven by the pressures of the Cold War and the spread of communism, but also by Catholic policies and influences.

Via non-governmental actors, papal diplomacy took part in the renegotiation between colonial powers and the emerging postcolonial societies. While reassessing its complicity with the European imperial powers, such as France and Belgium, during the 1950s, the Vatican created new alliances with the formerly colonized societies by erasing previous forms of imperialism from its memory and public representation (saints, liturgies, languages, spatial ordering, new dioceses, indigenous clergy).2 The coalition with colonialism was thus increasingly replaced by an outspoken affirmation of anti-colonialism. In his mission encyclicals (Evangelii praecones), for instance, Pius XII urged missionaries to overcome colonialism. At the same time, however, this new strategy was never explicitly announced within Europe, where the Church would continue to present itself as the standard bearer of occidental identity and thus perpetuate its alignment with old colonial powers such as de Gaulle’s France, Franco’s Spain, and Salazar’s Portugal.

While the Catholic Church regained after 1945 some of the political influence that it had lost in the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, it was also confronted with rapid demographical transformations and with an opening to the non-European world. The Vatican was forced to react to the rapid population increase in Catholic countries of the ‘Third World’, such as Brazil or Angola (which remained under Portuguese administration until 1975). This is evident not least in the fact that the number of Latin American and Asian cardinals sharply rose under Pius XII (Africa gained its first native cardinal as late as 1960). At the same time, however, it must be asked how these changes affected the traditional balance of power within the Vatican that had been dominated for generations by Italian clerics. Did the cultural opening of the Church fostered by Pius encounter internal resistance in Rome? Or was he himself driven by political pressure abroad? We are dealing, in other words with competing tendencies of Occidentalism and ‘Third-Worldism’, imperialism and decolonization.3 Conservatives such as Marcel Lefebvre, for example, the papal legate to French Africa, vehemently opposed the rapprochement with the colonies and would later lead the conservative schism of the Priestly Fraternity of St Pius X. Accordingly, it may even be asked whether the divide over matters of decolonization must be understood as a precursor of the church schism that would follow after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Against the background of the Vatican’s entanglement in the history of colonialism, our research will have to analyze how the Church could become a supporter of decolonization movements across the globe in a matter of just a few years. In order to explain this contradiction, historians may obviously point to modes of a very strategic political opportunism. The key to understand this development, however, is also to acknowledge the ideological and cultural antagonisms and the plurality within the Catholic Church. In this context, various spaces of activism have to be addressed: missionary movements, Christians NGOs (e.g. Catholic Action), transnational networks established around newly founded Christian Democratic parties, Catholic trade unions, and missionary movements.4 All these stakeholders witnessed a vast expansion of their activities after 1945 and re-defined their relation with colonialisms. More importantly, however, they also diversified the Vatican’s diplomacy in the Global South, in which it could now appear as an actor, negotiator, broker and interlocutor.

Understandably, the traditional accounts of post-war Catholicism have focused on the Vatican’s perspective of anti-communism and on the coalition of the Church with the West. This narrative has many drawbacks, however. It tends to neglect the conflicts within Catholicism, the agency of the Third World, and the exchanges between different regions. A closer look at the Global South offers a more complex picture. The Church embraced and rejected different aspects of Cold War modernities in both the West and in the East. The Vatican was a major actor in Africa as well as in Latin America. It was decidedly anti-communist but struggled with its relation to the US and capitalism. This tension also led to new Catholic visions for the future of the Third World. The Dominican Louis-Joseph Lebret, for example, developed theories for a new ‘human economy’ that should transcend the classical divisions of the Cold War. Such calls for global solidarity clearly shaped the Catholic Church’s new ideological and political concerns that competed with older and more conservative ideas about the primacy of the Occident. Ultimately, however, new and explicitly democratic visions of theologians such as Lebret would find entry into the Second Vatican Council and in new encyclicals such as Populorum progressio that sought to re-design the relation between the Vatican and the Global South.

A JOC-section in Albertville (1948), conserved at KADOC (Audiovisual Archive of the International Young Christian Workers BE/942855/2496/182)
A JOC-section in Albertville (1948), conserved at KADOC (Audiovisual Archive of the International Young Christian Workers BE/942855/2496/182)

See also:

From colonial to global? Catholic internationalism and worldviews 1945-1958

  1. See: Samuel Moyn, Christian Human Rights (Philadelpia, 2015). []
  2. See for example: Elizabeth Foster, African Catholic: Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church (Cambridge MA, 2019). []
  3. Giuliana Chamedes, A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian Europe (Cambridge MA, 2019). []
  4. It should be noted that Fribourg and Leuven were centers for the training of missionaries. Throughout the last decades, historians at these university have explored the history of the missionary movement. See: Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft in Fribourg and the Mission and Modernity Research Academy in Leuven. []
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