Saskia Van Hoyweghen’s article The Disintegration of the Catholic Church of Rwanda gives us a window into the pre-genocide climate amongst Christians. She writes:
Historically the Catholic Church in Rwanda developed into a prominent institution, of which the subsequent regimes have often been called mere extensions. As such the Church was, just like the state, used by competing indigenous groups as a channel to power, prestige, and wealth.
This close identification of the Church with the Rwandan State continues in some measure today, but with the Anglican Church having largely taken the place of the Catholic Church. Van Hoyweghen identifies a Thomist vision of society undergirding the genesis of the Rwandan Catholic Church:
The success of the ‘Tutsi Church’ was in tune with the vision of the colonial religious and political establishment. Leon Classe, Vicar Apostolic sine 1913, was the embodiment of the theocratic, thomist vision within Catholicism. He dreamed of a hierarchical state-church and found a supporter in the Belgian colonial administration, which wanted to rule through the ‘traditional’ political system but trimmed it to ‘manageable and rational proportions’. The Tutsi were regarded as the noble rulers and the Hutu their subservient farmers. As a result the vision of a Catholic aristocracy, informed by the Faith and leading a subject peasantry along the paths of righteousness and economic development materialized. While authority had been complex and diffuse in pre-colonial times, the Church had become the generator and stabiliser of class structures.
Van Hoyweghen says that two differing strands of Catholicism, one being a Thomist vision of stability, the other being a more “Vatican II” social justice strand, — competed with one another within Rwanda:
By the 1940s, however, the political climate had changed sufficiently to generate among the new generation of missionaries and administrators sympathy for the Hutu cause. In the seminaries a Hutu counter-elite was formed. This elite could move to power because it successfully rallied the support of ‘social Catholicism’. The clergy experienced in Europe the burgeoning emancipation of a working class and the growth of trade-unionism. Hence it felt it had a moral duty to speak out on social injustice. This view was opposed to the ideas of Classe, who saw society and structure as neutral and the individual as the safeguarder of morality. These two strands within Christianity have never been at equilibrium in the Rwandese Catholic Church. While Hutu abbes found the support of an emancipating social Catholicism, the Tutsi abbes on the other hand expressed anti-Belgian and anti-White Father feelings and developed a nationalist discourse which was eventually turned against them.
She poses the question of whether it is even proper to speak of the Church as an institution when individuals participated in it for their own (often ethnic) reasons:
While Tutsi were driven out of public office, they ‘would not let go of the Church’ as a channel for influence. Tutsi dominated the clergy because Hutu could finally take up positions in the public sphere. The Church played a major role in the economic development of the country and became the biggest employer after the state. It was therefore the focus of both Tutsi and deprived Hutu, mainly from the northern provinces in search of social promotion. The Church hierarchy however remained ‘faithful to the revolution’. The clergy reflected the fissions within society: while 90 per cent of the Christian population was Hutu, 70 per cent of the lower clergy were Tutsi, and most bishops Hutu. In this sense the Church was penetrated by society and faced difficulties becoming an independent institution with control over its flock. The question is, then, to what extent can the Catholic Church be considered an institution rather than a collection of people who all had their own reasons for being part of it? From the very start the indications of the potential weakness of the Church, have been largely overlooked in accounts of Rwandese Church history.
For most of its history, the Catholic Church in Rwanda was silent about the enormous evil perpetrated by the successive governments it was allied with. She writes:
The mute Church
In the midst of all this turbulence the Church remained silent. There was no reaction regarding the murder of Sylvio Sindambiwe, a journalist of the Catholic journal Kinyameteka. He paid with his life for an article he wrote on corruption. Amongst those arrested in October 1990 were several Tutsi priests, but again there came no reaction. The mark ‘mute Church’ would prove difficult to lose. Social justice had for long been absent from the Church’s vocabulary. The curriculum of the seminary of Nyakibanda, where Mgr. Perraudin had taught Kayibanda the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, had concentrated on liturgical matters and banned the discussion of social issues. The same Perraudin had kept silent when, years later, Kayibanda was imprisoned after the coup and died in prison of ‘neglect’ in 1976.
And she points to what I consider to be another key point of contact with the current Anglican leadership, particularly Archbishop Rwaje, Archbishop Kolini and Bishop Rucyahana – namely, the failure to address political problems such as the torture and murder of citizens that the RPF practices. The pietism of the Anglican Church seems to also be present in the Catholic Church:
The Church did not regard violence or corruption to be a structural problem but an aberration. It has become a hierarchically structured charity that did not question the political structures in which it comfortably operated and extended its development activities. The Church showed its clerical, hierarchical face again and remained deaf to Vatican II. Missionaries formerly active in Rwanda confirmed that the Rwandese Catholic Church was a very liturgical church, concentrating on individual salvation. This attitude has undoubtedly encouraged the development of a charismatic movement within the Church. Longman insists that this is even more true for the local parish. As social and economic centres they focused almost entirely on the development of personal faith. Problems were regarded as individual, and economic problems were never discussed in their broader sociopolitical context. It can be argued that the Church had an economic interest in supporting the existing status quo because as a cumbersome, extensive institution it needed a stable environment in which to operate. By the 1990s the changes in the air spelt a reshuffling of the cards if not instability. The Church hesitated to speak out. While the episcopacy remained silent, Christian organizations working under the umbrella of the Church took part in the rally for democracy. Both the Christian journals Kinyamateka and Dialogue had long been very critical of the regime and so were several Christian movements, such as youth organizations. The senior clergy, however, who had profited from the symbiosis with the regime, had no eye for social injustice nor the oppression of its own Tutsi clergy.
Switch “Hutu” for “Tutsi” here and you have a picture of Rwanda today! Finally, in 1991, voices from within the Church began to speak out:
The fact that the opposition remained united and credible explains why it managed to push through its demands. At this point it had also received an extra voice. On 1 December 1991 the Church broke its silence. Mgr. Thaddee Nsengiyumva (who is not related to the Archbishop Mgr. Vincent Nsengiyumva), Bishop of Kabgaye, published a pastoral letter entitled ‘Let’s Convert and Live Together in Peace’. This brave and self-critical document came as a real bombshell. Firstly it criticized the Church’s silence. It also accused the Church of corruption: the links with the grassroots were neglected because the Church had become part of the ruling elite in search of prestige and material rewards. Secondly, Mgr. Thaddee Nsengiyumva condemned the war. The political issues in the letter were in tune with the demands of the opposition. He was also of the opinion that the solution of the refugee problem would give the RPF no basis to continue the war.