For better or for worse, the church is keeping Haiti afloat

CHURCH AND STATE: A view from the street of the rotunda of the Catholic cathedral in Cap-Haitien, in northern Haiti. (Photo by Patrice S. Dorsainville on Unsplash)

When societies lack good governance and social stability, churches and clergy often fill the gaps. In some cases, especially in modern Africa, church leaders can become something like kingmakers. In the Western Hemisphere, the nation of Haiti exemplifies the central role of Christian churches in politics.

The nation was born in the 1790s out of the incredible turmoil of the great revolt of an enslaved population and the decades of war and devastation that followed. Famously, Haiti has always retained its African religious heritage in the form of vodun, but the vast majority of the people have also affirmed their staunch Catholic roots. More recently, evangelical and Pentecostal churches have exploded, in part because of the new forms of faith encountered by Haitian migrants as they settled in US cities such as Boston and Miami. Today, Protestants (mainly Evangelicals) make up around 30% of the country’s 11 million people, compared to 55% Catholics and 10% non-Catholics.

Haiti’s modern history has witnessed many disasters, both man-made and natural. From 1957 to 1986, the country was ruled with appalling tyranny by the Duvalier family, and more recent regimes have often been deeply unstable. The 2015 election results were so controversial that they were eventually overturned as widespread popular protests and demonstrations became rampant. Last year, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in still unexplained circumstances. The country is by far the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, with 60% of Haitians living below the poverty line; it is also marked by extreme inequality of wealth. As if these horrors weren’t enough, a 2010 earthquake killed 300,000 people and devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Church leaders have often been called upon to intervene in what appears to be a situation of endless chaos. The Catholic Church in Haiti has changed dramatically in recent decades. Before the 1950s, the Catholic clergy was predominantly white and European and saw the fight against religious syncretism as a primary task. It was not until the Duvalier years, with the spread of the ideas of liberation theology, that the Church placed social justice at the heart of its program. To the great credit of the Church, François Duvalier – “Papa Doc” – hated the institution and its clergy, and the Church in turn excommunicated him. During the 1970s, the church became much more accommodating to African traditions, including the Creole language. This role of the church was particularly crucial because the Duvaliers had virtually extinguished most other forms of civil society. A key symbolic moment in church attitudes occurred in 1983, during a visit by Pope John Paul II, who famously proclaimed, “Things must change here!” After the fall of the dictatorship, the church fought to defend the new democratic constitution.

The prestige the Church gained in these struggles was reflected in the political triumph of a Catholic priest known for his work with slum dwellers, Salesian Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In various ways, Aristide’s career became the inescapable centerpiece of Haitian history from 1990 onwards, and his influence is by no means extinguished.

Aristide became the center of a growing populist movement, and this political role – with its apparent threat of insurrection – deeply baffled his Salesian order. He finally left the priesthood in 1994, but all of his actions must be understood through the lens of liberation theology – for better or for worse.

In 1991, Aristide became the country’s first democratically elected president, winning 67% of the vote. In the face of almost unbelievable odds, he made real achievements, improving education and health care and dismantling some of the country’s most notorious paramilitary death squads. Unfortunately, Aristide’s regime dashed hopes for a new democratic consensus, leading to widespread conspiracies and coup attempts by right-wing and military groups, as well as popular protests against poor governance. His government has been accused of its own human rights abuses and violence against its opponents, albeit on a much smaller scale than previous regimes. Forced into African exile in 2004, he did not return to Haiti until 2011.

Aristide left a mixed legacy for later Catholic leaders, who recognize the central role of the Church in creating stability and alleviating poverty. On several occasions, during periods of violence and political chaos, it was the bishops who were called upon to mediate and encourage free elections. At the same time, Aristide’s tumultuous record raises real concerns.

In 2014, Haiti received its very first cardinal in the person of Chibly Langlois, the bishop of the small diocese of Les Cayes. The appointment surprised many as the new cardinal was well known for his calm and conciliatory style, which may not be enough for the desperate circumstances the country currently finds itself in. What is not in question is that the church is crucial to the well-being of the nation, and perhaps its survival. If not the church, who?

A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “Filling the Void in Haiti.”

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