Haiti Catholics debate role. Progressives say church should help transition to democracy, conservatives want no part of politics

The young black priest stood facing his congregation, speaking to them for the first time since President Jean-Claude Duvalier's overthrow. Tall, sturdily built, he spoke a beautiful, melodic Creole in a resonant bass voice which he projected into the dimmest recesses of the plain concrete Roman Catholic church.

His audience -- most of them kerchiefed women and young girls in stiff white Sunday frocks, all of them very poor -- sat gravely silent. Only when the priest paused in the middle of his sermon to ask a question would some voices answer in a mellifluous singsong.

He told his listeners that as God's children, they had certain rights -- rights to food, to clean water, and to education. And most of all, he said, no matter how poor, they -- each one of them -- had intrinsic worth as human beings.

The idea that even the very poor have worth is almost a revolutionary one in Haiti. If it has begun to penetrate the consciousness of many Haitians in the last few years, it is due in large part to the work that the church has done among the people since it began to take a more activist stand around 1980.

It was the church, rather than any political party or labor group, that channeled and organized popular opposition to Duvalier family rule. After weeks of violent protest, Duvalier fled the country last Friday.

Now that the government has fallen, conservatives and progressives in the church are debating where to go from here. The more progressive priests are conscious that in the political vacuum existing here, the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are the only institutions capable of providing some education for the people and preparing them for future elections, which most observers here believe will take place within a year.

[Haiti's new military ruler, Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, pledged Monday to hold general and presidential elections as his interim government formally outlawed the dreaded Tontons Macoutes militiamen that helped prop up Duvalier's regime, Reuters reported Monday.]

Conservative elements within the hierarchy, however, feel that the church has been involved in politics and consciousness-raising long enough. It is now time to return to preaching the gospel and administering the sacred rites. Although most observers here say that the existing vacuum will almost certainly force the church into playing an important role in civic education, this debate between Catholic liberals and conservatives is likely to continue. Those priests who were most active in the fight against the Duvalier government are the ones who argue most strongly for the church continuing a process of political education.

``In order to truly democratize the country, it is necessary to work to educate the people in order that they learn to assume some responsibility for the society they live in,'' said one prominent liberal priest. ``We hope that now there will be freedom of speech so that we can educate people, so that people will be able to analyze things politically and not only react on the basis of an emotional attachment to a leader. The important thing is not to have a leader but to have more educated people.''

``In the time of Jean-Claude Duvalier,'' he said, ``there was a cult of personality. During the struggle against Duvalier you saw that there was no single leader but that the people carried out their revolution anyway.''

``If the new political leaders who will be running for election think that they can repeat Duvalierist personality cults they are just wasting their time. If the Haitian people have fought so strongly against Duvalier, it is not so that in six months or a year they will have another President who doesn't meet their needs.''

In the long run, the debate within the church transcends the issue of political education for the elections. But more important, the debate is over what the role of the church should be in the fight against social injustice.

Much of the younger clergy has been instrumental in moving the church against President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier. The younger clergy believe that the church should take a strong social stance although not to the extent of the most radical forms of ``liberation theology.'' This school of thought advocates the need for Catholics to become involved in movements for social justice and the desirability in some cases of revolution. Within the church, there has been a call for a decentralized and more democratic ``church of the poor.

An important instrument of the liberal clergy has been Radio Soleil, which has had an extraordinary impact on mobilizing the population against Duvalier. It is likely to continue as an important arm for church liberals.

The church hierarchy, especially the bishops, is somewhat divided on these issues. Port-au-Prince's Archbishop Ligond'e is considered conservative. As a cousin of Duvalier's unpopular wife, Mich`ele, Archbishop Ligond'e was viewed as having taken a lukewarm stance in the struggle against the Duvalier regime. Bishop Romulus of J'er'emie is considered the most socially liberal bishop followed by Bishop Gayot, a sociologist and president of the Episcopal Conference of Cap-Ha"itien.

Bishop Constant of Gona"ives, who took a very strong moral stand against Duvalier, is seen as sympathetic towards liberal social policy.

According to one young priest, ``For five years the more progressive priests have been pushing the bishops a bit in order that they take a clearer and more defined position. This will probably continue.

``We were not struggling against Jean-Claude Duvalier as a person but against a whole governmental and social structure. Duvalier has gone but the structure is still in place. Therefore, although the terms of our language will be transformed, our efforts for change will continue.''

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