Whitehouse on Foster, ‘African Catholic Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church’

Elizabeth A. Foster. African Catholic Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2019. 369 pp. £32.95 (hardcover), ISBN 9780674987661.

Reviewed by David Whitehouse (University of Exeter)

On July 1, 1888, Charles Lavigerie, founder of the White Fathers Catholic missionary order, gave a speech to a packed Saint-Sulpice Church in Paris in which he denounced the evils of slavery in Africa. The event was a public relations triumph, with African children who had been repurchased from slavery being paraded by the Fathers, clad in white burnouses with red fezzes on their heads, on the church steps. In the late nineteenth century as in the 1950s, slavery was used by the Catholic Church to galvanize public opinion and to raise funds. Lavigerie was not an isolated forerunner of post-war Catholic radicalism. He trained a generation of missionaries to enter the field as convinced anti-slavery activists, as well as supporting a series of military operations against slavery in Africa, with varying degrees of success. And yet until now Catholic missionaries have usually been relegated by historians to the status of obedient cogs in colonial state machines. Elizabeth Foster’s new book offers a major challenge by showing how missionary leaders like Lavigerie and his successors had aims that were often in clear conflict with those of the colonial state – a conflict between French Catholic missionaries and the colonial powers that resurfaced in a big way after the Second World War. Continue reading “Whitehouse on Foster, ‘African Catholic Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church’”