The Catholic University of America

 James Carney Defense

Final Examination of James Jay Carney

For the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

January 12, 2011 at 10:30 a.m., Caldwell Room 125


Fr. Jacques Gres-Gayer, Ph.D.


From Democratization to Ethnic Revolution: Catholic Politics in Rwanda, 1950-1962

     In the shadow of a 1994 genocide which cost nearly 800,000 lives, 20th-century Rwandan history has become a highly polemical and contested field. This is especially true for the history of the Catholic Church, one of the dominant social, political and religious institutions in Rwanda from the 1920s to the 1990s. This thesis explores Catholic politics during a critical decade in modern Rwandan history: the late colonial period between Belgium’s introduction of political reforms in 1950 and Rwandan independence in 1962. Focusing on the pastoral writings and personal correspondence of Rwanda’s two preeminent church leaders of the period, the Swiss White Father Mgr. André Perraudin and the Rwandan prelate Mgr. Aloys Bigirumwami, this study analyzes Catholic leaders’ reactions to the rapid political developments of the 1950s, their divergent analyses of the contested Hutu-Tutsi question, and their grappling with ethnic violence during the revolutionary changes of 1959 to 1962. This study also considers hierarchical responses to Rwanda’s first major ethnic massacres in 1963-1964 and 1973. 

     Post-genocide scholars have critiqued the close association of church and state during Rwanda’s colonial period, noting the extent to which Rwanda’s missionary leaders shaped Belgian colonial policy and cultivated Rwanda’s traditional Tutsi elites in an effort to build a Christian kingdom in the heart of Africa. Overlooked in this narrative, however, is the extent to which Catholic missionaries from the earliest days of the 1900s propagated a counter-narrative favoring social justice for Rwanda’s poor peasant masses. During the democratic and anti-colonial ferment of the 1950s, this proto-liberationist narrative resurfaced in the form of both tacit and active missionary support for emerging Hutu political movements. As these movements achieved political success after 1959, Catholic missionary leaders focused their criticisms on Rwanda’s Tutsi exiles rather than its Hutu-dominated government, reflecting both ideological partisanship and institutional self-interest. Drawing on newly released archival material from the period, this study also highlights the extent to which the Catholic major seminary and other church institutions served as sites of contestation in Rwanda’s growing inter-racial and intra-ethnic disputes. Finally, this study grapples with how and why Hutu and Tutsi identities came to dominate Rwanda’s political and ecclesial imagination during the 1950s and early 1960s, offering instructive lessons for Christian ecclesiology and social ethics.