Looking Down on Africa

No better example of a tendency of the most famous to be most quickly forgotten, is Albert Schweitzer. He lived ninety glorious years as theologian, musician, missionary, physician, and ranked at the top of each. His Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 was almost an afterthought, for by then he was what Blessed Teresa of Calcutta became, and more so, for he was also a master of the academy and the arts. As a teenager, I had a bust of him, the prize for an essay in a competition sponsored by one of the foundations that promoted his legacy, and my pipe organ lessons were from his annotated Bach. When he died at his African missionary hospital, in the year I graduated from college, he was beyond the definition of a hero.

Even then, there were cracks in his immortal image, for his cultural assumptions and idiomatic expression of them, were being bruised by the new age’s social revolution. He was the paramount figure of the benign colonial missionary for whom cynical utilitarians had nothing but scorn. His memory was casually erased from the pantheon of immortal men. It is true that his African Notebook in 1939 had language that fueled the sense that his humanitarianism was retrograde. In a passage dropped from later published editions he wrote:

I have given my life to try to alleviate the sufferings of Africa. There is something that all white men who have lived here like I must learn and know: that these individuals are a sub-race. They have neither the intellectual, mental, or emotional abilities to equate or to share equally with white men in any function of our civilization. I have given my life to try to bring them the advantages which our civilization must offer, but I have become well aware that we must retain this status: we the superior and they the inferior.

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Twenty-five years earlier, in his “Primeval Forest,” he said of the Africans to whom he dedicated his life: “I am your brother, it is true, but your elder brother.” Not long before he died, while thinking that Gabon had been given independence too soon, he would say, “The time for speaking of older and younger brother had passed.” Just as his Quest for the Historical Jesus had rattled the cages of the more glib German form critics, so he traced a downward spiral from Kant and Hegel, through the pessimism of Schopenhauer, to the scientific materialism of Spencer and Darwin, seeing in their conceits the failure of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and predicting a dangerous contempt for life. Schweitzer developed his philosophy of “Reverence for Life” (Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben) and forsook what could have been an existence of comfortable celebrity to live and die for the African people. What is perhaps his most quoted line in his “Quest” was meant for all races and continents: “[Jesus] comes to us as one Unknown. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through.”

Schweitzer’s native Alsace was a political tennis ball, so from 1875 to 1919 he held a German passport and from then until 1965 he was French, but though his birthplace of Kaisersberg, Alsace, became Kaysersberg, Haut-Rhin, he was heir to the German intellectual tradition and, with it, the confidence that nurtured the cultural attitudes of the universities in a shocked response to the damaged cultural pride after the trauma of Prussian defeat by Napoleon in the 1806 battles of Jena-Auerstedt. The ecclesiastical historian Adolf Harnack, said at the dawn of the twentieth century: “The Germans mark a stage in the history of the Universal Church. No similar statement can be made of the Slavs.” It is a paradox that one of the students of Harnack’s contemporary, the Aryan racialist Heinrich Treitcschke, in the University of Berlin, was the American civil rights pioneer and Pan-African, W.E.B. DuBois.

German philosophical idealism was incubated by Kant and Hegel. The abstract ideal usurped reality of the senses, so that Charles Péguy was able to say in reflection: “Kantian ethics has clean hands but, in a manner of speaking, actually no hands.” That idealism eventually issued in the “Transcendental Thomism” of Rahner and his disciples who have largely tainted consequent German theology. My late friend and mentor, Father Stanley Jaki, cogently called it “Aquikantianism.” In that ethereal realm, Kant, who introduced anthropology as a science in the German universities, said (Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime): “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling … not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality…” Hegel assumed Kant’s mantle in his Philosophy of History: “[The Negro] exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state… [Africa] is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit … [the Negro] has “no sense of personality; their spirit sleeps, remains sunk in itself, makes no advance, and thus parallels the compact, undifferentiated mass of the African continent.”

The social consequences of German idealism were hymned in the refrain “Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen” (“The German spirit shall heal the world”) and it stained the twentieth century with its bitter irony. By 1912, eugenic theory banned interracial marriage in German colonies. When French occupation forces included African troops after World War I, mulatto progeny were called “Rhineland bastards” and in Mein Kampf, Hitler disdained them as a contamination of the white race plotted by Jews and “negrified” Frenchmen. In 1937, Hitler approved “the discrete sterilization of the Rhineland bastards” by a special Gestapo commission.

While one would not impute such crassness to contemporary intellectuals, mauled as they have been by history yet oblivious to their wounds, a remnant bias seems irrepressible. During last year’s Synod on the Family, Cardinal Walter Kasper expressed frustration with African bishops for opposing more conciliatory attitudes toward homosexuality that he called their “taboo” and said that Africans “should not tell us too much what we have to do.” Cardinal Kasper denied having said this, and managed an awkward apology when a recording of what he said was presented as evidence. The cardinal’s remarks echoed the poorly tutored John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church who said of Africans in 1998: “They’ve moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity. They’ve yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we’ve had to face in the developing world: that is just not on their radar screen.”

Kasper’s condescension is not limited to Africa. Before Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to the United Kingdom, Kasper said: “When you land at Heathrow Airport, you sometimes think you’d landed in a Third World country.” Like Kasper, Cardinal Marx seems uncomfortable with anything lacking the advantages of Teutonism, and said of his German Church on February 25, 2015: “We are not a subsidiary of Rome.” But his fellow countryman Cardinal Müller, of a more generous cultural spirit as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responded that what Cardinal Marx expressed was “an absolutely anti-Catholic idea that does not respect the Catholicity of the Church.”

After the close of the Synod, the official website of the German bishop’s conference said that the exponential growth of the “romantic, poor Church” in Africa is due to the lamentable fact that “the educational situation there is on average at a rather low level and the people accept simple answers to difficult questions.” And lest anyone think that the “Dark Continent” is a phrase remaindered to the dustbin of history, the website added that in Africa “the growing number of priests is a result not only of missionary power but also a result of the fact that the priesthood is one of the few possibilities for social security on the dark continent.” If this reeks of “the white man’s burden,” let it be noted that Rudyard Kipling actually coined that phrase, not in reference to Africa but to the Philippines during the Spanish American War, and would have been appalled by the German “Uberlegenheitskomplex”—superiority complex.

That complex is redolent of the disdain shown toward the early Christians by Pliny the Younger, Lucian of Samosata, and Celsus who, like the writer for the German bishops, Bjorn Odendahl, regretted with imperious loftiness the rusticity, superstition, and poverty of the followers of the Christus. One does not know what Herr Odendahl is paid for writing such prodigious infelicity, but given the wealth of the German Church, he is not on an African pay scale. The German Church is the wealthiest per capita in the world, and the second biggest employer in their country. The German Catholic leaders, for all their claims to social progressivism, are in the pay of the government through tax subsidies, by which arrangement German priests are paid much more than their counterparts in the United States while their bishops are paid upwards of $189,000 a year plus benefits.

They hardly fit Saint Paul’s description of the prototypical Christians, albeit those in northern Corinth: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:26-27). And we may infer that among the Corinthian Christians there were not many Aquikantians. It certainly is an oblique glance at the German bishops who hosted opulent dinners in Rome during the last Synod in the villa newly bought by Cardinal Marx’s archdiocese of Munich and Freising for 9.7 million Euros, while African Catholics were being hounded by Islamic terrorists.

During their “ad limina” visit to the Holy See in 2015, the German bishops were told by Pope Francis that a severe consequence their “careerism” was spiritual indolence. According to a survey published in April, 2015 by the German bishops’ own Conference, only 54 percent of priests in Germany go to confession, and only a bare majority of them pray daily, while 60 percent of the German laity do not believe in life after death. The virtual collapse of Catholic life in Germany gives substance to the observation of Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum in Die Tagespost on May 7, 2015, as he critiqued the “superbia” of many German hierarchs: “The existing German ecclesial apparatus is completely unfit to work against growing secularism.” Meanwhile, the number of Christians in Africa has grown from about eight million in 1900 to over half a billion today.

German professor Thomas Heinrich Stark has quoted the aforementioned Péguy with reference to Cardinal Kasper: “Modernists are people who do not believe what they believe.” Surely in charity one would hope that reality might temper the German idealists, perhaps aided by light from the Dark Continent.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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