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Concordats and Vodou: Who controls the Haitian church? Concordats and Vodou: Who controls the Haitian church?

Duvalier claimed that bullets couldn’t touch him. The Church recognised his usefulness (if not his immortality) and gave him a concordat with concessions that let him tighten his grip on Haiti. After his death, the Vatican quietly took back the concordat privileges from the collapsing government of his weak son.

The Vatican belatedly recognises Haite through the concordat of 1860

From 1804, when Haiti won independence, until 1860, when the Vatican belatedly recognised it, the Haitians had no priests trained by the Church. Left on their own, they developed a religious “Creole” of Catholicism and Vodou, one which persists to this day. [1]

 In 1794 the revolutionary French government abolished slavery in the colony of Haiti. When this promise was withdrawn under pressure from the plantation owners it sparked widespread slave uprisings.

The black Jacobins found something in the ideology of the French Revolution that helped them to elevate and generalize their struggle. [2] This was the secular ideal of the Rights of Man.

It was Toussaint L'Ouverture who managed to put this into practice in Haiti. His surname, which means “[he who finds] the opening [to go forward]”, was given him for good reason. He was the son of a slave born in Africa and he skilfully led an army composed of Black, Mulatto, and White soldiers. Together they successfully fought off invasions by the Spanish, the British and the French under Napoleon.

In 1804, as a result of “the only successful large-scale slave revolt known to history” [3], Haiti became the world’s first independent black republic. While Toussaint, a former privileged slave of a tolerant white master, had felt “a certain magnanimity toward whites” [4], his successor, Dessalines, a former field slave, despised them and carried out a massacre of the French who had remained in Haiti. “This had important consequences for Haiti, giving her critics something concrete to latch onto and helping to build the picture of a savage nation incapable of being part of the world community.” [5]

The new republic tried to help end slavery everywhere in the Americas. Haiti aided Simón Bolívar, allowing him refuge and supporting his revolutionary efforts under the condition that he free the slaves of Latin America. The Haitian Revolution is also thought to have inspired numerous slave revolts in the Caribbean and United States. [6] The very existence of Haiti encouraged American Blacks to reach for freedom, as Frederick Douglass testified. “Until Haiti struck for freedom, the conscience of the Christian world slept profoundly over slavery.” [7]

Fearing the “contagion” of human rights, the slaveholding countries surrounding Haiti put the new nation “in quarantine” (“cordon sanitaire”). From 1804 until 1826 no foreign nation recognised Haiti as an independent state. To the world at large she was just a rebellious colony.

Despite the fact that Toussaint L'Ouverture had preserved the privileges of the Church —  the 1800 Constituion established Roman Catholicism as the sole religion and abolished divorce [8] — even the Vatican took part in isolating the free black state. When it joined the boycott against Haiti, it withdrew all its priests. After that, for more than half a century, there was no official Roman Catholic presence in the country. This meant that Haiti had to make do with priests who lacked Church training, but knew their Vodou, and sometimes earned their keep by baptising houses, boats and even doorposts. [9] During the Church's long absence when the Vatican did not recognise the country the African-inspired Vodou merged with the remnants of Catholicism. Take, for instance, the pretty lady whose flaming heart is pierced by a dagger. She looked like a passionate soul in a violent situation — and became the Vodou goddess of love.
Belatedly, in 1860, the Vatican signed a concordat with Haiti and later that year granted the country diplomatic recognition by sending a papal delegate. This concordat gave the Catholic Church special privileges, (which the Vatican prefered to call “the special protection of the Government”). These included a subsidy for archbishops and bishops “from the public treasury”. It was also agreed that the president nominate the archbishop and the bishops, but the pope could refuse to invest them.  Since these clerics were French-speaking Europeans sent by the Vatican to fill these posts, the Haitian president didn’t know them and he had no real choice but to “nominate” them. A couple of years later an amendment to the Concordat (in 1862) granted the Church “an important role in secular education”. [10] This concordat remained in force for more than a century.

Papa Doc's concordat (1966): The Vatican makes temporary concessions

Dr. François Duvalier was the notorious dictator of Haiti, (otherwise known as “Papa Doc”, to distinguish him from “Baby Doc”, his son and successor). Duvalier liked to dress as the dapper, but frightening, Vodou spirit of the dead, Baron Samedi (who was also in charge of “the libido”, but we won’t go into that). This potent spirit is usually depicted in a top hat, black tuxedo, dark glasses, and cotton plugs in the nostrils, like an undertaker. His colours, black and violet, are those worn by mourners and French bishops. [11] He has a white, frequently skull-like face and he is also known as “Uncle Skeleton”. [12]

Duvalier’s first concern as new president was to remove the threat of an army coup which had unseated so many of his predecessors. He accomplished this by setting up a secret police that answered only to him. This was the Tonton Macoute, whose very name was threatening, as it represented a bogeyman in both the Christian and Vodou traditions. It means “Uncle Knapsack” in Creole, which may go back to the companion of Father Christmas, better known in English under his Dutch name, “Black Peter”, who thrashed bad children and put them in his sack. [13] But, like so much else in Haiti, this figure also has Vodou roots. It is said to be a monster that hid in the hills, snatched children by night and made them disappear forever. [14]

Their favorite method of killing people was to burn them alive by “necklacing”. This involved throwing a gasoline-soaked tire around the neck of their victim and setting it alight. [15] In urban areas the Tonton Macoutes dressed like Duvalier himself, in the style of the Vodou spirit of death, in black suits, hat, and dark glasses. “The Tontons Macoutes were part of a conscious strategy to identify spiritual forces and nationalism with loyalty to Duvalier, and to instil fear in opponents.” [16]

Estimates of the number of people Duvalier had killed range from 20,000-60,000 [17], but this is not what got Duvalier into trouble with the Vatican.

By the mid-twentieth century Church leaders had allied themselves firmly with the elite of Haiti who controlled its economy. While the Haitian masses spoke Creole, the mulatto upper classes spoke French, as did the Catholic hierarchy, who tended to be Bretons. The island’s elite and the upper ranks of the Church were also united in their fear of the noiriste (from the French, “black”) upstart, Duvalier, who used Vodou pageantry, not only to terrify his countrymen, but also to pose as a man of the people.

As Vodou was largely the religion of the masses, and native Haitians almost never reached top positions in the Church, the Catholic Church was in a sense Haiti's last colonial power. [18]

In 1959, with his political opponents silenced, Duvalier set about taming the Church. His secret police, the Tonton Macoutes, invaded the Port-au-Prince cathedral during Sunday Mass, beat scores of people senseless, including priests at the altar, then arrested them.

Duvalier forcefully Haitianised the Roman Catholic Church. That both Africanized a heretofore European church, and made it pliant to his will. In 1959 he began expelling troublesome foreign priests. In November 1960, Duvalier expelled Port-au-Prince Archbishop François Poirier. Two months later, he expelled Rémy Augustin, Poirier’s replacement, and the country’s sole native bishop, thereby showing that concern for his personal power trumped noiriste principle.

The pope responded by excommunicating him.

Duvalier then expelled the Bishop of Gonaïves, who had been repressing expressions of Vodou in his diocese. In 1964, Duvalier expelled the entire Jesuit order. [19]

Not that the loss of the papal blessing seems to have caused Duvalier excessive worry. He proclaimed, “Bullets and machine guns, capable of daunting Duvalier do not exist. … I am already an immaterial being." A pro-government newspaper ran a montage on its front page, with a picture of Jesus Christ, His hands placed on the shoulders of Francois Duvalier, above the caption, “I have chosen him.” [20]

Yet in 1966, just two years after Duvalier had expelled the Jesuits, the Vatican struck a bargain with the dictator. In return for an end to repression of the Haitian Church (but not the Haitian people), the pope lifted the excommunication and presented Duvalier with one of his greatest victories. The 1966 concordat granted him power to nominate an indigenous hierarchy, the first ever in Haiti. “As a result, the archbishop, all six bishops and most other Church leaders in Haiti became Haitian, with loyalty to the Duvalier regime.” [21] It has been claimed by an expert on Haiti that “Duvalier even had Macoutes among the Catholic priests”. [22]

The concordat was a brilliant tactical move by the Vatican: it gave Duvalier enough control of the Haitian church to dampen his promotion of its Vodou rival. Naturally, it didn’t keep him from carrying out further bloodbaths — but after all, that’s not the purpose of a concordat. 

Baby Doc's concordat (1984): Vatican doublecross

On the death of “Papa Doc” in 1971, power passed to “Baby Doc”, Duvalier’s “hefty and dim-witted” son, Jean-Claude, “a feckless, dissolute nineteen-year-old”. [23]

From the start Baby Doc was unpopular and soon began to lose his grip on the country. “In a desperate attempt to shore up his sagging image, Jean-Claude struck a deal with the Vatican. In return for giving up the power to name bishops won by his father, he secured a promise of a papal visit. But when the pope arrived for a brief visit in March 1983, he stunned his host with a nationally-broadcast statement in Creole that ‘things must change.’ ” [24] Following the pope’s cue both a Haitian bishop and an archbishop publicly criticised Duvalier Junior.

Baby Doc had been out-manoeuvred. The pope, intent upon positioning the Church for the future, was happy to betray his host. Giving Papa Doc control of the Haitian Church had served its purpose and now it was time to reign in his weak son and have him sign the new concordat in the window of opportunity before he was forced out. While deliberately hastening Baby Doc’s departure, the Vatican seized the chance to drive a hard bargain with his collapsing government. The concordat amendment of 1984 rescinds even the President’s nominal right, granted in the 1860 concordat, of nominating bishops and archbishops. [25]

In addition to a favourable concordat, the Vatican’s belated opposition to the regime offered further opportunities. It allowed the Church to distance itself from the dictator it had once supported. (The Vatican had used the same strategy in the previous decade during the declining days of Franco’s Spain.) This move gave the Church credit for helping to usher out an unpopular dictator and at the same time distracted Haitians from the Vatican’s record of regularly supporting the nation’s strongmen and élites.

In 1986 protests against Baby Doc led the U.S. to arrange for Duvalier and his family to be exiled to France and a new consitution was proclaimed the next year. With the 1987 Constitution, which makes no mention of Catholicism (§30), the official status of the Roman Catholic religion ended, but neither the Government nor the Holy See renounced the 1860 Concordat or its Protocols made with the Duvaliers. [26]

Unfortunately, after this propaganda coup the Vatican reverted to form. It used its power to try to prevent the candidature of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, widely seen as representing Haiti’s the best chance for a democratic future. However, Aristide’s concern for the poor appears to have been interpreted by the Polish Pope as dangerous liberation theology. In 2003 Aristide further angered the Church by recognising vodou as a legitimate religion, thus authorising Vodou priests to perform any civil service a Roman Catholic priest can, officiating at births, marriages and funerals. [27]

After a coup d’état removed Aristide, Pope John Paul II dispatched a new nuncio to Haiti to present his credentials to the military-backed government.

The Vatican — with Pope John Paul II's expressed approval — thus became the first and only government in the entire world to recognize the unspeakably violent junta as Haiti's legitimate government. [28]


1. Dar Shvueli, “The Integration of Roman Catholicism into Vodou in Haiti”, May 2000.

2. Review: “Of Human Bondage”, Robin Blackburn, The Nation, 4 October 2004.

3. Adam Hochschild, "The Black Napoleon ", New York Times, 25 February 2007

4. Library of Congress, “Haiti: Independent Haiti”, Country Studies, 1989.

5. Bob Corbett, “The History of Haiti”, Online material for HST 2450.01 Haitian History, Webster University, Summer, 1995.

6. “Haiti: History: Independence”, Wikipedia.

7. Frederick Douglass, “Lecture on Haiti”, Chicago World Fair, 1893.

8. John Relly Beard, Toussaint L'Ouverture: A Biography and Autobiography, 1863, p. 140.

9. Dan and Estela Schweissing, “Bishop James Theodore Holly: Afro-American Pioneer Missionary to the World’s First Black Republic, 1861-1911”, Haitian Ministries, 31 December 1999.

10. “Haiti”, Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII, 1910.

11. See Napoleon’s Organic Article 43: “All ecclesiastics will be dressed in the French manner in black. The bishops may combine with this garb the pastoral cross and the violet stockings.”

12. “Baron Samedi”, Wikipedia.

13. For “Uncle Knapsack”, see Karl Mamer, “Tonton Macoutes”.

The Dutch “Black Peter” was known in Northern France as “Père Fouettard” (“fouetter” means “to whip, beat or thrash”) and he would have been well-known to the Breton priests who served in Haiti. See “Companions of Saint Nicholas”.

14. “Duvalier chose to consolidate his executive power with the creation of a paramilitary counterpoise to the army, a secret police organization answerable directly to the National Palace. This organization, the tonton makout, borrowed its name from a bogeyman of Vodou folklore -- a malevolent creature who lives in the hillside and snatches up ‘bad’ children, carrying them off into the night.”

J. Christopher Bernat, “Children and the Politics of Violence in Haitian Context:
Statist Violence, Scarcity, and Street Child Agency in Port-au-Prince”, Critique of Anthropology, Vol 19(2) 121-138, 1999.

15. Mark Danner, “A Reporter At Large -- Beyond the Mountains, Part I” New Yorker, 27 November 1989.

16. Andrew Reding, “Democracy and Human Rights in Haiti”, World Policy Institute at New School University, March 2004, p. 16.

17. A web search confirms that these are indeed the estimates.

18. Cali Ruchala, “The Anti-Pope: The Two Faces of Pope John Paul II”, Sobaka, 5 2005.

19. Reding, p. 16.

At the beginning of 1961 Duvalier ordered a pre-dawn raid on the country's top remaining Roman Catholic cleric who was hustled off to jail so fast he forgot his dentures and then expelled from the island. Two days later four more priests were thrown out of the country. “The Vatican was outraged, immediately decreed automatic excommunication for all those who took part in expelling the bishop. Presumably this included Duvalier himself.”
“Church v. Statism (The Hemisphere / Haiti)”, Time, 20 January 1961.,10987,871975,00.html

20. Frederick C. Turner, Catholicism and Political Development in Latin America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971), p. 35, quoted at:

21. Ernest H. Preeg, “The Haitian Dilemma: A case Study in Demographics, Development and US Foreign Policy”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC, 1996.

22. Bob Corbett, “Review of Elizabeth Abbot, Haiti: The Duvaliers and their Legacy”, 1989.
[See also Mark Danner]

23. The

Library of Congress, “Jean-Claude Duvalier, 1971–1986”, Country Studies, December 1989.

24. Reding, p. 17

25. Confirmed both in the preamble and in Article 4 of Baby Doc's Concordat (8 August 1984).

26. US State Department, International Religious Freedom Report 2009: Haiti, 26 October  2009.

27. Carol J. Williams, "Haitians Hail the 'President of Voodoo' " Los Angeles Times, 3 August 2003

28. Ruchala, ibid. [This online article is highly recommended.]

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