The growing dispute between the Roman Catholic Church and the South African government reached crisis level today as the church announced plans to implement a controversial 21-point program to integrate and to improve conditions for the country's 21 million non-whites.
The Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference announced that in this country where segregation is official government policy: It will fully integrate all churches, convents and other institutions under church control, appoint black priests to white parishes, introduce equal pay for equal work in dioceses and boycott business that discriminate against blacks.
The "declaration of commitment" issued today is a plan of action that follows up the church's statement yesterday blasting the government for alleged police brutiality during last year's racial disorders, and calling for equal power sharing by the white minority and black majority.
The two statements, plus the opening of Catholic parechial schools to all races last month, is viewed here as the most significiant move for change by a major organization in the country in recent history.
The Catholic Church - 1.5 million strong in South Africa and the third largest denomination in the country - has long been one of the most outspoken critics of South Africa's apartheld, or separation of the races, policy. The three moves in the past six weeks are considered to be a bold advance from words to actions.
The Catholic program will also put either churches in South Africa, particularly the biggest denomination, the Dutch Reformed Church, in an awkward position. The Dutch Reformed Church is dominated by Afrikaners, descendants of 17th Century settlers, who introduced apartheid and now control the government.
Several ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church - which is headed by Prime Minister John Vorster's brother - have called for the church to liberalize its race policies. But so far there have been no significant changes.
The action by the Catholic Church could force the Dutch Reformed Church to decide whether it will follow the example of religious bodies or be aligned with Afrikanerdom and its racial policies.
The government has already reacted angrily to the Catholics' first two moves - the opening of multiracial schools and the accusations yesterday of "systematic beatings and nujustifiable shootings during disturbances and of cold-blooded torture of detained persons."
The declaration of the new program said that the Catholic Church also will:
Promote more blacks to responsible church positions, encourage non-white lay members to participate in the setting of church policy, redistribute funds of wealthier churches to the poorer parishes, and promote black consciousness by supporting "those who work for the promotion of human dignity."
In addition, the Catholics will "direct special attention" to the problems of the unemployed, squatters in large cities, political prisoners and banned people, the declaration said.
The dramatic announcement was prefaced with a one-paragraph explanation that the bishops conference, which just finished a week-long meeting in Pretoria, had acknowledged "that the Catholic Church in South Africa was lagging behind in witness to the Gospel in matters of social justice."
Reacting to the bishops' accusations of police brutality, the South African commissioner of police, Gen. Gert Prinstoo, warned the church leaders last night that he would call on them to produce evidence to support their claims.
Prinsloo added, "I know of not tortures or illegal actions by police. If they make these statements I'll expect them to give us their evidence. If they don't want to tell us there is a remedy in the law."
The Very Rev. Dominic Scholten, secretary general of the bishops conference, responded today that his organization had evidence of a "multitude of cases" as proof.
He indicated that the conference might hold an emergency meeting to discus providing evidence.
"The bishops would like to help the police, but one of the reasons for the reluctance is because it appears that in many cases witnesses are being harassed by the security police. The bishops have a duty to prevent further harassment and brutality," Scholten said.
"All these cases have been brought to the bishops by priests who are in close contact with the African population through their pastoral work. Moreover, security policemen are protected by the government's proposed idemnity bill, but witnesses have seemingly no similar protection," he added.
The government has also responded angrily to the churches' move to open schools to all races. In January an educational official warned that "If non-whites are allowed into white private schools their registrations will be withdrawn."
The church administration has since agreed to negotiate with the government over the schools issue. But after their subsequent moves and today's promise of further action, it appears doubtful that the church will reverse its decision.
As the bishops conference said in a final statement after their meeting: "We add our corporate voice as leaders of the Catholic Church in this country to the cry for a radical revision of the system."