Reports on the Haitian rebellion often mention that embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide got his political start as a Roman Catholic priest. Is Aristide, who was first elected in 1990, still a priest?
According to Catholic doctrine, a priest remains a priest forever. But in practical terms, Aristide was released from the obligations of the priesthood when he resigned in 1994, and he’d been inactive in Church affairs since a 1988 controversy. Ordained in 1983, Aristide quickly became popular among the poor of Port-Au-Prince for his radical sermons, which usually inveighed against the greed and corruption of then-President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Despite Duvalier’s overthrow in 1986, Aristide continued with his fiery, populist rhetoric, including strong criticisms of the United States and the Catholic hierarchy. This displeased higher-ups among the Salesians, the religious order to which Aristide belonged. Though historically active in politics, the Salesians viewed Aristide’s beliefs as dangerously left-wing. In addition, Aristide had expressed a strong interest in liberation theology, which the Salesians similarly frowned upon.
The religious order at first tried simply to coax Aristide into excising political commentary from his sermons. Later, it attempted to transfer him to another parish but was forced to rescind the order after several parishioners engaged in a hunger strike. The last straw came in 1988, when Aristide’s church was firebombed, presumably by former Tonton Macoutes officers bent on intimidating the Haitian left. The Salesians ordered Aristide to pack for a Canadian parish; when he refused to leave, he was expelled from the order. His ostensible crimes, according to the Salesians, included his “glorification of class struggle, in direct opposition to the teachings of the Church,” as well as “using religion to incite hatred and violence.”
A priest can only practice if he is a member of a religious order or has the permission of the local bishop. Since Aristide had neither, he was out of luck. Still, he remained extremely popular among Haiti’s desperately poor and swept to an easy victory in the 1990 election. He campaigned under the nickname “the little priest.”
Despite his ejection by the Salesians, Aristide technically remained a member of the priesthood throughout his first few years in office. But the Vatican frowns upon the notion of priests holding political office and exerted considerable behind-the-scenes pressure on Aristide to officially quit the priesthood. Rumors swirled that the church even threatened excommunication unless Aristide relented—which he finally did in November of 1994.
Explainer thanks Bob Corbett of Webster University.