‘It is not to promote the interests of the Catholic Church as an institution. But to promote the common good through advocacy which is based on the values of Catholic Social Teaching, especially the preferential option for the poor’
Some years ago, a bishop in one of Africa’s smaller countries remarked that he lived on the same street as the head of state. If he needed to speak to the premier, he could simply walk down the road and have a chat. From time to time one reads similar stories regarding some of Europe’s traditionally Catholic countries. If a matter of policy or legislation arises that is of concern to the Church, the head of the bishops’ conference arranges a meeting with the government, or just makes a phone call, and attempts to resolve the issue.
These informal and high-level approaches have their place, and no doubt much can be achieved this way. But if the Church really wishes to promote the common good by influencing the decisions taken in parliaments and the policies adopted by governments, then a more structured approach is necessary.
No individual bishop, or even a whole conference, can be sufficiently aware of the various political and legislative developments in a modern state, and few bishops have the necessary legal or professional training to deal with such matters. In any case, bishops have many other responsibilities, and they cannot devote their time to interactions with the political world.
To be informed
It was in this context that the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference decided to open a Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) in 1997. The bishops wanted the local Church to be in a position to contribute to the establishment of a democratic ethos in South Africa following decades of apartheid rule. One way of doing this was to maintain close communications between Church and the newly emerging State through a dedicated structure.
The mandate of the CPLO is to carry out research on legislation and public policy, to keep the Bishops and others in Church leadership informed and up-to-date, and to make formal submissions to Parliament and to government departments on behalf of the Church. We say that the CPLO exists to be a bridge between the Church and the political world, and our task is to see that the traffic of ideas, values, insights and expertise flows across that bridge. Over the last 17 years CPLO has published over 340 briefing papers on a wide variety of legislative and public policy topics; it has made over 70 submissions to Parliament; and it has organised numerous meetings between the bishops and Church departments on the one hand, and government officials and Members of Parliament on the other.
After CPLO had been in existence for a few years, the idea of such an office began to spread to some other African countries. First in Zambia, and then in Zimbabwe, local bishops’ conferences began to set up similar facilities. In 2007 the South African CPLO decided to offer an annual training course to cover the basic functions of parliamentary advocacy and liaison work. Invitations were extended to episcopal conferences around Africa, and a number responded positively. Since then, 17 countries have sent representatives to the course.
Not all of these conferences have successfully established CPLOs, but many have, especially in countries with a history of democratic politics, such as Kenya, Zambia, Uganda and Ghana. Of course, the key factor is commitment from the bishops themselves; if they do not see the need for a liaison office then it is unlikely to succeed.
Fortunately, the idea of Catholic advocacy was firmly endorsed at the second African Synod in 2009. Proposition 24 of the Synod states that ‘The Synod Fathers urge Episcopal Conferences at all levels to establish advocacy bodies to lobby members of parliament, governments and international institutions, so that the Church can contribute effectively to the formulation of just laws and policies for the people’s good.’ And the continent-wide association of Bishops’ Conferences, SECAM (The Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar), has expressed the wish that the Church in each African country should try to establish a structure for interaction between Church and State.
So far, there has been no attempt to measure the impact of Catholic parliamentary liaison offices across the continent as a whole. However, as part of the training offered by the South African CPLO, we conduct follow-up visits from time to time, and we have generally found encouraging evidence of progress. Of course, in some countries there is no culture of civil society involvement in political affairs, and this makes the work of a CPLO very difficult. However, it is always possible to make a start as, for example, in Ethiopia, where the first step has been to identify Catholic members of parliament and to find ways of supporting them in their work.
Other countries have more open parliaments, such as Namibia, Zambia and Kenya, and there it is a more straightforward task to establish a presence, to make submissions, and to engage with politicians and their support staff.
It is important to understand that the work of CPLOs is not to promote the interests of the Catholic Church as an institution. For this reason, we do not speak of ‘lobbying’, which suggests an attempt to pressurise the secular authority to grant some form of special treatment to the Church. Instead, we focus on promoting the common good through advocacy which is based on the values of Catholic Social Teaching, especially the preferential option for the poor.
We also focus on promoting good governance and proper democratic practice. Very few African countries can be described as ‘mature democracies’ and the threat of military coups or other forms of dictatorship is ever present. It is therefore an important part of our work to help to strengthen genuine democratic institutions, to assist them to become open and transparent, and to encourage them to work for the interests of their people as a whole, rather than just the ruling elite.
The network of CPLOs in Africa is still in its early stages. Ten bishops’ conferences have so far managed to establish offices, and a few others have tried and failed. (In Europe, by comparison, only two episcopal conferences, Germany and Scotland, have offices dedicated to parliamentary liaison.) There is clearly much more work to do, but we take heart from the fact that we are establishing a new kind of witness for the Church, and we are doing it in the poorest and least developed continent, the place where it is perhaps most needed.
Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office, Cape, Town, South Africa.