The Synod theme of Catholics in public life recurs throughout the Africae Munus, the document Pope Benedict XVI handed over to the African Church during his visit of Benin. Catholics, particularly laity, are called to witness their faith through their work. Admirable though this is, neither the Synod nor Benedict seems able to say how one does this, nor indeed what such a witness might entail. I recall that the Synod called on Catholic politicians to act with integrity, and to avoid corrupt practices, or to get out of public life. But this is far easier said than done.
After all what is a public servant going to do? Resign? Or should a politician join an honest political party that has no chance of getting elected? In a one party state or one party dominant society where the ruling party extends its influence throughout public service and private sectors how does one operate with integrity if connections determine wellbeing. Are we calling Catholics to withdraw from society altogether? If so, how are we to live? The Church certainly does not have the resources to support X million people.
One way, of course, that the Church might promote good governance is through its support of non-governmental organisations and civil society movements. Though not immune to corruption either (as anyone who’s worked in these areas will tell you), there is only so much they can do. At some point the people must decide whether they are ready to continue along the old ways or to throw off such practices and adopt something new. If they do, well and good. If they don’t there is little more one can do than continue to protest.
To illustrate my point, in a recent book Moeletsi Mbeki pointed out that the majority of supporters of the ruling ANC in South Africa are poor to very poor, mostly underemployed, unemployed or unemployable, who return the ANC to power in return for continued welfare grants. This is despite the fact that the ANC itself pursues in tandem with its poverty alleviation neoliberal economic policies that don’t actively help their constituency. Mbeki sees this as a vicious cycle: because the poor are dependent on the ANC, they re-elect them; because this is their constituency the ANC drags its feet in doing what might bring their constituency out of poverty for fear of losing them! How can the Church answer that one?
In the past, before Africa’s decolonisation in the 1960s, the Church encouraged the creation of Christian Democratic Parties in countries such as Italy and Germany. Soon, however, these parties, though keeping the name, distanced themselves from their religious roots—because it was more effective not to keep the religious connection strong, even in strongly Catholic states.
We need to see too that, contrary to the harmonious vision of Pope Benedict, Catholics also do not all share the same values as the Church’s official teaching. A few years ago, to use a non-African example, a plebiscite voted in the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines by a massive 80 % for state promotion of artificial birth control. The Philippine Bishops campaigned against the proposal, but the pious Filipinos ignored them.
The age of direct Church control over political life is over. Sadly no-one in the Church , not the Pope nor the African bishops, is apparently acknowledging this—and the intricacies of calling Catholics to put their livelihoods at risk are simply stated without any new Church strategies being developed to address the real need for promoting democracy and good governance on the continent.
There are those, I suspect, who might think that if Catholics don’t conform to the Church’s teaching they should simply be excommunicated. The problem here is that we live in an age of a ‘free market’ in religion. People change churches, change religions. And, as Pope Benedict implies through references to ‘inadequate catechesis’, many people simply don’t see the intricacies of differences between churches. The rise of the Independent Churches can partly be illustrated by this.
The question of religious pluralism, then, needs our attention. I have already suggested that Pope Benedict’s approach to African Traditional Religion and the Independent Churches is highly ambivalent. He is rightly concerned, I think, about the impact of traditional beliefs (including witchcraft) on Christians in Africa. The problem is even more complex than he — or I for that matter as a culturally Western person — can imagine. My sense is that for most Africans traditional beliefs are so ingrained that to call them to modify or deny them would be tantamount to calling them to reject their identities. While as an outsider I may consider propositions that the dead influence us directly unbelievable, or indeed that witchcraft has any real power apart from the power of psychological suggestion, if I did believe in them, I would probably reject those who told me to give them up before actually giving them up. What Independent Churches seem to do well is giving a Christian gloss on these deep beliefs and offer the Christian language and rituals to counter the effects of witchcraft. They also, like the Pentecostals, tend to need fewer infrastructures to get started, less training for their ministers and do not have to contend with the often culturally-agonising discipline of celibacy.
Read part 2 here.