THE CHURCH AND POLITICS IN THE TIME OF ELECTIONS

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During periods of political elections, it becomes normal to question the role the Church plays. But it isn’t easy to delimit or clearly define how much the Church can get involved in politics. This becomes a complex question because politics lies beyond the scope of the Church’s competence, and this could explain the reluctance to approach the subject, which often leads to theological and spiritual speculation that could serve as an escape from concrete historical responsibility[1]. The issue becomes more complex in a context like ours here, in Sierra Leone, where two mainstream political parties - two houses: ‘red and green’ control the political arena and where the temptation of being “one-sided” is real.

The concern of the Catholic Church for politics derives from its awareness of being sent in the world and for the world. Indeed, after his resurrection Jesus Christ sent his disciples into the world to proclaim the gospel to every creature (Mk 16:15) and to all nations (Mt 28: 19). Thus, the church, so to speak, can neither confine herself in the sacristy nor exclude some people, race, culture, or tribe when serving the world. In a Catholic perspective, I try here to map out what may be called: “the politics of the Church in times of electoral campaign”. There is still the need to clarify which kind of politics that arrests the interest of the Church.

1. The Perception of Politics as Dirty Business

In many African countries, being called “politician” is derogatory, a way of insinuating that someone is a liar, or prone to duplicity. Politician is a subtle euphemism for a lying person. Politicians are referred to as people who say and do not do. Especially in times of political campaigns, they promise too much, even though they know they will never fulfill their promises. They tell people what they want to listen to. What matters for them is to get the power and keep it as long as possible; surely with all the economic advantages that follow. Viewed in this sense, politics becomes a ‘dirty business’.

Unfortunately, the revelation in media of many scandals of corruption in the political sphere and the increasing accumulation of public wealth by a tiny few politicians, elected supposed to serve and administer the common good confirm this negative, popular image of politics.

Though aware of all shortcomings of people involved in politics, the Catholic Church does not conceive politics as the dirty business. It considers politics as a “difficult but yet a noble art[2]” because its main purpose is to be a service of common good[3]. This is the politics that the Catholic Church is interested in, especially since the Vatican II Council. And this is why the Church endorses and esteems those who devote themselves to the service of others and take upon themselves the burdens of public service[4].

2. A Conditional Neutrality

The Catholic Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified with any political community or bound by ties to any political system. It is, at once, a sign and the safeguard of the transcendental dimension of the human person[5]. Therefore, the Church as whole can neither support a specific political party nor uphold an individual as her chosen candidate. This clarification is paramount in our context of bipartite politics and the geographical design of both political parties and the Catholic Church in Sierra Leone.

During and after elections, the Church always remains neutral. In this way, she fulfils her role of being sign of unity. But her neutrality is a conditional neutrality. Indeed, in her social teaching, the Church sets up a list of criteria which helps Christians while evaluating the manifesto of each political party. Here are some of these conditions: 1/ human dignity: regarded as inviolable since every human person is created by God in His image; 2/ the common good: which recognizes the social character of all human beings and their interdependence and mutuality; 3/ subsidiarity: which recognizes the rights of the family and intermediate organizations in relation to the state; 4/ preferential option for the poor: which is solidly rooted in both Old and New testaments; 5/solidarity: which recognizes a responsibility to all human beings and which rejects extreme forms of individualism; 6/ preferential option for non-violence: which is solidly rooted in Jesus’ teaching and example[6].

Once one of these principles is violated, the Church can no longer remain neutral. It has the duty to sensitize all Christians, asking them to vote consequently, each according to his conscience. In so doing, the Church assumes a political role in drawing attention on these key principles because where they are missing, a country cannot hope for a bright future.

3. Who does what?

The Catholic Church is not an undifferentiated institution. While carrying out her public task, the Church distinguishes clearly between the activities of Christians, acting individually or collectively in their own name as citizens guided by the dictates of a Christian conscience, and their activity along with their pastors in the name of the church[7].

Therefore, who does what? In the catholic tradition, Clerics (bishops, priests and deacons—except permanent deacons) and religious with vows are forbidden to assume public office whenever it means sharing in the exercise of civil power (Canon Law n°285§3; 287§2; 672). Positively, their first duty is to preach the Gospel and to offer the faithful a catechesis that leads them to a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ. Since the Gospel is a message of peace, justice and reconciliation, enabling people to encounter Jesus Christ concretely, the true Gospel, becomes a real political function.

The second political role of Clerics consists in forming upright consciences receptive to the demands of justice so as to produce people committed to building a just social order by their responsible conduct[8]. This formative task is based mainly on the Social Teaching of the Church and the doctrine found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church with the aim to offer a civic education to citizens and awaken their civic responsibility. The different pastoral letters of bishops on socio-political issues - like what our bishops recently did with their letter: “Journeying towards peaceful and credible elections. Pastoral letter on elections march 2018, 04.07.2017” [9] - and the work of Justice and Peace Commissions are there to embody this function. 

Drawn from the prophetic vision of “the watchman during the night” (Is 21: 11), the Church assumes another political role: prophetic. It makes the Church to be the voice of the voiceless in denouncing any action that undermines human dignity. It signifies raising the voice against corruption, injustice, the accumulation of the wealth of the country by few political and economical leaders, the degradation of the cosmos...It’s not an easy task because being prophetic may lead to the loss of one’s life. In our context, this role needs more input and revival. Some African figures may serve as examples. It’s the case of Cardinal ChristianTumi from Cameroon and the two archbishops of Bukavu, D.R.Congo, Christoph Munzihirwa and Emmanuel Kataliko.

Also, being prophetic implies the Church’s dedication to the education of children from poor families and her attention for the sick and all those who suffer. The work of different diocesan “Caritas Commissions” has to be understood in this way. Thus, when the Clergy foster and invest energies so that the Church becomes more charitable, they assume a political role in helping, slowly but surely, to build a new social order where the dignity of the marginalised is restored and respected.

If evangelisation, formation, and prophecy can be considered as the three main political roles of the Clergy during the time of elections, being concretely involved in the politics of parties is the right and the duty of lay people. Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church states: “By fulfilling their civic duties, guided by a Christian conscience, in conformity with its values, the lay faithful exercise their proper task of infusing the temporal order with Christian values, all the while respecting the nature and rightful autonomy of that order, and cooperating with other citizens according to their particular competence and responsibility”[10].

To infuse the Christian values in public life and “to be a shining example by their sense of responsibility and dedication to the common good”[11] as Christians remain a great challenge for us here where it seems sometime impossible to distinguish a Christian and a non-Christian on issues like corruption, bribery, absenteeism, favoritism…Nevertheless, for the Catholic Church, the involvement in politics for lay faithful  is to be as “ambassadors of Christ” in public life, in the heart of the world[12]. Therefore political life is a way of witnessing to Jesus Christ, a way to holiness. An African political figure like the former president of Tanzania Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, whose possible beatification we are waiting for, is a proof that it’s possible to be a politician and a true disciple of Jesus Christ.

For the clergy and all people leading Christian communities, this time calls upon them to commit themselves in sociopolitical catechesis on the idea of the “common good” and nonviolence - peacefulness as hallmark of Christian public life. The aim of this formation and sensitization should be to indicate that Christian faith does not end in the parish church compound, but meant to be lived out in social and political commitments.

 

[1] POPE BENEDICT XVI, Africae Munus, n°17.

[2] Vatican II, The church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, n°75§6.

[3] Gaudium et Spes, n°74§1.

[4] Gaudium et Spes, n°75§1.

[5] Gaudium et Spes, n°76§2

[6] MICHAEL P. HORNSBY-SMITH, An introduction to catholic social thought, Cambridge, CUP, 2006, p. 12.

[7] Gaudium et Spes, n°76§1

[8] POPE BENEDICT XVI, Africae Munus, n°22.

[9] See the full text of the letter in www.catholicchurchsl.org.

[10] Gaudium et Spes, n°75. For more details see also: VATICAN II, « Chistus Dominus », n°19 ; « Apostolicam actuositatem », n°7 ; POPE JOHN  PAUL II, « Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation  On the mission and the vocation of lay faithful : Christifideles laici », 1989, n°36; CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF FAITH, Doctrinal Note: On some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political life, 2002.

[11] Gaudium et Spes, n°75§5.

[12] POPE BENEDICT XVI, Africae Munus, n°128.