Are political blessings appropriate?
The one feature of the Church which she does not share with any other institution is her persistent proximity to the people she serves. Every day the Church through daily masses, her involvement in healthcare, education, social welfare and many other initiatives is able to reach many people even in the most rural pockets of the country. It is this feature that makes it appealing to those who want to propagate their positions and campaigns. Many people in Africa identify themselves as religious persons. For this reason, the Church and its religious leaders enjoy a certain moral authority in society. This authority can also be leveraged upon by those who understand that being aligned to the Church is in itself a kind of social credibility.
Political parties have always sought friendships and alignments with the Church in order to validate and advance their own positions whether good or bad. The apartheid government appealed to theologies from some sectors of the Church when they wanted to validate their racist positions. While on the other hand liberation movements sought friendships with the Church in order to lobby the Church to support the struggle for liberation. There are plenty of records in history which spell out the church’s role in the anti-apartheid movement. This relationship between politics and religion can be a source of great destruction or great advancement for citizens and countries. It is also important to add that although the thrust of this article is on the politicians and the implications of their new-found friendship with the Church, it should not be forgotten that there are other members and leaders of the Church that seek out these friendships for popularity and financial gain.
Early this year at the annual pilgrimage of the Diocese of Marianhill in KwaZulu-Natal, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the African National Congress (ANC) presidential candidate and a professing Catholic, was invited for a blessing and to address the pilgrims in the presence of diocesan bishop and the clergy. Recently, Cyril Ramaphosa, another ANC presidential candidate, was invited to the Diocese of Kimberly to attend a diocese event. There Mr Ramaphosa received a blessing from the diocesan bishop and was invited to address the gathering. It must be made clear that there is nothing hindering any person, political or not, from requesting and receiving a blessing from any minister of the Church. In fact, it is not just the duty of the church to pray for all people, it is also her duty to pray for all civil leaders. It is for this reason that the General Instructions of the Roman Missal in their directives on the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass make mention that a petition for those in civil leadership must be made at all masses if the Intercessions are observed.
Although it is the duty of the Church to pray for all people it would be naïve of the Church and its leaders not to see that there are other motivations driving the sudden emergence of politicians in the gatherings of the Church. Presidential candidates of the ANC have extended their campaigns into the Church in order to maximise their reach. What is a great concern for the Church is that the current state of the ANC is deeply divisive and factional. For this reason, any overt alignment by the Church with any of the candidates of the ANC would draw the Church into the current political malaise of the ANC. For not only would the Church find herself be participating in the factions of a political party, but also it would be inviting disunity within its own faithful. The faithful, have their own political preferences.
To invite a candidate of a particular party means not being pastorally sensitive to the diversity of political views that exist amongst the faithful. Worse still it would be ignorant of the Church to not contemplate that even those faithful who are members of the ANC could be belonging to different factions. This tension is made manifest by the complaints from different members of the faithful on different forums like social media. An argument can be raised that the candidates themselves in their addresses merely seek prayers from the Church. That argument is a mere footnote when compared with the scale of exposure from the media social media and the faithful gathered.
It can be said, although pronouncements on the motivations of each candidate cannot be guessed, that these visitations serve to use the sacrosanct forum that is the Church. Another matter that must be clarified is the question of what exactly is being blessed? The blessing can be misunderstood to be an endorsement of the candidate as oppose to being a blessing of the person.
The leadership of the Church has a duty to safeguard the sacredness of the gathering of the faithful. After all the primary function of the gathering of the people is for the praise of the same God. There have also been others who have argued that the Church’s association with politicians who are morally questionable compromises the image of the Church. That argument is excessive in its criticism because, after all, the Church is not a haven for the perfect but “a hospital for the sick”.
The Church’s entry into political life should be on matters of principle not personalities. It should be for the advancement of the lives of the people, the upholding of the rule of law and the defense of the dignity of all people. A nonpartisan position gives the Church the authority and credibility to engage and address any issue raised by any party at any given time. The opposite robs the Church of this position because it would already be associated with a certain person and position. By so doing the Church remains solely as an instrument of God at the service of Gods people.
Fr Lawrence Ndlovu is a priest of the Archdiocese of Johannesburg. He will be a lead writer on the imminent new Catholic Church publication in Southern Africa: spotlight.africa