Our religion is not private
I was encouraged this week that the President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) spoke on our national broadcaster, SAFM, about a joint statement released by all church leaders. They are calling South Africa to get its ‘house in order’ over the now unsurprising, but continuing, news of corruption and plundering of state resources from the Zondo Commission. It made the point that ‘church and faith leaders want to become part of responsible debate and dialogue on how to restore trust in the political process, which affects every South African’. But my hopes were quickly dashed.
Although the interviewer claims on the station’s website that he is a columnist on religious issues, his ignorance about religious matters and the role of religion left the listeners, and I daresay the bishop, dumbfounded. One of the first questions he asked was: “We are not expecting the clergy to be debating? That’s our job. That’s members of the media, talk-show hosts, academics, politicians even… Is this the role of the church… Why are we hearing leaders of religion debating? Aren’t you encroaching into a space that you have nothing to do with?”
The bishop replied and tried to make the point that religion has a care and concern for the poor and all life. Speaking truth to power and being prophetic is precisely the role of religion. He didn’t say this in as many words, and could not get space in the interview to adequately explain Catholic Social Teaching. It left me with a realisation that many in our country have a different understanding of religion, even though they profess some sympathy with religion.
Catholic Social Teaching holds that Catholics have to participate in the political and social life of society, to uphold values and resist all forms of corruption.
It seems, however, that the prevailing view of religion is that it is a private and personal affair. As long as this view is held, we can neither speak about the common good nor be the salt of the earth, or light of the world, that we are called to be.
It is not enough for us to privatise our faith to Sundays and to create a Chinese wall between our economic endeavours and our sense of morality. As Pope Francis repeated many times in Laudato Si’, “Everything is connected.” He teaches that: “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” (Laudato Si’ 91.)
We must live the demands of the gospel, and be seen to be living them so that we can counter this false narrative that faith and religion have no business in the public square. It would, I think, be fair to say that we are in the mess we are in because religious leaders, with a few exceptions, have not spoken out as forcefully, or as often, after 1994 as they did before.
In launching the new Pastoral Plan, Bishop Sipuka called all of us to a missionary conversion to be “a transforming light to our dark world”: “we can do this if we repent of the selfishness that makes us focus on ourselves. May the Lord grant us the grace for this needed missionary conversion. Amen”