Eucharist as a Weapon?
In recent weeks, some readers have questioned whether Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, a Catholic, should continue to receive holy Communion, particularly at Masses that form part of public events.
There is a perspective that Mr Mugabe is an unworthy recipient of the Eucharist because he heads a government that commits gross human rights abuses against many of its people. Those Catholics who oppose Mr Mugabe’s approach to governance may well be scandalised by his continued reception of the Eucharist especially when many faithful Catholics are automatically barred from the Lord’s table.
The question of whether Mr Mugabe should be denied Communion forms part of a wider debate concerning politics and the Eucharist, and the use of the Eucharist to apply political pressure.
This year, some bishops in the United States declared that the presidential candidate John Kerry would be barred from receiving Communion in their dioceses on account of his pro-choice voting record.
The American episcopate was not united in using the Eucharist to apply political pressure on Mr Kerry and like-minded Catholic politicians, nor did the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith offer any specific guidance on whether or not Mr Kerry himself should be denied Communion.
In the absence of a common course among the US bishops, the faithful or even the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, Catholic politicians who advance pro-choice legislation are unlikely to submit to such pressure.
Conversely, constructive engagement has the capacity of producing an examination of conscience that public denunciation can not.
When in 1987 Pope John Paul visited Chile, then governed by a brutal junta, he prevailed upon dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte like Robert Mugabe a Catholic to let a referendum on the military dictatorship proceed peacefully and fairly.
While many Pinochet opponents still regard the pope’s visit as legitimising the junta, it, in fact, contributed to a peaceful transfer of power.
Of course, such constructive engagement does not invariably accomplish its objectives, as Pope Pius XII learned in his futile efforts to moderate the excesses of Nazi Germany.
Likewise, the quiet diplomacy of the South African government’s policy on Zimbabwe has remained largely fruitless.
And so the bishops of Zimbabwe must approach with caution the question of withholding Communion from Mr Mugabe. Would doing so bring about a change or a hardening of the president’s heart? And would it be canonically licit?
When Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, a vocal critic of the Mugabe regime, was asked not long ago whether he would administer holy Communion to Mr Mugabe should the president present himself, he replied that he might delegate that task to a concelebrant.
Meanwhile Archbishop Robert Ndlovu of Harare, whose strong opposition to human rights abuses is documented, has been criticised by some for administering Communion to Mr Mugabe.
This could well serve as a metaphor for the present approach of the Zimbabwean bishops to Mr Mugabe. While Archbishop Ncube articulates the despair of the victims of the Mugabe regime, Archbishop Ndlovu acts as a conciliatory influence that ensures that the point of view of the Church cannot be easily dismissed as hostile by default.
This dual approach is a judicious application of diplomacy which has many precedents in the modern history of the Church.
It also testifies to a wise reluctance to use the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, as a political weapon.