Church Must be Political, But Not Biased
The bishops of Germany marked the 75th anniversary of the defeat of the Third Reich with a remarkably frank statement which acknowledged the complicity of their predecessors in various Nazi crimes, in particular their uncritical position to the war.
Of course there was also much Catholic opposition to Nazism. This week we honour many German and Austrian Catholics who were martyrs to Nazism.
We also recall the brave witness of Bishop (later Cardinal) Clemens von Galen, but he was one of only few voices in the German episcopate who dared to criticise the evil regime.
The notion of Church leaders endorsing a political line of injustice for ideological reasons or plain expedience was hardly new then, and it has hardly disappeared since.
And it should concern people of justice when Church leaders take partisan positions in politics in pursuit of an ideology or narrow interest.
Prophetic witness demands that politicians be commended for that which merits praise, and forthrightly criticised when they violate Gospel values. And the latter is much more important than the former.
In early-1930s Germany, the Catholic hierarchy prevaricated about the threat to Gospel values posed by Adolf Hitler, and some bishops supported him (at least until the Nazis turned on them).
They could not claim ignorance: Hitler had set out his evil ideology and plans in all their megalomaniac detail in his manifesto Mein Kampf. And yet bishops were willing to give him a chance — even Bishop von Galen, who later would become a thorn in Hitler’s side.
For the Church and for society today, there are lessons to be learnt from Germany’s fall to Nazism, and the slide of much of Europe into fascism in the 1930s.
In the midst of rising nationalism, a hangover of liberalising social morals, and economic insecurity—and now crisis—the propaganda of authoritarianism and fascism is gaining parliamentary foothold again in many parts of the world.
Exhibitions of coarse racism are now vote-winners. The morally corrupt are embraced by the moral puritans who are impervious to their own hypocrisy.
Voters go to the polls to express their discontent with democracy.
Fake news causes an erosion of confidence in the media, and facts and truth become relativised, virtually optional extras.
In this world of confusion and anxiety, charlatans thrive and thugs get away with proverbial murder.
South Africa is not immune to these corrosive influences, nor to totalitarian tendencies which have found nascent expression in some of the more troubling instances of overreach during the lockdown.
The disciples of Christ must be on their guard. They must give prophetic witness. They must be prepared to speak out forthrightly for justice and all life, even if this costs them a place at the banquet.
They cannot be seen to be supporters of a particular political line other than that of the Gospel.
They must speak truth to power whenever that power strikes at the Body of Christ, regardless of the consequences. They have to engage and dialogue with those in power, but they must not be their enablers, never mind advocates.
This means that sometimes the Church has to take positions which may be interpreted as partisan. But these must always be dictated by the Gospel and the teachings of the Church.
We may think here of Pope John Paul II’s opposition to the Soviet Union and his support for the Solidarity movement in Poland, or the South African Church’s contribution to the struggle against apartheid.
Of course, the pro-life Church must speak clearly and consistently on all life issues. This means that those who may agree with the Church on one life issue must be supported on it, and as forthrightly condemned when they contravene others.
The Church must be political, but it may not be partisan. It must take principled positions based on Catholic teachings (in particular the social teachings), but it may not take positions to advance party political interests.
When the Church is seen to be partisan, it loses the credibility to speak on politics. Then prophetic witness will be dismissed as interference.
History will judge those disciples of Christ who failed to give genuine prophetic witness, as the German bishops today take to task their predecessors from 90 years ago.