“To refuse to take a political stance is to take a political stance, which is to support the (political) status quo.”
In 2018, the International Crisis Group opined that the Catholic Church in Cameroon stood the best chance of mediating dialogue between the government and Anglophone separatists. However, the crisis group “briefing” identified an obstacle which they thought stood in the way of the church playing this role. It stated: “At present, however, its public divisions, particularly between Anglophone and Francophone clergy, that stand in the way of it playing a constructive role” We, in the church, have always been aware of our divisions, but I could not help feeling embarrassed by the proportions they had taken and by how they were actually undermining the work of the Church.
While divisions between clergy in the Catholic Church have often stemmed from ethnic prejudices, they have also been driven by the alliances which politicians have forged with some church leaders. Examples abound. The Bishop Ndongmo case of the 1970s showed that the friendship bond between a bishop and a politician were stronger than the bonds of the episcopate and the bonds of baptism. In the 1990s when Cameroon was making the difficult transition from one party to multiparty politics, an Archbishop celebrated Mass in Bamenda for victims of military violence and for respect for human rights and another Archbishop celebrated a ‘counter-Mass’ in Yaoundé.
At this point, Cameroon is probably more divided than at any point in her history after independence. Most of us, priests and laity, wish that our bishops would speak with one voice and give us a clear sense of direction as to where the Church stands on: bad governance, Anglophone marginalization, school boycott, deep divisions in the Anglophone (Christian) communities, etc.
But, alas, our National Episcopal Conference has not been able to speak on these issues, and many Anglophone Catholics have felt abandoned by the Church at a time when they need her most. True, the last two presidents of the National Episcopal Conference have spoken out against some of the excesses of government and separatists, but their voices have been hushed and undermined by the contradictory statements of their colleagues or the deafening silence of the Conference on matters of life and death for fellow Anglophone Catholics.
It takes tons of courage to call out incidents of injustice and human rights abuses anywhere in the world, but it is even tougher to call to account perpetrators of injustice and human rights abuses in situations like the one in Anglophone Cameroon. The government and separatists are likely to ask for your head on a plate! And, with the current divisions in opinion as to the line of action the Church should be taking, you will be hung up to dry should you incur the ire of either protagonist.
I have already voiced that while some Church leaders are thinking God, the Church and common good, others are thinking tribe, power and influence, money and personal gain. St. Augustine wrote that the love of self has formed the earthly city, the city of man, while the love of God has formed the heavenly city, the city of God. These two ‘cities’ have totally different motives and goals in mind. Could the pull of the two cities in different directions be the reason for the discordant voices we hear in the Church when it comes to calling out the government on corruption, bad governance, human rights abuses, and injustice?
Every Christian, priest and bishop has a right to their political opinion and, like every other human being; they cannot escape ‘the political’. We believe that Jesus Christ is Lord of all of life, including our political life, so that being a good person or a good Christian is directly connected to our political systems and structures.
The question for Christians should be: how do I live as Christ wants in the current situation? And the answer to that question will sometimes (and in the Cameroonian situation, almost always) leads us to take a political stance; to oppose injustice, condemn human rights violations, denounce marginalization, bad governance, corruption and the siphoning of public funds. So to live out our Christian lives as laity, priests or bishops, we have got to be political. However, we need to remind ourselves that being political is not the same thing as being partisan.
Many Catholics would agree that ‘partisan politics’ is what has silenced our prophetic voice as a Church. In many African countries, including Cameroon, there is a tendency for politicians to woo church men and women of influence, in a bid to have a platform, and lend more credibility to what they say or do. In the face of the Covid-19 hesitancy, how many ‘prophets’ and ‘bishops’ have we heard preaching that we prayed for God to save us from this pandemic and the vaccine is God’s answer to our prayer? How many of them have received government ‘support’ to do so, and how many have been coaxed by some government minister to preach vaccine efficacy?
Politicians who lend support (as individuals) to the evangelising work of the Church can do so with a good motive, but it is rare to find a political leader who espouses policies perfectly in line with Catholic social teaching. There is almost always ‘payback time’, almost always something the politician or their party will reap from a cozy relationship with the church leader or the Church herself. That is why, in 2019, the Catholic Church in Kenya took action against individuals they believed were corrupt by rejecting their offerings and gifts. It was reported that Archbishop Philip Anyolo of Kisumu Archdiocese actually rejected a Mitsubishi Pajero SUV worth $40,000 from deputy president William Ruto. Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit, in 2019, warned ACK clerics against accepting corrupt money, “Let us not allow Harambee money to become a subtle way to sanitise corrupt leaders.” The Kenyan Church seems to have learned that accepting donations from corrupt politicians is courting trouble for the Church and undermining her moral authority. I wonder what they would think about Church leaders who actually go out to politicians, asking them to lead fundraising activities in Church.
Some people believe that the priest-politician interaction does less to spiritualise politics and more to politicise spirituality, and the current crisis has more than confirmed this belief in many minds. Most politicians I know in this country and elsewhere care more about their popularity and votes than they do about the spread of the Kingdom of God.
As a priest, I know firsthand how frustrated some of my colleagues feel when Church leadership does not speak with one voice on some of the vexing issues of our in the middle of a burning crisis. That notwithstanding, I still think that it is irresponsible for priests to use the pulpit to express their narrow, personal opinions on political issues, or to voice their disagreement with the line of action of the bishop. It is no secret that some of our Anglophone priests threw their whole weight behind the SDF Party when it was launched in the 1990s and a few did same for the Anglophone ‘cause’ at the beginning of the current crisis. There is no way we are going to preach on the gospel themes of reconciliation, justice and peace, respect for the life and dignity of the human person without making reference to the Anglophone Crisis and how the teaching of the Church applies in the circumstances.
Our moral principles are enduring; politicians and political parties are transitory. Each of us is a politician but the difference between us and career politicians is that it is our faith that informs our politics, not the party line, not the God-fearing generous politician friend, not the tribe or ethnic group, and not personal gain of any kind.
This country is crying out for priests and pastors who care about the common good, respect for human life, human rights, justice and peace, and Catholics want to know how Catholic Social Teaching speaks to these and other issues of current attention. We, priests and pastors, must speak the truth forcefully and charitably and, if that offends someone’s political sensibilities, so be it. Those of us who knew them look back with nostalgia at the days of Archbishop Paul Verdzekov, Christian Cardinal Tumi, Archbishop André Wouking and courageous priests who called out the excesses of government and spoke truth to power. These, and others like them, accorded the Church a moral high ground.
We need the Church to be a diverse place where we work with others of different opinions and backgrounds around the common good and shared interests. We need priests and pastors whose hearts beats for God and for His people, not political acolytes.
Fr. Joseph Awoh
Pentecost Sunday 2021