“These are difficult times in the history of Nigeria. As people of faith, we must work hard and also pray hard for the future of Nigeria. During the military rule, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) composed the Prayer for Nigeria in Distress. Dearly beloved in Christ, Nigeria is in distress. We consequently, call on Catholics to recite this prayer at all Masses and other liturgical celebrations. We entrust Nigeria into the hands of God and implore Him to improve the situation in our country. May God intervene in the life of Nigeria once again, so that we can enjoy true peace, justice, and prosperity.” – (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, August 6, 2018).
When the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), issued the above directives early this week, some, especially, within the ranks and files of the clergy and religious, received it with some mixed-feelings. What is obvious from the reactions of these individual priests and religious with regard to the above directives of the CBCN on Church and politics, is the unsavory interpretation some gave to the expression, “…the Catholic Church remains ever apolitical.” Going further in their statement, the bishops said:
“… We have observed that the political atmosphere is very tense and also noticed the political realignment that is taking place. Some politicians are changing political parties and urging their supporters to switch over their support to their new parties as well. Given this development, we wish to use this opportunity to make it clear that the Catholic Church remains ever apolitical and does not endorse or subscribe to any political party.” – (CBCN, ibid.)
A caveat: I write on this issue only as an interested person. Therefore, without pretending to hold brief for the bishops or any group on this matter, since I am not qualified in any way to do so and nobody had invited me either to speak on the topic, my aim in the present article is simple. The article intends to interpret the Bishops’ expression, ‘the Church remains ever apolitical’, to mean simply, that the Church does not play partisan politics, and therefore, should not allow itself or its clergy and religious be manipulated or used by politicians or political parties for same. In a country such as Nigeria, where some priests, especially, the so-called powerful-priest healers, abused this norm during and after the 2015 elections, this warning by the CBCN is not only timely, but also in order.
Therefore, judging from the above statement of CBCN, bishops, priests and religious are not to belong to political parties. They are also not to contest, endorse any political party or candidate for political elections. To do so is to compromise their neutrality of being pastors – religious and moral teachers of all the people in different political parties or philosophical persuasions in Nigeria. This, in our view, is the meaning of the CBCN expression, ‘the Church remains ever apolitical.’
In other words, participation in partisan politics, political alliances, contests, elections, and electioneering campaigns as such, are not for the Church as institution and its priests. This implies that because of the nature and centrality of the pastoral ministry of the Church, bishops and priests in the life and evangelizing mission of the Church itself, they are not to be involved in partisan politics. This is because, partisan politics is the function of political parties and partisan politicians. Each bishop or priest, like every other citizen, should only exercise his franchise of voting a candidate of his choice according to his conscience on elections day.
Having said that, our main objective in the present article is to make our humble contribution in helping to digest the bishops’ directive on the level of participation of the Church, bishops and priests in politics. In this context, our use of the word ‘politics’ is not to be understood as partisan politics. Rather, politics is used here as an ordered manner for societal organization in respect of natural and common laws of the land. In this sense, the Church has a political role and important presence in politics and society.
Again, the directives of the CBCN on participation of the Church and priests in politics cited earlier on, may mean that the political presence and role of the Church in the society should not be interpreted in terms of partisan politics. Rather, it should be understood in terms of the Church’s continuation or prolongation of its role as the custodian and teacher of society’s religious and moral values in the light of the Gospel teaching. The Church is both the custodian and teacher of religious and moral values of the society, and therefore of the state. This role of the Church extends to politics; although, the Church is not a partisan politics player, since that may amount to compromising its moral authority and role model in the society.
The forgoing brings us to the central question in the CBCN directives on Church and politics in Nigeria:
The question is, ‘what is the political role of the Church today in a country such as Nigeria?’ Related to this is the question of whether the Church can in the real sense of it, be described as an apolitical institution in a society such as Nigeria? Can an institution like the Church with political presence and role in the society, claim to remain neutral or apolitical in political matters without neglecting its essential mission in history and society?
In other words, does non-participation in partisan politics and political elected posts, make the Church, its bishops, priests and religious, neutral entities in Nigerian politics and governance culture?
This to me is what the CBCN directives on Church and politics cited above had challenged us to reflect upon in our Nigerian context! It is about the religious and moral teaching obligation of the Church in political matters, which the Church must not neglect without however, compromising its non-partisan status as an institution with eschatological goal and mission for the salvation of the world! This is clear from the following words of the Bishops in the directives:
“We, the members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), as teachers of the faith and morals do have the serious obligation to educate our faithful on their role in the political life of the country” – (CBCN, ibid).
The political organization of the society takes its bearing from the socio-cultural, religious and moral values of the people. The barometer of societal organization is rooted on the moral principles and religio-cultural traditions of the people, which in turn, is the ambient of the Church’s moral and religious evangelizing mission. Therefore, the Church’s political presence and role in the society comes alive, especially, through its prayers, moral and catechetical teachings on good governance and culture.
The goal of politics is for the orderly organization of the society for the welfare and security of the citizenry. The human person is at the center of political organization of the society and therefore of the state. The Church cannot stay aloof in a place where the welfare of the human person is discussed, deliberated and is being organized. It is precisely for the human person that Christ came into the world and was crucified on the Cross for our salvation.
As Pope Paul VI says, ‘the human person is the way through which the Church travels and does its mission in the world.’ It is for the welfare and salvation of the human person that Jesus Christ inaugurated and constituted his Church on earth to continue his redemptive work of salvation. Therefore, the Church exists to serve the redemptive work of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the human person.
This is why the Church cannot remain politically disinterested or aloof, when the moral principles, on which society is founded are compromised by politicians or those at the corridors of power. In other words, the Church cannot remain neutral or apolitical when political parties and politicians no longer respect the natural law as well as the state constitutional norms of governance. The Church has the obligation not to remain silence but rather to exercise its religious and moral authority through prayers and teaching on good governance, respect of the rule of law, justice and freedom.
The Church must speak out and condemn abuse of power by those at the corridors of political governance of the state. The overall aim of which, however, is to waken in the conscience of the people, especially, politicians and those in corridors of power, the need to abide by the rule of good governance for the correct reordering of the society.
Between Church and Politics
“They put to him (Jesus Christ) this question, ‘Master…, is it permissible for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ But he was aware of their cunning and said, ‘Show me a denarius. Whose portrait (image) and title are on it?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ He said to them: Well then, pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” (Luke 20:20-25).
The implication of what we have discussed so far hinges on the separation of power between the Church and State, is already envisaged in the above citation from Luke’s gospel: ‘Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.’ (Luke 20:25).
As I said in one of my previous articles, titled, “Fighting Corruption is Not the Role of Christian Religious Leaders”, where I discussed in some details the above Lukan citation, the question is, ‘when Christ looks at us and our country Nigeria today, what image does he want to see in us, the image of Caesar or that of God?’ Obviously, when Christ looks at us, our country, or any other created being or things in the world, ‘he wants to see the image of God in us and NOT that of Caesar.’ The emphasis therefore, is on the image of God, which Christ did not see in that denarius since it contains only the portrait of Caesar – worldly power, wealth, violence, bloodbath, killings of innocent citizens, and deceit of the devil.
Corollary, could we say that today, going by what has been happening in the country in the last three years alone, that God still sees his ‘image’ in Nigeria’s leadership style and political structure? In other words, when God looks at Nigeria’s political leaders and system of governance today – the insensitive behavior of those at the corridors of power to the plights of the common masses, does he see his image there? Isn’t it the image of the “Devil on the Cross” that he sees in the behavior of those Nigerian political Vampires and tyrants who hold the Spirit captive in the country? To use the famous expression of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s timeless novel, “The Devil on the Cross.”
The mission of Jesus Christ and his Church is NOT in that image of Caesar in the denarius but in God and things of God for which Christ came into the world to reveal to us. The image of God is not also in the behavior of most of those at the helm of affairs of the present Nigerian federal government and their cronies! Because God cannot be associated with bloodsuckers. Neither should God be associated with those who condone and protect the marauding Fulani herdsmen militants and Boko Haram terrorists, all the atrocities these terror groups commit on daily basis in Nigeria. The present Nigerian‘s incompetence and alleged complicity in the activities of these terror groups, is an evil that ought be condemned by all and sundry.
This is the point many people are missing today when they want to drag the Church and its pastors into partisan politics or make the Church promoter of government agenda and policies, which often are tailored to condone the activities of these terrorist groups in the country. It is the point many forget when they want the Church to ally itself with such government deceptive policies like the most tortured, one-sided and selective ‘fight against corruption’ as well as the infamous slogan, ‘Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable.’
The fact is, between the colonial arrangement of Nigeria as one-entity or nation state, and the lives of citizens, which one is more important, protection of lives and property of the people, or the forced arbitrary artificial colonial boundary and present political structure in Nigeria? The country that does not put as first priority, the security of lives and property of its citizens is not worthy of its name as nation state. Because such a country will continue to be a terror state to its inhabitants. This is what we have been experiencing in Nigeria since political independence in 1960.
This is the mistake some people make when they want the Church to remain silence in the face of injustice committed on daily basis by government and security agents, the military and police against innocent citizens. It is the mistake some make when they expect the Church to keep silence and not speak against the ineptitude leadership and failed governance culture of the present Nigerian government. The Church has obligation to speak truth to those at the corridors of power in politics.
The same mistake people make when they say the Church should not speak against the ineptitude and decimal leadership failure of the present federal government to protect the masses from terror attacks of the marauding Fulani herdsmen militants and Boko Haram terrorists. The fact is that in such a situation in which we found ourselves in Nigeria today, the Church cannot remain neutral or disinterested in politics without the Church itself betraying its mission in history and society.
Therefore, in as much as the Church is not to get involved in partisan politics, the fact remains that the Church exists to preach the gospel of love of God and neighbor to all and sundry. The Church needs an enabling environment to do this. Without peace, justice and freedom in the society, guaranteed and protected by the state as stipulated in the constitution, the faithful members of the Church cannot worship and practice their faith in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility. There will be no religious freedom either. This is the issue!
Moreover, the Church does not exist to ‘promote government agenda’, nor does it exist to serve as propaganda machinery for politicians and political office-holders in the country. Moreover, the Church and priests owe their obligation to preach and teach, NOT to the state or government, but to God revealed in Jesus Christ. The content of evangelization, Christian preaching and teaching is the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ and salvation, which came to us through the mystery of the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
The state role in this regard, is to provide an enabling environment, a level playing-ground for the Church and other religions operating in the country to do their work of evangelization in peace and tranquility, without violence or encroachment on the rights of the other. To evangelize, the Church needs an enabling environment, a free society, where rights of every individual are respected and protected under the law. This is why the Church has the obligation to remind the state or the government of the necessity of creating such enabling environment in Nigeria for peace to reign in the land. The Church cannot keep silence where it has been robbed of its enabling environment to worship and minister to the believers in Jesus Christ.
In other words, the criteria of the Church’s mission does not originate from the state but from God. Thus, the mission of the Church cannot be put in the same category with that of the state or any political party for that matter. The gospel and Church’s mission are above all political ideologies, alliances and human authorities.
The above points have furnished us with the wisdom behind the CBCN directives and teaching on the participation of the Church and priests in politics in Nigeria today. This is necessary as the country prepares for political elections in 2019.
All this implies that the CBCN directives shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that the Church remains neutral or disinterested in the political life of the country. Rather, the bishops, as our article has shown, perhaps, wanted to remind us all that the church is not a partisan political institution.
On the contrary, the Church is an institution of significant political presence and role in the society, without however, being partisan or allied to any political party or ideology. In other words, the CBCN expression “the Catholic Church remains apolitical” does not mean disinterestedness or even ‘apolitical’ in the strictest sense of the term, of the Church in the political life of the society it lives and operates. The Church must be present in every socio-cultural, political or economic sphere of the country through its teaching and moral guide, without however, compromising its principles and neutrality.
Priests are public figures and custodians of the society’s moral and religious values. They should not belong to any political party neither should they promote a particular candidate of any party for elections. They should not also use the pulpits of their churches to campaign and promote candidates during elections as happened in some cases during the 2015 elections. Priests who do so compromise their role in the society as ‘spiritual father’ of all in the society.
Therefore, every priest or religious must be seen as ‘father and brother’ to all citizens irrespective of political or philosophical differences or affiliations of the people. This is why people find it sometimes very difficult to forgive those priests, who err on those moral norms of the society. ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’, so goes the saying.
Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest. He lives in Rome where he is a Professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.