ROME – It’s been an eventful few weeks for the Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a pivotal and war-torn nation of 67 million people located in Central Africa where roughly half the population is Catholic.
To begin with, the country’s bishops recently asked President Joseph Kabila to open a national dialogue “in accordance with the constitution” with regard to elections set for 2016. Kabila took office in 2001 following the assassination of his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, and has since between elected to the presidency twice, in 2006 and 2011.
At present, there are rumors that Kabila is laying the groundwork to amend Congo’s constitution to allow him to seek a third term, sparking protests from the country’s political opposition as well as pro-democracy activists.
In that context, the “invitation” from the bishops has struck many Congolese as akin to a shot across the bow, meaning a warning that the Church will push back if Kabila does indeed try to set aside constitutional term limits to extend his grip on power.
Second, Church officials in early July found themselves defending the role of the Catholic charitable group Caritas in distributing salaries for public school teachers in remote areas of the country where there are no banks.
Teachers in those regions recently have complained that they haven’t been paid for months. Officials of the charity, however, say the delays are because vehicles carrying cash for the salaries have been hijacked by bandits, insisting that if the government really wants teachers paid, then it could provide better security on the roads.
In any event, a spokesman for the main teachers’ union in eastern Congo, Jean-Luc Ndailitse, said his organization still prefers having Caritas handle the payments.
When government officials were in charge, he said, at least 30 percent of the funds disappeared, presumably lining those officials’ pockets; now, at least, when Caritas can get the cash where it’s supposed to go, all of it goes to the teachers.
On yet another front, bishops in the Democratic Republic of Congo also recently joined with their brother prelates in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville to decry a crackdown on illegal immigrants there, mostly impoverished Congolese attracted by a slightly higher standard of living.
The bishops said the anti-immigrant campaign, called Mbata ya bakolo in the local Lingala language, meaning “slap of the elders,” has been characterized by human rights abuses.
For Westerners, the idea of Catholic bishops brokering national elections, or a Catholic charity being responsible for paying public servants, may seem like obvious violations of the notion of church/state separation.
Such notions, however, have little to do with the practical realities of life across much of the developing world, sometimes called the Two-Thirds World.
In non-Western nations, especially in one-party states or where the political class is perceived as hopelessly corrupt, religious bodies are sometimes the only meaningful expressions of civil society – the only zones of life where protest can take shape, and where concern for the common good can be articulated.
To take another African example, when the war-torn West African nation of Sierre Leone needed someone to head its National Election Commission who could be trusted across party lines to oversee the fairness of balloting, it turned to a former Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny and a devout Catholic activist, Christiana Thorpe.
Actually, Congo itself offers the perfect illustration.
Back in the early 1990s, what was then Zaire was feeling its way towards life without strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country from 1965 to 1997. A transitional “High Council of the Republic” needed someone with moral authority and a reputation for independence to lead the process of drafting a new constitution, acting as the de facto national leader during the fin de regime period.
Nobody from the political class fit the bill, so the nation instead turned to the then-archbishop of Kisangani, a polished and urbane cleric named Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya. He not only served as president of the council, but also as transitional speaker of the national Parliament in 1994 – meaning, in effect, that a Catholic bishop was the country’s head of state.
Monsengwo draws mixed reviews for how he handled the role, but he’s gone on to become one of the towering leaders of Catholic Africa. Today he sits on Pope Francis’ council of cardinal advisors, the pontiff’s most important “kitchen cabinet” where key policy decisions are hammed out.
(In some ways, Monsengwo was born to lead. He belongs to the royal family of his Basakata tribe; his name actually means, “relative of the chief.”)
Places such as Congo are destined to play an ever greater role in setting the agenda for global Catholicism in the early 21st century. By 2050 its Catholic population is projected to be around 97 million, putting it neck-and-neck with the United States for fourth place on the “largest Catholic nations” list behind Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines.
Under the influence of leaders from such backgrounds, it seems likely that the Catholic Church may become steadily less skittish about direct political engagement, reflecting the cultural experience and needs of the developing world.
For many Catholics outside the West, in other words, the question to be asked isn’t whether the Church is too political. It’s whether the Church is political enough, especially where it has the capacity to fill a void that no other actor either can or will.
* * * * *
Is Poland’s new hyper-Catholic government on a collision course with the pope?
Last week Andrzej Duda took office as Poland’s new president, having run as head of a right-wing party with a history of pugnaciousness with Germany. Under the heading of the “dog that didn’t bark,” perhaps the most intriguing Catholic angle is that it happened with almost no reference to what the pope might be thinking.
Such silence would have been unimaginable under either of the two previous pontiffs, who were Polish and German respectively. Where John Paul II or Benedict XVI stood, and how they might react to new developments, inevitably would have been part of the discussion.
Francis, however, is not your granddad’s kind of pope.
History’s first pontiff from the global south has a clearly stated preference for the peripheries of the world. It’s telling that aside from a day trip to the European Parliament in Strasbourg last November, Francis has not made a single visit to Western Europe in the 32 months since his election – a span that’s taken him to Latin America twice, Asia twice, the Middle East twice, and Eastern Europe twice.
Another way for a pope to project his vision is by appointing new leadership, yet to date, apart from a handful of Vatican officials and Italians, Francis has tapped only three new European cardinals.
As the first Slavic pope, John Paul II was vitally interested in seeing Eastern and Western Europe come together, “breathing with both lungs.” As a Western intellectual, Benedict XVI was, and remains, keenly attentive to currents in European culture.
Francis brings a different optic – one in which, frankly, Europe isn’t where the action is.
Inevitably, however, such benign neglect poses risks. Francis repeatedly has called on the “international community” to act on various issues, and while it’s not always entirely clear who he has in mind, inevitably it includes major European nations.
Poland is an interesting case in which this “pontiff of the periphery” may eventually feel the need to re-engage the center.
Duda’s victory was something of a surprise, and it would not have happened without strong Catholic support. Duda himself is a devout believer, who made a pilgrimage to Jasna Góra Monastery in Czestochowa two days after his victory to entrust his presidency to the Black Madonna who is Poland’s national patron.
His Catholic instincts are certainly not in doubt.
In early June, Duda was attending an open-air Mass in Warsaw celebrated by Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz when a gust of wind blew a consecrated host off the altar and onto the ground. Duda sprang into action, cupping the host reverently in his hands and returning it to Nycz. A video of the moment went viral in Catholic circles.
Politically, Duda and his “Law and Justice” party are strongly anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia and anti-gay marriage, all positions of which the pope certainly would approve.
Yet in terms of Francis’ social and political agenda, Poland’s new regime also poses some question marks.
Immigration is one such front. Although Law and Justice members have been aggressive in defending the estimated 1.3 to 2 million Polish migrants currently living in other EU states, they’ve shown less enthusiasm for welcoming immigrants inside Poland itself.
When Poland adopted an amnesty law for illegal immigrants in 2012, Law and Justice members were publicly ambivalent. In general, the party upholds a strong concept of Polish nationalism which, according to critics, can shade off into xenophobia.
The environment is another area of potential conflict.
In his recent encyclical letter Laudato Si’, Francis called for strong limits on the consumption of fossil fuels. Yet Law and Justice has vowed to toughen Poland’s stance on climate issues to protect its economy, which relies on coal for about 90 percent of its electricity. A party official in charge of energy policy recently said, “The strategy we’re planning rejects the dogma of de-carbonization.”
At a time when Francis is calling for greater integration of peoples, Law and Justice is fairly Euro-skeptic; while Francis rails against the arms trade, Law and Justice wants to boost Poland’s military expenditures.
One could go on cataloguing examples, but the point is that in at least a few areas, and despite its indisputable Catholic credentials, Poland’s new government may be on a collision course with the pope.
Make no mistake, Poland matters in today’s world.
Alone in the European Union, Poland did not suffer a recession after the 2007 financial crisis. Its economy has grown by 33 percent since the collapse, compared with 2 percent for the euro zone. It’s also become a sought-after partner on foreign policy matters, among other things playing a key role in diplomatic skirmishes over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.
Poland is also a global Catholic powerhouse, with 37 million faithful, a large contingent of clergy serving abroad, and the legacy of John Paul II to sustain it.
The country is set for parliamentary elections in October, which will help determine the extent to which Duda is able to implement his agenda. Beyond that, Pope Francis will travel to Poland in 2016 to preside over World Youth Day, the festival St. John Paul II founded, in the late pontiff’s native Krakow.
It will be interesting to watch whether Francis takes a stronger interest in Poland going forward, and, if so, how much luck he has in nudging its new hyper-Catholic government into sync with his own priorities.