ROME – Although it’s occasionally difficult to remember, given everything else going on right now, there still is a presidential election scheduled in the US for November. Once again, it seems likely to create awkward moments for the country’s Catholic bishops.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is a pro-choice Catholic, which means that just like 2004, when the Democrats nominated fellow pro-choice Catholic John Kerry, bishops will have to make tough decisions about how to register disapproval while, at the same time, not reducing the election to a referendum on one issue or making the Church and themselves look partisan.
Though no one expects a replay of what wags dubbed the “wafer wars” of 2004, in part because the climate in the Church is different under Pope Francis, the question of how to engage a Catholic candidate with whom they disagree on core matters still seems destined to haunt the American bishops over the next few months.
As they ruminate, US prelates might want to take a look at Burundi as an intriguing test case. Granted, the differences between the US and Burundi in terms of population, development and culture are vast, but while every analogy is inexact, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn.
Yesterday, a 52-year-old former soldier and father of six named Evariste Ndayishimiye was sworn in as the new president of Burundi, a landlocked nation in Africa’s Great Rift Valley with a population of almost 12 million.
Ndayishimiye is the protégé and hand-picked successor of President Pierre Nkurunziza, who ruled the country for three five-year terms since 2005, and the new president was sworn in two months ahead of schedule because of his mentor’s unexpected death on June 8.
Burundi is about 65 percent Catholic, making it one of Africa’s most heavily Catholic countries as a percentage of population. Nkurunziza, though born to a Catholic Hutu father, is a born-again Christian, part of the vast Evangelical and Pentecostal wave that washed over sub-Saharan Africa during the past half-century. Ndayishimiye, by way of contrast, describes himself as a “fervent” Catholic.
Despite his religious affiliation, Ndayishimiye has had a decidedly contentious relationship with the country’s bishops conference, which was strongly critical of Nkurunziza’s decision in 2015 to pursue a third term despite a peace deal ending a long-running civil war that limited the president to two terms.
UN human rights investigators have said the period since 2015, when Ndayishimiye claimed reelection, has been marked by probable crimes against humanity committed by state forces, citing extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, torture and sexual violence, most of it directed at political opposition to the ruling regime.
When the bishops warned of violence and intimidation by forces linked to Nkurunziza’s ruling party last year, which they said was intended to “suffocate and assault certain political parties and to persecute their members,” Ndayishimiye accused them of “sowing division.”
“It is shameful to spread hatred among the faithful,” he told a Sept. 2019 political gathering.
The bishops have also questioned the legitimacy of the May 20 election that brought Ndayishimiye to power with 68.72 percent of the vote.
“We deplore many irregularities with regard to the freedom and transparency of the electoral process as well as fairness in the treatment of certain candidates and voters,” said Bishop Joachim Ntahondereye of Muyinga.
It should be said that while bishops in America occasionally face bad press or grumbling in the pews when they get involved on a political question, in Burundi the price for such outspokenness can be considerably higher.
In 1996, Archbishop Joachim Ruhuna was murdered by the Hutu rebel group that went on to become the current government, after he condemned the killing of hundreds of ethnic Tutsi refugees. Seven years later, Irish Archbishop and Vatican envoy Michael Aidan Courtney was murdered by different Hutu rebels.
Despite the tensions, the country’s Catholic leadership turned out for Ndayishimiye’s swearing-in ceremony yesterday and offered prayers for the new leader.
“Understand that you are a son of God and as such must bring peace among Burundians, you know how much we need it,” said the Archbishop Simon Ntamwana of Gitega, the national capital.
“Bring back to our country the refugees in the camps, bring back the intellectuals in exile so that they can take part in the development of our country, renew ties with the international community so they can help us develop,” Ntamwana said.
What’s interesting, seen through American eyes, is that the Burundian bishops have not framed their differences with Ndayishimiye in terms of his religious affiliation. They’ve strongly criticized the behavior of his regime, but not suggested that he has a special responsibility to pay heed because he’s Catholic. So far as we know, no bishop in Burundi has denied Ndayishimiye communion, or threatened to do so, for non-compliance.
Perhaps that’s simply because in a largely Catholic country, there’s nothing especially remarkable about a particular politician happening to be Catholic. For whatever reason, the bishops of Burundi have managed to avoid the impression that they’re engaged in a confessional struggle or attempting to assert their authority.
It remains to be seen whether the apparent choice by Burundi’s bishops not to make an issue out of a politician’s religion will afford them any greater leverage than America’s bishops have been able to exercise with pro-choice Catholic politicians in the US.
However, it may shape the perceptions Burundians have of their bishops, and that in itself may be instructive.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.