Last week, I began the discussion on why we need to safeguard the political dimension of ecclesiastical authority. The socioeconomic situation in Nigeria is very dire. Insecurity is at an all-time high. Priests are being kidnapped and murdered, and Christianity in Nigeria is facing an existential threat. It seems the situation in Nigeria is unprecedented and that canon law does not take cognisance of our present situation.
No doubt, the Catholic Church, though the body of Christ, is a western institution; yet, it is multi-national (universal). Yes, canon law derives largely from Roman law and roughly fits into the civil law system of western societies, different from the customary legal system prevalent in non-western countries such as Nigeria. Yet, it accommodates local customs, which are not contrary to divine law (Canon 24). Yes, canon law largely responds to challenges faced by western countries, yet some laws specifically respond to culturally diverse territories like Nigeria such as Petrine privilege on marriage (Canon 1148). Canon law also empowers Episcopal conferences and diocesan bishops to make laws that respond to their peculiar situations.
Let’s not forget that the Catholic Church is the oldest continuous institution and has lasted over two thousand years. A study of Church history reveals that there is no unprecedented situation. I boldly state that the existential threat faced by Christians in Nigeria is not compared to the persecutions faced by the early Church nor the persecutions Asian Christians and missionaries faced centuries ago (I will reflect on the fall of Christianity to Islam in the Middle East and North Africa in future posts). Indeed, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
The Church is the only religious institution that has diplomatic relations with almost all the countries of the world. The last official update puts the number at 183 countries. Even the Knights of Malta, a Catholic organisation, has diplomatic relations with over 100 countries in the world, including the European Union. There is no gainsaying the immense advantage of this bilateral diplomatic relationship between the Church (Holy See) and a State.
First, it helps the Church to sign a concordat with a State, which enables the Catholic Church to enjoy some privileges in secular matters such as the validity of canonical marriages in civil law, tax remittances, and recognition of academic degrees awarded in ecclesiastical institutes. Second, it provides somewhat diplomatic protection that makes it difficult for governments to clamp down on Church institutions completely. Third, it makes it easier for the Church to establish and run charity organisations in collaboration with international organisations. Fourth, among other privileges, it eases procedures, transactions, movement, and travel for Vatican diplomats in a country because they possess the diplomatic passport of the Holy See. Fifth, it makes it easier for us to get a foreign visa. Applying with the letter from the National Catholic Secretariat, which acts as a national centre for the Apostolic Nunciature in Nigeria, drastically reduces the chances of being denied a visa.
In sum, diplomatic relations facilitate the Church’s missionary work of evangelisation and salvation of souls.
In reality, Pentecostals benefit from the stability the Catholic Church provides to the Church-State relationship in Nigeria. The National Peace Committee that gathers politicians to sign a peace accord before elections is a Catholic initiative led by ‘The Kukah Centre’ of Bishop Hassan Kukah of Sokoto diocese.
Of course, we can criticise the government for its failing policies. However, publicly and actively supporting a political party against another one as a Church is counterproductive. While priests may do so and easily get away with it, individual bishops, and particularly, the Bishops’ Conference will not get away with it. Why? St Ignatius of Antioch said: “where the bishop is, there is the Church”. When a bishop speaks, it is assumed that the Church speaks. If a bishop publicly supports an opposition political party, it means that the Church is officially doing so. This also means that the Apostolic Nunciature in Nigeria is interfering in Nigerian internal politics—a no-no for a ruling party.
Apart from the moral implications on the Church’s mission to save all souls, it is a very high political risk. If the party the Church publicly supports wins, the Church gains, but if the party loses, there could be a serious backlash, which undermines the status of the Church. In retaliation, the government may expel the Nuncio and cut off diplomatic ties with the Holy See. It can rescind the privileges granted to the Church, thereby making evangelisation harder and more dangerous.
When Pilate sought to release Jesus, the Jews said to him: “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; everyone who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar” (John 19:12).
How? Vigorously criticise policies and actions of political parties and individuals but not individuals and political parties themselves. This is to avoid argumentum ad hominem. Empower the populace with knowledge and truth and they will do the fighting with their voices and votes. For instance, Fr Kelvin Ugwu recently made a post on social media asking INEC to include names and pictures of candidates on the ballot paper. Thousands are sharing the post and are bombarding INEC platforms with pleas to implement it.
Ka Chineke mezie okwu🙏🏾