Last week, I explained how the diplomatic status of the Church and being available to those in the opposition, influenced the Church’s disposition to partisan politics by its clergy. Considering that I used Nigeria as a case study, a notable and inevitable comparison is the United States where priests and bishops have taken public actions that may be considered ‘partisan’ as they seek to promote Christian moral values on life, sexuality and family, and safeguard the Eucharist. Is the American context different?
First and foremost, the two main political parties in the US, the Democrats and the Republicans, are ideologically divided on abortion and other moral values on life, sexuality, and the family. It is irrelevant if the flag-bearer fully believes in the ideology or not. Hence, any attempt by the Church to promote its moral values appears ‘partisan’.
The right to abortion is a major example of the culture wars in the US because it is a religious doctrine that has metamorphosed into a political tool. In 1973, the US Supreme Court ruling (7-2) in the case, Roe v. Wade, established the constitutional right to abortion. On 24 June 2022, the same Supreme Court overruled (5-4) the judgement arguing that the right to abortion was not “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history or tradition”. This was achieved because President Donald Trump had nominated three conservatives to the Supreme Court, which gave the court a conservative majority. Therefore, one could say that Donald Trump was a promoter of life, at least of the unborn.
During the 2020 presidential electioneering, some priests and bishops condemned abortion rights during homilies and on social media and encouraged people to vote for moral values on life, sexuality and family. Voting for life was basically to vote for the Republican Party and Donald Trump, in place of the Democratic Party and Joe Biden, who was even a Catholic. In the end, Donald Trump lost.
Long before the elections, there had been calls to ban Catholic politicians who publicly supported abortion from receiving communion. This became topical when Joe Biden won the elections. This issue was hotly debated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as they prepared a national policy on the Eucharist.
However, in a letter dated 7 May 2021, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith (DDF) urged the USCCB to be cautious in banning politicians because
The Prefect of the DDF, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, maintained that “it would be misleading if such a statement were to give the impression that abortion and euthanasia alone constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability on the part of Catholics”.
The Prefect stressed that such a statement needed “to express a true consensus of the bishops on the matter, while observing the prerequisite that any provisions of the Conference in this area would respect the rights of individual Ordinaries in their dioceses and the prerogatives of the Holy See”.
The Prefect added that “any statement of the conference regarding Catholic political leaders would best be framed within the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful, rather than only one category of Catholics, reflecting their obligation to conform their lives to the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ as they prepare to receive the sacrament”.
Hence, the final document titled ‘The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Light of the Church’, issued in 2021 did not call out politicians who publicly support abortion but simply emphasised the importance of the Eucharist and why we needed to be worthy to receive it.
On 19May 2022, the Archbishop of San Francisco, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, barred the US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, from receiving communion in her home archdiocese of San Francisco for publicly supporting abortion. However, most dioceses in the US did not bar her. Nancy Pelosi even met with the Pope on 28 June 2022 in Rome and at the Papal mass on 29 June 2022, she received communion according to witnesses. Perhaps the priest that gave her communion did not recognise her.
From the above, one sees that the Holy See is cautious not to get into this communion war officially. There are various points to consider in comparing the US situation to Nigeria’s.
First, although the US is officially a secular State, it is predominantly a Christian country. Of course, the foundations of the country were exclusively Judeo-Christian. Hence, no matter what happens, the Catholic Church will always be respected in the country. Nigeria is roughly divided between Christians and Muslims. The religion of the president influences a lot.
Therefore, we must vigorously promote our candidate but not make it a religious war, even if Muslims do so. This can backfire because a Nigerian Christian is more likely to collect money and vote for a Muslim rather than a Muslim doing so. The recent hiring of bishops by the APC is an example.
Second, unlike in the US where Democrats and Republicans are ideologically divided, there are no party ideologies in Nigeria as people regularly cross-carpet from one party to another to suit their political and economic (not ideological) interests.
Third, the candidates in the US elections are majorly Christian and there are fewer challenges regarding sectarianism within Christianity. Hence, there is little tension in promoting a Christian sect over the other. The irony of the US case is that Catholics, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, are in the Democratic party that promotes abortion while Donald Trump is not even a Catholic.
The extent to which the Church can go in the US is not applicable in Nigeria because the socio-cultural context of each country differs.