Catholic News Service reported on the response of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's response to a pastoral letter written by the nine bishops of Zimbabwe. The original story is linked here. Mr. Mugabe's response reveals a narrow view of the place of faith in society.
"Mugabe, a Marist-educated Catholic, told the London-based New African magazine that he was not at Mass on Easter to hear the bishops' letter read.
'If I had gone to church and the priest had read that so-called pastoral letter, I would have stood up and said "nonsense,"'he said in an interview in the May edition of the magazine.
Mugabe, 83, said the letter is not 'something spiritual, it is not religious,' and the bishops 'have decided to turn political.'
'And once they turn political, we regard them as no longer being spiritual, and our relations with them would be conducted as if we are dealing with political entities, and this is quite a dangerous path they have chosen for themselves,' he said.
Aside from the not-so-veiled threats made against the bishops, there is a misunderstanding beneath Mugabe's words that is common here in the United States. The error is to believe that a person of faith, if they act according to their faith in the public forum, have moved beyond the area of faith. Sometimes it's said they've "politicized" their faith, other times, they are accused of acting politically, rather than spiritually, as Mr. Mugabe claims.
Pope Benedict has emphasized the Second Vatican Council's wider goal: to bring the faith out of the private sphere and renew it as the driving force of history. In the context of Mr. Mugabe's comments, it's important to consider a few quotes from the teaching of the Council and other magisterial documents.
First of all, according to the Council Fathers' teaching, the Zimbabwean bishops have a right to address, even critique President Mugabe's policies. "It is only right, however, that at all times and in all places, the Church should have true freedom to preach the faith, to teach her social doctrine, to exercise her role freely among men, and also to pass moral judgment in those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it. In this, she should make use of all the means-but only those-which accord with the Gospel and which correspond to the general good according to the diversity of the times and circumstances." Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 76
In fact, the bishops - and all Catholics within Zimbabwe - would be remiss if they did not speak out against a government that is disregarding basic human rights. "For Catholic moral doctrine, the rightful autonomy of the political or civil sphere from that of religion and the Church – but not from that of morality – is a value that has been attained and recognized by the Catholic Church and belongs to inheritance of contemporary civilization...The right and duty of Catholics and all citizens to seek the truth with sincerity and to promote and defend, by legitimate means, moral truths concerning society, justice, freedom, respect for human life and the other rights of the person, is something quite different. The fact that some of these truths may also be taught by the Church does not lessen the political legitimacy or the rightful 'autonomy' of the contribution of those citizens who are committed to them" Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life, 6
The kind of disjuncture that President Mugabe would make between one's spiritual life and political life is precisely what the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity from the Council warns against.
"There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life’, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture. The branch, engrafted to the vine which is Christ, bears its fruit in every sphere of existence and activity. In fact...every activity, every situation, every precise responsibility – as, for example, skill and solidarity in work, love and dedication in the family and the education of children, service to society and public life and the promotion of truth in the area of culture – are the occasions ordained by providence for a ‘continuous exercise of faith, hope and charity’" (Apostolicam actuositatem, 4)
Yes, Mr. Mugabe's wrong to suggest that the bishops are no longer acting spiritually, but only politically. But how many Americans would agree with him?