Fr Michael Bennett Guest Post–Response to The Catholic Church in Ireland in Transition – Reflections for Zimbabwe

bennettIn a recent post I shared the text of an article that was published in the latest issue of Mukai/Vukani (meaning “Wake up!”), the Jesuit Journal for Theological Reflection in Zimbabwe, titled ‘The Catholic Church in Ireland in Transition – Reflections for Zimbabwe.’

Fr Michael Bennett has written a response to the post, which I’ve reproduced below with his kind permission. Fr Michael is a priest with St Patrick’s Missionary Society, and served for many years in Zimbabwe. He is currently serving in Limpopo Province, South Africa. He is also a graduate of the Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation Studies at my School.

Before reading Fr Michael’s post, it may be helpful to re-read my original post to make sure you are familiar with the terminology, including concepts such as religious non-conformity. Fr Michael asks whether it is realistic to think that the institutional church in Zimbabwe might ‘repent’, or if the Zimbabwean church is strong enough to develop ‘extra-institutional’ spaces. At the same time, he agrees with the thrust of my earlier post that the ‘margins’ are the appropriate ‘locus of the church’ – which can leave us asking how those margins, in whatever context, might better witness to the gospel …

Fr Michael Bennett – the Margins as the Locus of the Church

I like the distinction you make between the extra-institutional space and Joram Tarusarira’s concept of non-conformity. I am not sure of what Joram exactly means regarding the latter. If your interpretation of  what he is saying is true, I would agree with it. I think there is more hope for bringing change from connected spaces within the mainline community of faith, than from a position outside it. The mainline community has a long tradition, and teaches in a challenging and counter-cultural manner in a significant number of  areas (witness, for example, the long tradition of Catholic Social Teaching). Its problem – as always – is the gap between rhetoric and practice. But the written word – the vision – is there in its teaching. And the invitation to respond to it is perennial.

I am always a bit concerned about absolute non-conformity. This is probably not what Joram means or intends. In church history absolutism, from whatever quarters, has been hugely divisive. The 16th. century experience of Reformation provides multiple examples. In the African scene, the fragmentation of the Christian body into more and more obscure sects is ongoing. The breakage comes sometimes from the “I am right, you are wrong’ attitude, a product of the absolutist mind-set. Often, however, the breakage unfortunately reflects leadership squabbles, desire for  control and the monetary perks that go with it!

You ask questions about how the Irish experience of a church body moving from the centre of  social and cultural life to the margins might relate to Zimbabwe.

In any society where it is required, a movement by the institutional church from a dominant centre to a vibrant and critical margin is healthy and necessary. The margin was largely the locus of the life of the Jesus of history – being with the ‘nobodies’, the majority outsiders in the highly-stratified religious and political society of first century Palestine. (Insiders were connected to the political and religious system of control.) The margins was also the locus of the early church.

The Edict of Milan (313) began a turn in another direction, from a persecuted Christian minority to a controlling majority, which eventually led in later centuries to a monarchical understanding and practice of church leadership. There were always reform movements which invited and gave witness to a return to the origins and the margins (e.g. the monastic movement in the first millennium, the religious orders in the early middle ages). In the 20th. century, the Second Vatican Council, the witness of many groups and individuals in the ecumenical body, including most recently, that of a Latin American Pope, continue to invite a return to where it all began.

The institutional demise, including the culture of clericalism, in the Irish church, will continue with haste. However, in the Irish scene there is long history and culture of Christian faith which – while it is being radically purified today- will not go away. Indeed, it must not go away. Faith is evident in the lives of many sacramentalised, if under-catechised, people. Increasing numbers of adults seek theological and spiritual formation. Such formation leads to transformation which is the essence of discipleship. Those who occupy the extra-institutional spaces, and many more, travel on this path of transformation.

However, I am not at all sure that a young church, such as that in Zimbabwe, is strong enough to develop extra-institutional spaces.

The history of the church is short. The task of establishing strong traditions is ongoing. Forming  an educated and critical laity remains a task in hand.

Asking the institutional church in Zimbabwe to repent for a weak response to the political scenario is a debatable proposition.

Yes, in recent times – particularly in the early years of the first decade of the new millennium, the institutional church response was ambiguous. But in more recent years church voices, from within the institution (e.g. statement and letters of Conferences of Bishops and ecumenical bodies) have been clear and consistent.  However, there is some misgiving as to whether statements written by bishops are actually owned and promoted by them. Do these statements reach the people in the pews? (This matter has been referred to by Gladys in another article).

The task of reconciliation at a national level has been stated in Zimbabwe by both state and church. At a state level this task is recognised by the Global Political Agreement, signed in Sept. 2008 in Harare, which led to the setting up of Government of National Unity. Article 18 of the GPA states that the parties to the agreement:

‘shall consider setting up a mechanism to advise on what measures might be necessary and practicable to achieve national healing, cohesion and unity for victims of pre and post independence violence.’

The Zimbabwe Bishops, in referring to this point in a subsequent statement, say that

‘the Church is prepared to offer the mechanism, not just to advise; to play a significant role not only in healing and cohesion but also in the much needed reconciliation. But real genuine healing and reconciliation can only take place when the environment is open, free and democratic. When such an environment does not exist, as is currently the case, the church commits herself to work towards its establishment.’

(ZCBC, 2009)

The state mechanism was set up but proved dysfunctional. Those who were the main actors in creating national division were given the task of healing it! A non-starter. Church bodies continue courageously to promote reconciliation but it is a struggle in a society that, at a political level, gives lip-service to the task of reconciliation. Asking the institutional church to be repentant at this point seems an unlikely request. The task of a much broader national reconciliation can only be seriously undertaken when the present generation of old-men, the political status-quo, have moved on. Perhaps then the role of the church in national reconciliation can find more fertile soil. Perhaps then this role can be seriously assessed.

(Image: Fr Michael Bennett and Gladys Ganiel)

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