Mkhatshwa in row over political priests

One of the country’s best-known Catholic priests, Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, is planning to defy a church order to withdraw as an ANC parliamentary candidate.

Mkhatshwa, former general secretary of the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), faces suspension from his work as a priest, a structure which he does not intend to accept without an argument.

A suspension would mean the end of work in his parish in Soshanguve. The dispute arises out of the inclusion of Mkhatshwa and a nun, Sister Bernard Ncube, on the ANC’s election lists. Both Mkhatshwa and Ncube work at the Institute for Contextual Theology (ICT) and see no conflict between parliament and pastoral roles.

The Southern African Bishops have ruled according to their interpretation of canon law, which although allowing for exceptions in certain circumstances rules that while priests and “religious” sisters (into which nuns fall) can participate in politics, they cannot hold public office in which they have to exercise civil authority.

The bishops have taken the view that the circumstances in the country do not warrant an
exception to the rule and that there are several people capable of carrying out the tasks of public office without a priest or a religious sister having to assume this role.

Among the problems the bishops discussed, according to the general secretary of the SACBC, Brother Jude Pieterse, was the feeling that such a move on Mkhatshwa’s part would prove divisive among Catholics.

Mkhatshwa sees it differently and cites several exceptions to canon law in other countries. One of these examples is that of Dutch priest David van Ooijen who was a member of parliament and working priest for 21 years without problems from his bishops, although in a letter to the ICT’s Albert Nolan, he says there were occassions when pastors and “believers” did not want him to assist in their parishes.

But in the letter, among the examples Van Ooijen gives are several that work against Mkhatshwa’s cause. In Ireland priests are constitutionally forbidden from being MPs, and in Germany, where Hitler introduced the same restriction in a concordat with the Pope in 1934, the Holy See still insists on maintaining it.

The European Union Treaty, writes Van Ooijen, forbids this discrimination against candidates for parliament and as a result Ireland and Germany are seeking to abolish restrictions. Mkhatshwa has also protected against the way he was treated by the SACBC, saying he was not consulted after he had worked for them for 18 years, nine as general secretary.

Pieterse, however, says that during the recent plenary, when the decisions were made, he spoke to the Apostolic Delegate (the emissary from the Vatican) Archbishop Ambrose Di Paoli, the president of the SACBC, the Bishop of Manzine, Louis Ndlovu as well as to Archbishop George Daniel. “No authority should arbitrarily forbid an ordained priest from exercising his inalienable right to make a choice within several pastoral options.

The political option is only one. Church authorities, in deliberating on such a sensitive issue, should at all costs avoid a top-down approach to decision-making, especially in delicate issues. That would be contrary to the democratic principle and practice,” said Mkhatshwa.

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Pat Sidley
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