Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Is the Catholic leadership facing a credibility crisis?

Click here to see how the Kenyan Church has failed Kenyans

By Henry Makori

At a recent meeting I attended, a question arose about inviting the archbishop of Nairobi, John Cardinal Njue, to a reconciliation and healing event planned for the city. A priest stated that many people in the group targeted for the event "do not like the cardinal." Another participant expressed fears that if the cardinal attended, the event would attract bad Press because the media would grab the opportunity to "roast" him over his perceived political leanings.

But it is not just the cardinal. In the aftermath of Kenya's worst ever political crisis, many people appear to feel let down by the Catholic Church. They now question its credibility as an ally in their dogged quest for social justice. A few weeks ago, a former missionary to the Diocese of Ngong', Fr Mark Faulkner, now a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, accused the church hierarchy of being stuck in the mire of negative ethnicity it allegedly cultivated over the years. And last month, a news report quoted some priests from the Diocese of Homa Bay as saying that the political position taken by Cardinal Njue had made performing their duties difficult. It appeared more like a thinly veiled vote of no confidence on the cardinal, who is chairman of the Kenya Episcopal Conference (KEC). A while earlier, the Justice and Peace Commission of St. Paul's University Chaplaincy, Nairobi, organized a baraza (public forum) for parishioners to vent out their feelings on the post-election crisis. A parishioner stood up and said she was frustrated because "I could not get any direction from my religious leaders."

It was like the Church had gone to sleep at a time when her followers needed direction most, she lamented. Another parishioner was dismayed that the bishops were divided: "One made a statement and was openly contradicted by another." At the close of the forum, St Paul's parish priest, Fr Patrick Kanja, said he had never in his priestly life found it harder to preach than during the political crisis, because "anything you say could easily be misinterpreted."

Leadership perception
In recent months, many Kenyans have expressed their displeasure in newspaper articles and radio phone-in programmes, forcing the conclusion that public perception of Catholic leadership in Kenya has changed drastically. Cardinal Njue himself alluded to this at a mass he celebrated at Consolata Shrine Parish in January. Calling for an end to political violence and a return to peace, he added: "You may not like what I am saying, [but] that is up to you; but I have to say it because it must be said. My dear brothers, the things that we say will be interpreted in different ways. But I want you to know that in saying what I am saying, I am saying it as your shepherd."

This negative perception of the church did not start with the disputed results of the 2007 presidential election. As early as 2003, one finds claims that the church (and sections of civil society) was getting too cozy with the new government of President Mwai Kibaki. During the bitterly polarized process of writing a new constitution and the referendum that followed in November 2005, the church was accused of being pro-government. But the worst moment came last October when, in the extremely charged atmosphere of electioneering, Catholic bishops were reported to have rejected Majimbo, or the federal government, proposed by the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). The church's position was apparently conveyed in an answer given by Cardinal Njue to a reporter at a press conference the bishops had called at the end of their plenary meeting. Though the bishops' statement made no mention of Majimbo, not many reporters would see that Cardinal Njue gave a personal opinion; he was, afterall, the chairman of KEC. In the ensuing debate, the church watched mutely as the reputation of the cardinal and its own were torn to pieces by the hyenas of our realpolitik!

Cutthroat politics
In retrospect, one wonders how much awareness there was within church ranks that the cardinal's much awaited appointment - I recall many times reporters pestering the Apostolic Nuncio about it - came on an election year. It is not far-fetched to suppose that not quite a few people may have read politics into the choice and the timing. Didn't it occur to anyone that in our much ethnicized and cutthroat politics, certain demagogues could see Cardinal Njue as a powerful figure who would use his clout to swing the Catholic vote in favour of President Kibaki, his co-ethnic and a member of the church? The best strategy to defeat that eventuality would be to use the cardinal's mostly unguarded public statements to split the Catholic vote, by projecting him as a "Mount Kenya" partisan. There was plenty of that kind of stuff on the Internet. Kibaki's campaigners themselves did not do the cardinal any favours by using a popular Catholic tune in one of their radio commercials. The church, of course, did not see the danger lurking in that.

In sum, the apparent credibility crisis facing Catholic leadership today seems to me to result from failure of the church to manage perceptions in this Media Age, and to grasp the changing dynamics of our increasingly complex politics. The present disaffection should be a wake-up call.

Mr Makori is the editor, Catholic News Agency, (CISA)

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