By Nicole Fritz
YOU have to wonder how that conversation went. Vatican official: “We appreciate that he is under a European Union (EU) travel ban but as we’re not part of the EU and in terms of treaty undertakings between Italy and the Holy See, you have to secure him safe transit through Rome.”
Italian official: “For Robert Mugabe? The Robert Mugabe who rails against the corrupting, foreign influence of the West? That Robert Mugabe wants to attend the beatification of Pope John Paul II?”
Vatican official: “Yes.”
Italian official: “And you want a man credibly accused of the commission of untold crimes against humanity as an honoured guest at a ceremony memorialising sainthood? You want to enforce treaty commitments between ourselves on behalf of him?”
Vatican official: “That’s right.”
Italian official: “I see. And will you be looking to secure safe transit for Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad too?”
Of course, my fictional Italian official works in Silvio Berlusconi’s administration, so attributing incredulity to him may be misplaced. Still, someone has to appreciate the farcical nature of the Zimbabwean president’s attendance at the Vatican ceremony designed to send Pope John Paul II on his way to sainthood.
It’s hard to tell whom it puts in a poorer light, whose principles seem most easily expended. Is it Mugabe, who at the slightest provocation blames all Zimbabwe’s ills on nefarious foreign influence and yet, given half the chance, comes to pay court at this most baroque, high-European of spectacles? The same Mugabe, who styles himself a liberation fighter, yet revels in this most inegalitarian of ceremonies — the making of a saint so that unworthy mortals might have yet another intercessory with God?
My money is on the official leadership of the Catholic Church. In inviting and honouring Mugabe, a man who has visited immeasurable suffering and misery on his people, they betray the principles of the church. But they also betray the best legacy of the man they would make saint, because John Paul II most merits elevation and acclaim not for any mystical miracles in metaphysical form, but for the courage and fortitude he displayed, in very corporeal form, in resisting his native Poland’s repressive communist regime and demonstrating solidarity with workers and ordinary people.
Certainly, it can be understood if Zimbabweans don’t now expect too much from the Catholic Church’s leadership. In 2007, Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, who in his outspoken and courageous resistance to tyranny in Zimbabwe represented the very best traditions of the Catholic Church, was hastily demoted after being caught on camera in a Central Intelligence Operation sting having sexual relations with a consenting adult woman. Contrast this with the Catholic leadership’s general reluctance to definitively address the many credible allegations of sexual assaults of minors by its priests.
Most egregiously, the Vatican recalled Ncube and effectively gagged him, telling him to abstain from any forthright criticism of the Zimbabwean regime. Ncube spurned offers to settle him in Italy or Australia where he would be less meddlesome to Zanu (PF), choosing instead to stay in Zimbabwe as a parish priest.
The Catholic Church’s treatment of Ncube is reminiscent of its treatment of those who espoused liberation theology in South America when it was mostly under military dictatorship. This was a period in the church’s history that does it credit for the heroism of the liberation theologians, several who gave their lives, but also reflects shamefully on the official leadership of the church, which tried to silence these theologians.
Pope John Paul II, who fought tyranny in his home country but appeared to find it less unconscionable elsewhere, is on record as having said in criticism of liberation theology that “this conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth does not tally with the church’s catechism”.
The recent Vatican ceremony, with a man such as Mugabe as honoured guest, with its thrones and ornate silk frocks, its echoes of the ancient régime, makes one think that the church certainly should be hoping that the revolution does not await them soon.
I don’t pretend to any special insight into a divine higher power. Still I would confidently bet that the example of Ncube, flawed but heroic, is far more pleasing than the Vatican’s recent show.
- Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.