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EXCLUSIVE: Archbishop Brislin speaks on the politics of Catholic leadership and the need for a healing Church in a divided country

The Catholic Church might have disappointed some people by not being outspoken on the challenges facing South Africa, but it has a responsibility to play a healing not just a critical role. In an exclusive interview with Spotlight Africa, Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, who is also President of the Southern African Bishops’ Conference, spoke about a number of topical issues including South Africa’s political situation, the Church’s image, and its approach to divorced and gay people.

The concerns of the bishops

Archbishop Stephen Brislin believes the concerns of the local church are very much those of Pope Francis. “In many ways, I think Pope Francis has connected the dots and he has brought us to the attention of the relatedness between environmental damage and causes of poverty.”

“As South Africans, we live in a very disparate country; we are still a very divided country and the Church, which is also a reflection of society, is also a very divided church.” But the Church has to be a prophetic voice and has to address “the divisions which have their roots in our past, in apartheid, in racism and colonialism”. For the archbishop, these manifest primarily in terms of the economic disparities in society. Brislin believes the bishops need to work for the “healing of relationships” and they needed to work “very proactively to bring different people of different socio-economic situations together to further and deepen understanding among people”.

The Church in Southern Africa still looks towards its priorities that were set a number of years ago. These include creating a society in which human dignity is respected, where development is addressed in terms of education, and a focus on working to deepen the country’s understanding of democracy and of governance. He added that this is also the vision of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), of which the Catholic Church is a member.

The archbishop said while the bishops were like-minded, it was important to remember that they all come from very different experiences. He said there was a 50/50 split in the number of white and black bishops. “That doesn’t mean that we are racially divided, but it does mean that we come from different perspectives and life experiences.”

He went on to say that the bishops, like any group of people, have their different political opinions and political preferences. “But I think that our focus as Church is not on the politics as such, but our focus as Church is on the poor and on those who are deprived of opportunity and those who are deprived of a good education.”

Spotlight Africa was informed that the Catholic bishops are currently developing a new pastoral plan that will be discussed at the plenary session of the bishops in January 2018.

Pope Francis

In the developing world, “we resonate very much with what Pope Francis is saying”, said Brislin. Francis’ papacy has especially challenged many attitudes and concepts and experiences of the Church in the western world. “I think for the western world a lot of what Pope Francis is saying is really perhaps even threatening their whole view of the Church.”

“I think, for me, Pope Francis is just saying get back to the Gospel, to living the Gospel, to a simplicity of life, to a commitment to Jesus Christ.” The fact that we are an institutional Church is both a blessing and a curse, he said. “It’s a blessing because these are vehicles for evangelisation and vehicles for us to reach out to people, but a curse because we can become very attached to them”.

Brislin said he does not think that Southern Africa has an institutionalised church and hence the pope’s challenge has not been “as threatening to us as it may have been to some others”.

Pope Francis has changed perceptions which he highlights in his two encyclical letters, Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’ and the bishops have made a conscious effort to implement these documents. Brislin said for him personally, Laudato Si’ was very important. “I have always felt that we must be concerned about the environment and that we must be concerned about changing attitudes in terms of saving the environment and creation.”

In South Africa, we are in a situation where poverty is a greater concern than the environment, said the archbishop. “We must try to do environmental stuff, but poverty is a more important issue. What Pope Francis has done is connected poverty and the environment, and I think that is such a brilliant insight into the whole issue.”

Brislin said he has been touched most by the way that non-Catholics have responded to Pope Francis, adding that it was “remarkable” to hear the Holy Father being quoted in contemporary contexts, such as in former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s 2017 budget speech.

For the archbishop, there is a vacuum of leadership in the world and Pope Francis is filling that vacuum.

Asked about the public opposition that has been expressed from some quarters to Pope Francis, Brislin said that Catholics are always called to be faithful to the Holy Father, adding that popes can be challenged, but ultimately he is the central unifying human aspect of the Catholic Church. “My fear with Pope Francis and some of the criticism that has been made against him is that it has gone beyond the boundaries and that is unacceptable. It is unfortunate that some of the people who have transgressed those boundaries are people in the past who would have always called others to fidelity to the papacy,” he remarks.

Asked what ordinary Catholics should do in the face of opposition to Pope Francis, Brislin said the responsibility of ordinary Catholics was to be faithful to the Pope. He says that people should refrain from attacking the pope – or his detractors – on blogs and other social media. “I think these blogs have got a lot to answer for… we must be firm in what we believe and not afraid to defend him [Pope Francis] without starting to call people names.”

The role of the Church in politics

Despite perceptions, the archbishop told Spotlight Africa that he does not believe that the Church’s voice has been absent in South Africa’s current political crisis. He said the bishops had made some statements to clarify where they stand, but there were also complexities the bishops were reluctant to venture into because they don’t always have a “clear proposal to make of how things could be different.”

Recently, the Justice and Peace Department of the Conference proposed that an anti-corruption court could be “part of a solution”. Brislin admits that not all the bishops knew that the department was going to propose an anti-corruption court: “It certainly took me by surprise. Generally speaking, Justice and Peace do circulate their statements [before release]. But this one came out of the blue and I didn’t know about it. I am not sure how many other bishops knew about it”.

He said while the Justice and Peace department and the bishop, Abel Gabuza of Kimberley, had the right to speak out, the statement did not necessarily reflect the views of the conference.

The archbishop said within a democracy, the Church should give support to civil society leaders. “We are not there as an alternative political party. When things are going wrong, of course we must make our voice heard and we must try to give the guidance that is necessary. But I don’t think that we can start portraying ourselves as being simply a negative voice that is continually pointing out mistakes,” he said.

Brislin acknowledges that the bishops “could have actually done far more” to be publicly engaged. He said it was important to find balance between trying to be a prophetic voice and a healing voice, and perhaps the bishops got that balance wrong. “I think that simply being the prophetic voice without considering the need to heal relationships and to heal our country is not very helpful.”

Some people had the expectation that the Church’s leadership should come out guns blazing to proclaim, for example, that government is corrupt. “I think that while people might have been disappointed that we haven’t come out like that, we must also keep a sense of calmness and perspective in this whole issue,” he said.

It is the role of the bishops to offer a vision and hope, but South Africa had become unpredictable and it was rather difficult to do this, said the archbishop. “Perhaps we ourselves have not risen to the occasion.”

In the midst of the current turmoil however, there has been a great affirmation of the country’s democracy, Brislin said. “We see that our courts are still credible. We see that civil society organisations…  are making their voices heard and that people are still very concerned about the country.”

The current political turmoil has been a “wake-up call for us and perhaps ultimately it will be to our benefit”.

Brislin cautions too that the Church can never reduce its political stance into single issues. Speaking specifically about the Church’s stance on abortion, he said that it is an issue the Church feels very strongly about. However, he insists, “we have got to look at the whole perspective. The Church’s position cannot just be reduced to one or two issues alone.”

The image of the Church

Asked about the image of the Catholic Church after numerous scandals, the archbishop said Pope Francis had played a tremendous role in restoring the Church’s reputation, particularly to safeguard children from abuse.

Brislin said that the Church in Southern Africa has made progress in ensuring protocols are in place for the protection of minors. “The scandals affected the morale of priests, ordinary priests who are trying to do their ministry as best as they possibly can, because in some way or another we have all become tainted by this. It just one of those unfortunate things.”

He said it was concerning that abuse still took place despite all the efforts to stop it. “It is just unimaginable to me that after all of this that abuses are [still] occurring.”

Abuse is a human problem and many children are growing up in abusive situations which we must work hard to change, said the archbishop. “I think it is just absolutely staggering that not only in terms of child abuse, but even rape and the issue of how women are being treated… It is just unimaginable that this is so rife in our society.” The archbishop quotes the film Spotlight, which exposed the clerical abuse in the USA: “If it takes a village to raise a child it takes a village to abuse a child.” He said that often there is a conspiracy of silence where people are aware of what is happening but do not speak out.

“I think that if anything, we can learn from these scandals that we must not protect people who are guilty of this.”

Asked about the desire for the Church, in the eyes of many, to modernise, Brislin said it was important that the Church meet the needs of people today, adding that it was important for the Church to present her teachings in terms that people understand, in terms of their own experience. He said that this was different to being fashionable. “People do go through various types of fashions through their lives so it’s not that sort of modernisation [the Church needs], but the type of modernisation that is really bringing home the message of Jesus Christ in terms of how people experience their lives at the moment.”

Sex, AIDS and gays

The archbishop said the Church’s stance on sexuality and the sanctity and beauty of marriage could never be faulted. He said that although people have accused the Church, especially in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis, of genocide (because the Church would not support condoms as a means of combating the virus), it is a misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching. “I think we must understand what the Church’s message is”. He goes on to highlight key Catholic positions which are the foundation of the Church’s understanding of human sexuality: the sanctity of the human body, the dignity of the human person and that sex is a good thing – something that has come from God. “Sex is sacred and should be an expression of a deep committed relationship, a covenant between a man and a woman, which is reflected in marriage,” he said.

The Church is really concerned about people who have casual, frequent sexual relationships with multiple partners, said the archbishop. “Not only is the meaning of sexuality being degraded, but also the growth and development of the human person is being affected. This is because of our fundamental belief that we find our humanity in the humanity of other people and in committed relationships.”

The archbishop is aware that many people believe that sectors of the Church in the USA helped Trump come to power – especially because of his stated position on abortion. He said that he was shocked by this and “can only guess that it was a reaction against a type of professional politics that has lost touch with ordinary human experience”.

Brislin said it was a great tragedy that the Church in the States opposed ObamaCare. “It is a great pity that President Obama couldn’t be more flexible in trying to accommodate the Church because apart from that one issue the Church would have supported it,” he said.

Asked about the Church’s stance on homosexuality, Brislin said gay people have always been part of the Church and continue to be. “It’s very distressing to hear that gay people sometimes don’t feel at home in the Church. The Church should be home for gay people.” He said he believed the Church did not accompany people sufficiently and does not have enough of the personal touch in people’s lives.

“The fact of the matter is that in our parishes we have gay people who come to church and who are very good Catholics and who try to live the best life they possibly can.”

Referring to a study conducted by the South African Institute of Race Relations which concluded that there was no conventional ‘family’ in South Africa, the archbishop said it was important that the Church does not “stand in judgement of people, even if they are in irregular [divorced and remarried] relationships”. He said that the Church must always encourage people to live the best lives they possibly can. He said that if people can put their circumstances right, the Church must help them to do it. “My fear is that we sometimes just judge people and we say we can’t help. Pope Francis, on the other hand, says we should be accompanying people and walking with them.”

When asked if he thought that there should be more open discussion about divorce and homosexuality in the Church, Brislin said: “I think that Pope Francis has opened that debate very clearly. I think it is a dialogue and a discussion that is not going to go away; I think it existed before Pope Francis.” He said this goes further and touches on those who feel excluded by the Church for whatever reason. “I don’t think one should make a special class of people just because they are gay. I don’t think that should be the defining thing. But if people are feeling excluded from the Church, if people are not feeling at home with the Church, that is the issue that we must address and that might be because they are gay, it might be because they are divorced, it might be because they are in other situations. That is the core that should be addressed.” SA.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.