Archbishop Ncube’s Resignation: Principles, Judgments and Facts
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has succeeded in pressuring Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo to resign. The Pope accepted Ncube’s resignation under canon 401-2, for illness or “some other grave reason.” The particular circumstances of this resignation prompt a reflection on the provisional nature of human knowledge.
The particulars, insofar as various news sources have reported them, are as follows. Archbishop Ncube has been a harsh and courageous critic of the Mugabe regime, which is by all admissions extremely corrupt and oppressive. In a recent interview, Archbishop Ncube stated that it would be morally justifiable to overthrow Mugabe, and that Ncube himself would be willing to risk his life in the attempt. Shortly after this interview, Ncube was accused of having an adulterous relationship with his secretary. The secretary’s estranged husband filed the charge and the state-controlled media made the most of it. Archbishop Ncube has characterized this as a “state-driven, vicious attack” both on himself and the Church, and he says he has resigned “in order to spare my fellow bishops and the body of the Church any further attacks.”
In situations like this, which are repeated many times each year in varying political contexts around the globe, most people instinctively ally with the side that they believe best represents their values and interests. In relatively open societies such as those in North America and Western Europe, we generally presume that the full truth will eventually become known if we have the patience to wait for it and to separate truth from spin. In the meantime, we operate more or less on instinct. In less open societies–such as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe—reliance on instinct must inevitably extend for a very long time, perhaps forever. A very few people might be in a position to know the truth, but competitive investigation and reporting are less likely than in the West. Most people will never really know for sure.
Pending certain knowledge that may never come, we speculate according to our own biases. Would the charge of adultery have been made if Archbishop Ncube were not an opponent of the Mugabe regime? Did Ncube resign solely for the good of the Church or also for his own good? Would the Pope have accepted Ncube’s resignation if he were guiltless? Did Benedict XVI accept the resignation for some other reason? After all, regardless of his guilt or innocence, Archbishop Ncube did advocate the overthrow of a particular political regime, something that popes generally don’t like bishops to do.
These questions are unanswerable now, and they may be unanswerable forever. In fact, if we are honest, there are many times in human affairs when we simply cannot be sure of our facts. This applies not only to questions of personal character but to all kinds of information essential to sound public policy decisions. When you add to this the wide variety of perspectives that can be brought by different parties to any complex issue, the results are seldom a ringing endorsement of the clarity of human knowledge.
Paradoxically, it is often much easier to arrive at abstract truth than it is to grasp facts. It is easier, for example, to know that adultery is wrong than it is to know whether Archbishop Ncube has committed it. It is a peculiarity of our culture that we so often think the opposite is the case, that facts are so much more apparent than principles. Christians, at least, should know better. Judgments consist in the application of principles to facts, and we do well to remember that, for us, the problem most often lies in the facts. Thus the provisional nature of human knowledge requires that we be clear in our principles but cautious in our judgments, and we must be willing, as in this case, to suspend judgment when we do not know the facts.
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