Burundi, bishops, and Catholic influence

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 13, 2015

I was struck by the closing line of our story coming out of Burundi today: “The Church wields considerable influence in the African nation, since Catholics account for about two-thirds of Burundi’s 7 million people.”

If this is true, the Church in Burundi must be far healthier than in first world countries. In the United States, for example, Catholics constitute the largest single religious group at 24% of the population. But if that fact gave the Church even a proportional amount of influence, she would be able to control the outcomes of nearly all elections. In Ireland, a whopping 85% of the population is Catholic, yet the Church is not influential enough to prevent a woman from aborting her child if she claims to be suicidal, or to discourage the government from attempting to recognize same-sex marriage.

In the West today, Catholic bishops throw their moral weight into countless political debates without changing the complexion of national politics in the slightest. In Burundi, where the Church is younger, more vibrant, and less cluttered with nominal Catholics-by-inheritance, things may well be different.

Even so, one can question whether it is the role of Catholic bishops to make political threats. In this case, they promise, in effect, to pull Catholics out of Burundi’s electoral commission if the President seeks an apparently unconstitutional third term. It would be better, far better, to instruct Catholics on the moral principles which ought to govern such a decision, and/or to discuss with them the prudential implications of that third term.

Political threats, you see, are the province of the laity.

It would, of course, be gratifying to find the Catholic Church to be influential in Burundi. But is there a “Catholic” position in the current quarrel over constitutional term limits there? If so, let the bishops explain the moral issue. If not, their political pronouncements and direct political action will reduce Catholic influence in Burundi day by day.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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