A little over two decades ago, the bishops of Southern Africa took the prudent decision to establish the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO).
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the CPLO’s official launch, though its members were already active in the field of lobbying politicians and advising the bishops in 1996 as parliament debated and then passed the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Bill.
Ironically, then, the CPLO’s official birth coincided with the legalisation of abortion.
Since then, the CPLO has become an indispensable agency in the Church in South Africa. While most Catholics will be unfamiliar with the office’s activities, many Church leaders and organisations greatly value the CPLO’s research and analysis, its social advocacy work, political contacts, and facilitation of discussion between politicians and civil society.
Southern Cross readers have the periodic benefit of receiving the incisive political analysis of the CPLO’s Mike Pothier or Fr Peter-John Pearson through our interviews with them, or reports on some of the many subjects of the office’s research.
The CPLO thoroughly and smartly researches legislative, economic and civic issues, in particular but not exclusively those in the domain of social justice. In doing so, the office provides balanced judgment on the relevant merits and demerits of those issues, sometimes sounding the alert on overlooked problem areas.
Together with the research and advocacy work by the Southern African Bishops’ Conference’s Justice & Peace Commission, this helps the local hierarchy to formulate and strategise its responses.
Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office staff
The CPLO’s regular round-table discussions usually bring together stakeholders who otherwise might not meet, providing a forum for an exchange of ideas and collaboration in responding to problem areas.
Another key area of the CPLO’s mission concerns the development of personal relationships with politicians, of different faiths and none, as a way of communicating the Church’s concerns or support regarding public policy and the protection of democratic institutions.
On some issues, Catholic and other religious perspectives are dismissed in parliament when these do not coincide with secular doctrines. The CPLO serves as a constant reminder that the Catholic Church at least demands to have its voice heard, through public submissions or through ongoing dialogue. This too is a form of prophetic witness and evangelisation.
The CPLO commands respect even among politicians whose ideologies do not always accord with Catholic philosophy. Frequently, the CPLO’s propositions are incorporated into legislation, which then becomes reflective of the Church’s social teachings.
Other times, of course, the Catholic position is rejected, for example on issues such as abortion, which all three main opposition parties support.
Every year on February 2, the CPLO organises a Mass in Cape Town’s St Mary’s cathedral — opposite parliament — to mark the anniversary of the legalisation of abortion. This is a concrete witness to the centrality of prayer in our faith, even for an office whose primary brief is to research, advocate and engage with broad issues of public policy.
This is a rare occasion when the CPLO engages in public comment. Much of its work is carried out behind the scenes, allowing space for the bishops or relevant Church offices to state positions to the faithful and the public.
Other bishops’ conferences around the world have taken note of the South African experience by setting up similar offices, often with the help of the CPLO, recognising that such a body, with an intimate knowledge of the intricate workings of the political machinery and public policy, is an invaluable resource to the local Church.
South Africa is facing many legislative and policy challenges, volatile political and social foundations, and conflict over belated economic transformation and land reform.
It is reassuring that the Catholic Church has a widely respected body which can competently and credibly comment and advocate on these challenges and, when necessary, articulate the Catholic position in fidelity to the teachings of the Church.