Could you forgive Robert Mugabe?

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, memorably cut up his clerical collar live on Andrew Marr’s Sunday breakfast show in 2007 to demonstrate how Robert Mugabe had destroyed the identity of the people of Zimbabwe. Sentamu believes Mugabe should be tried for crimes against humanity, and pledged not to wear a dog collar again until the president had gone. But nearly two years on there is no sign of the archbishop being able to resume his familiar neckwear.

As Mugabe has been much in the news of late, with a very warm reception at the South African Development Commission summit and the EU delegation’s visit signalling acceptance that he is here to stay, I have written about him in today’s Independent , asking this: could we – should we – forgive him his crimes?

In the Indy I looked at this from a political perspective, but I would welcome a discussion looking at the ethical or religious grounds for forgiving him. Robert Gabriel Mugabe, educated by Jesuits, is of course still supposedly a Catholic, a point Christopher Hitchens raised in typically tart fashion in Slate.

What is it going to take before the Roman Catholic Church has anything to say about the conduct of this member of its flock? Mugabe has been a devout Catholic ever since his days in a mission school in what was then colonial Rhodesia, and one is forced to wonder what he tells his priest when he is asked if he has anything he’d like to confess.

One does indeed. Not least because many would assume that forgiveness should not even begin to be meted out until there has been some repentance on Mugabe’s part. He hasn’t repented in public. Has he in private? And if so, does he think that’s enough? The notion that he could be unburdening himself of his crimes in the confessional, receiving absolution, and then committing fresh atrocities in the knowledge that he has a clean slate because he’s said a few rosaries, is too twisted and horrific to contemplate.

Surely, one might say, only an unbalanced mind could imagine that was conduct within both the spirit and the rules of the Catholic faith. But if Mugabe does believe that, there are other consequences. If we judge he is not of sound mind, then the extent to which he can be held responsible for his crimes diminishes. And then he becomes demonstrably more deserving of pity – and of forgiveness….