ROME – To the extent there was a unifying take-away from day one of a major summit on African Catholicism in Rome, perhaps it was this: Some sixty years after the push for a distinctively African form of Christianity began, the Church on the continent now is all grown up.
Today, African Catholicism has a burgeoning population, dynamic forms of worship, a considerable and expanding body of theological reflection, and deep social capital even in societies with small Catholic populations because of the Church’s commitment to education, health care and charitable service.
Several African prelates have emerged as superstars of global Catholic conversation. They’re no longer junior partners in Catholicism Inc., but protagonists.
Like many young adults, however, African Catholicism, at least according to participants at this gathering, may need to think a bit about what to do with the rest of its life.
“The Church in Africa has come of age,” said Nigerian Father Paulinus Odozor, “and now it needs to reflect on its life.”
Given that by mid-century the Catholic population of Africa is projected to reach 450 million, making it by far the world’s largest Catholic continent, those deliberations have consequences not just for Africa but Catholicism writ large – because these days, if Africa sneezes, the whole Church catches cold.
The March 22-25 conference is titled “African Christian Theology: Memories and Mission for the 21st Century.” Sponsored by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, it’s taking place at the university’s “Global Gateway” center in Rome.
The sense that African Catholicism needs to take stock ran through discussions on the first day of the summit in at least four areas: the discipline of theology, liturgical practice, the role of women, and the Catholic role in Africa’s social and political life.
Father Bede Ukwuije of Nigeria opened the gathering with an overview of the emergence of African Catholic theology over the last several decades.
Reviewing the landscape, Ukwuije noted that Catholic theology in Africa has “flourished” across a range of areas, including liturgy, Biblical interpretation and ethics, in each case trying to work out distinctively African ways of framing the issues.
Looking forward, Ukwuije said, one challenge may be to adjust structures in the Church to allow greater scope for the inculturation and adaptation to African circumstances that theologians are proposing. He floated the idea of “more autonomy for national or regional conferences of bishops,” pointing out that Pope Francis has stated he favors such a move.
Bishop Tharcisse Tshibangu of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who was the lone African peritus, or theological expert, at Vatican II, delivered a strong call for Catholic theology on the continent to remain “authentically African” but also to engage the wider global conversation.
“We must grasp the needs of Africa, the African soul, but also be a stakeholder in universal thought,” he said. “It’s not just a question of African theology for Africans, but a theology that’s valid for one and all.”
Father Charles Nyamiti of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, who joined the conference via Skype from Nairobi, laid out an argument that the entire story of Christ can be understood in terms of traditional African initiation rituals, which are about incorporating new members into families and kinship circles.
Nyamiti suggested that this sort of theological exploration needs to be ramped up among African scholars, as a way of exploring the intersection between faith and culture on the continent.
Father Bonaventure Ikenna of the Spiritan International School of Theology pointed out that because of the spirit-based religious culture of much of Africa, several African Catholic thinkers have played lead roles in recent developments in the theology of the Holy Spirit.
That growing intellectual maturity, however, isn’t always matched by pastoral practice on the ground.
Ikenna cited a controversy that broke out in Nigeria in the 2000s over a movement called the “Holy Ghost Fire,” which was a prayer technique that likely originated in Pentecostal circles and then entered the Catholic Church through the charismatic movement.
“Some Christians started praying in a new way, namely, invoking the fire of the Holy Spirit on their enemies to consume them and their evil plans,” Ikenna said.
Catholic pastors and bishops scrambled to insist that Catholic teaching sees the Holy Spirit as a vessel of love, not vengeance on one’s foes, but despite those efforts, Ikenna said, the movement grew and had to be formally banned in several dioceses. Even afterwards many Catholics persisted, and some ended up leaving the church.
The fact that so many people could be taken in, Ikenna argued, illustrates a “Pneumatological deficiency in current African theology and pastoral practice.”
Ukwuije noted that one distinctive element of African Catholic life in the post-Vatican II period has been the emergence of distinctively African touches in worship, especially the incorporation of stylized movement and dance at various points.
Those developments, he noted, have “crystallized research and debates on inculturation.”
Yet here too, Ukwuije noted, there are also growing pains, as some theologians and churchmen worry that excessive use of dance in worship can compromise a “sense of the sacred.” He warned that some communities may be pushed in that direction today by the competitive pressure of Pentecostalism across the continent, which, with its exuberant and spontaneous modes of worship, has a powerful appeal for many Catholics.
For his part, Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, a longtime Vatican official who’s now retired, told Crux he’s skeptical there are really any traditional African dances that make sense for use within the Mass itself.
“We have a traditional war dance,” Arinze said. “There’s a traditional normal dance for recreation, which we would have at a parish hall after the Mass when there’s a bishop visiting. And then we have the dance for the women who are looking for husbands. That would be a little provocative, because they’re looking for a husband, that’s the purpose of the dance.
“You can see none of it fits into the Mass,” he said, “because the reason for the Mass is adoration, thanksgiving, asking for what we need. That’s not going to go very well if there’s anything funny during the holy Mass.”
Ukwuije, however, said that dance is “here to stay” as a feature of African Catholic worship – the conversation is about the right way to do it.
“Before, we spent time fighting over whether the church could dance,” he said. “That’s over. Now the dancing church needs to reflect on itself.”
Repeatedly during day one, calls were heard both from speakers on panels and also from voices on the floor to give attention to the role of women in African Catholicism, and especially within the field of African Catholic theology.
Shawn Copeland, a female African-American theologian at Boston College, said that in many ways there’s already been tremendous progress in the emergence of women’s voices.
Copeland cited the example of the “Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians,” a group founded in 1988 by Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a Methodist theologian from Ghana. From the beginning, Copeland said, the circle has been an ecumenical enterprise, and Catholic women scholars have played prominent roles.
“Women are giving us a model on how to be human. Women are giving us a model of thinking together,” she told Crux.
On the other hand, Copeland also conceded that the progress is incomplete, and that “the role of women in African theology needs to be discussed much more.”
Bishop Godfrey Igwebuike Onah of Nsukka said one challenge is to create the economic conditions under which women can afford to pursue advanced studies.
“Usually if you ask a lay woman in Africa to study theology, the next question will be ‘What will I do with it? Will it help me feed my family?’ And the answer is likely to be no. So she will do something else,” Onah told Crux.
Across much of sub-Saharan Africa, religious leaders play a robust role in political affairs that would often be considered excessive by Western standards of church/state separation.
Among the participants at the Notre Dame conference, for instance, is Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo of Congo, who once actually served as his country’s de facto head of state during the transition away from the rule of strongman Mobutu Sese Seko.
That’s often because in some African societies, political systems are perceived as corrupt and fueled by self-interest, and in others political opposition runs afoul of police and security services protecting whoever’s in power. Under those conditions, religious organizations and leaders are sometimes perceived as the only authentic voices of civil society.
Bishop Matthew Kukah of the northern Nigerian diocese of Sokoto, located in an overwhelmingly Muslim region of the nation, believes that legacy is a source of pride for the Catholic church in Africa – and also a challenge going forward.
“We have to do more,” he told Crux on Wednesday. “We can’t limit ourselves to moral exhortation, because that’s not going to do it.”
Using his own nation of Nigeria as an example, Kukah warned that the country may be on the brink of a downward spiral linked to mounting frustration over perceived corruption and failed promises. All that is compounded, he said, by other social ills such as chronic poverty, the impact of HIV/AIDS and the impact of armed conflict.
He argued that a long-term fix will require “training lay Catholics to take the rightful place in political life,” inspired by Catholic social teaching.
Kukah argued that what many African societies need today is an uprising analogous to the Solidarity movement St. John Paul II helped inspire in Poland, or the “People Power” movement in the Philippines in the 1980s sustained by the late Cardinal Jaime Sin.
The good news, Kukah said, is that even in parts of Africa where the Catholic Church is a distinct minority, it enjoys wide respect because of the investments it’s made in education, health care, and charitable assistance.
“We’ve put a lot of social capital in the bank,” he said. “Now it’s time for us to start spending it.”