ROME — In the classic film “The Princess Bride,” the Inigo Montoya character late in the movie is faced with the challenge of recounting the storyline up to that point. He says, “Let me ‘splain … No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”
I’ve got a similar sensation in the wake of a March 22-25 summit of African Catholic leaders in Rome titled “African Christian Theology: Memories and Mission for the 21st Century,” sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.
The event brought together four cardinals, a gaggle of bishops, scores of priests and religious, as well as numerous theologians, laity, activists, students, and other movers and shakers in the Catholic Church in Africa. (To be honest, I found myself wondering who was running things back home, since the entire power structure of the African church seemed to be in Rome.)
After four days, 46 presentations, 14 discussion periods, and an avalanche of verbiage, any attempt at a comprehensive summary is a fool’s errand. But in the spirit of trying to sum up, here’s a stab at it: I think what we saw Wednesday through Saturday was the emergence of what one might call “African Catholicism 2.0.”
For much of the post-colonial period, the Church in Africa was consumed with two primary challenges. The first was keeping pace with astronomic rates of growth; and the second was facing the mind-numbing social problems of the continent, such as armed conflict, chronic poverty, environmental degradation, ethnic and tribal conflict, and HIV/AIDS.
By no means has either challenge receded. However, what emerged from the Rome summit is a sense of growing maturity, a conviction that African Catholicism has passed out of childhood and adolescence into adulthood and is ready to enter a new phase.
What are the defining traits of African Catholicism 2.0? Based on the past week in Rome, at least three suggest themselves.
Ad Extra as well as Ad Intra
One feature of the adult African church is a sense that it’s got a contribution to make not just in Africa, but to the entire world and the universal Church.
Bishop Tharcisse Tshibangu of the Democratic Republic of Congo insisted that African Catholic theology needs to be part of the global conversation.
“It’s not just a question of African theology for Africans,” Tshibangu said on Wednesday, “but a theology that’s valid for one and all.”
In a Crux interview, Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, a longtime Vatican heavyweight who’s now retired, said that the emergence of African prelates as protagonists in the global church, including the key roles they played in the two recent Synods of Bishops on the family, was an organic result of the growth of the African church.
“Bishops and cardinals get more experience of what the Church is, and so they’re bound to contribute more,” he said. “It’s just a normal development of divine providence.”
Part of the picture may be that vast numbers of African priests and religious are now serving abroad, so there’s already a sense that the universal Church needs Africa. Part of it too may be a sense that African Catholicism has generated a deep body of both theological reflection and pastoral practice, of which it’s rightly proud.
In any event, there was a strong sense in Rome that an “African moment” in the Catholic Church has arrived. Without retreating from Africa’s challenges, the Church on the continent appears ever more ready to play a lead role on the global stage.
Honesty and self-criticism
In the past, African Catholic leaders often would become defensive about any perceived criticism of the Church on the continent, worrying that it would feed perceptions of Africa as dysfunctional and immature.
Today, however, precisely because of a growing sense of self-confidence, African Catholics seemed more inclined to honestly acknowledge their failures and shortcomings, knowing that there’s sufficient strength in their churches to weather the storm.
Nigerian Father Paulinus Odozor, the organizer of the summit, made the point in an interview with Crux.
“You have to be prepared to wash your dirty linen in public, where everyone can see,” he said. “If Africa wants to be taken seriously as a player, Africa has to be honest about itself.
“We don’t just want people to hear the wonderful things we’re doing. We also want people to hear the terrible things we’re doing, and the things we’re not doing that well,” he said.
That point was reinforced throughout the event, as the following examples attest.
- Bishop Godfrey Onah of Nigeria nevertheless lamented that while ancient Africa produced great fathers of the Church, today it’s best known for faith healers and miracle centers.
- Father Ludovic Lado, a Jesuit from Ivory Coast, reported that some Catholic priests in Africa not only practice witchcraft, but actually cast spells against one another.
- Sister Maamalifar Poreku of Ghana not only complained that women in the African church are often reduced to doing no more than cleaning parish linens, but that the Rome summit itself hadn’t really given her much hope things would change.
Whatever one makes of those points, the people delivering them had no apparent sense that doing so would somehow damage African Catholic prospects. The unstated premise seemed to be, “We’ve accomplished enough that talking these things out isn’t going to fundamentally change the equation.”
Balance about the Other
When African Catholicism was first taking root, there was an understandable sense that evangelization was fragile, and hence, at times, a strong hostility toward anything or anyone that seemed to threaten Catholicism’s hold on its flock.
In the African context, that generally translated into a keen rivalry with two expressions of the religious “other”: Islam and Pentecostalism.
While many Catholics today remain wary of both, and not without good reason, that’s increasingly matched by a capacity to acknowledge the good on the either side of the fence, and even to grudgingly admit that competition for hearts and minds may actually be healthy.
Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto in northern Nigeria, an overwhelmingly Muslim part of the country, has emerged as one of African Catholicism’s primary interlocutors with Islam, making the point that peaceful co-existence is actually the African norm and violence the exception.
“What people call Christian-Muslim conflict, there’s nothing inevitable about that. I think the Western media has constructed this, and it’s very popular,” he said in a Crux interview.
“What we really call violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria is the failure of law and order,” he said. “A lot of the issues that have led to violence have had very little to do with religion per se.”
As for Pentecostals, there was a good deal of talk at the Rome summit about the way they “lure” people away from the Catholic Church – giving them jobs, running dating services to provide them with spouses, and touting seminarians and priests who defect.
On the other hand, several participants also conceded that the Pentecostal challenge is actually healthy, because it’s forcing Catholicism to “wake up.”
“It’s made us understand that we can’t take our people for granted,” said Obiageli Nzenwa, a Catholic lay woman and independent human resources consultant in Abuja, Nigeria.
She said she hopes the Pentecostal boom may drive Catholicism to give more attention to the importance of forming and assisting women, since they form the backbone of the African church.
“African Catholicism 2.0” would appear to profile as more self-confident, more honest about itself, and less given to snap judgments about the other.
Given all that the 1.0 version has accomplished, including shaping the most dynamic and enthusiastic Catholic community anywhere in the world, it’ll be fascinating indeed to track how the 2.0 version plays out.