Editor’s note: Father Paulinus I. Odozor, a noted moral theologian and close advisor to Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, teaches at the University of Notre Dame. He recently spoke to Charles Camosy about his journey to South Bend and about the African context of contemporary Catholic theology.

Camosy: You are a high-powered professor of moral theology at Notre Dame, with several important university press books. But you obviously didn’t start here. Tell us a bit about the journey which led you to this place.

Odozor: I was born in Nigeria where I joined the Spiritans (The Holy Ghost Congregation) and was ordained a priest on April 28, 1984. After studying Philosophy at the Spiritan School of Philosophy, Isienu, Nsukka, I proceeded to Bigard Seminary, Enugu, Nigeria, where I studied theology for four years. I did pastoral work at St Martin’s Parish and taught at the Holy Ghost Juniorate Ihiala for three years after ordination.

I moved to Canada in 1987 to pursue graduate studies at St Michael’s College and Regis College, all in the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto. I taught for a year at St Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto and for over six years after graduation at Spiritan International School of Theology (SIST), Enugu, Nigeria. I now teach at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

You have written quite a bit about how the African context can and does shape moral theology, including in your most recent book where you insist on a “Truly Christian truly African” approach. In broad strokes what should Crux readers know about the insights of this kind of moral theology?

My answer to this question is in two parts.

In my book, Morality Truly Christian, Truly African I try to provide answers to the following questions or ones like them: What differences does faith make to the way I think about moral matters? How, if, any, does my being an African influence my moral judgments, decisions or perceptions? Is, or can the African Christian be different from his/her compatriots as a moral actor, and in what ways? Specifically, what difference does, can, or should faith in Jesus Christ make in the way African Christians think or act morally?

For me, Christian morality is the morality of those who have found faith in Jesus Christ- the morality of those who, moved by the events of the stunning deed of God in Jesus, look at the world from the reality of Jesus and try to live their lives or to organize society on that basis. Faith in Jesus has an originating and grounding effect in that it provides an angle of vision on reality, tutors our imagination, directs our motivations and influences our choices in a most profound way.

As Joseph Sittler puts it, to be a Christian is to accept what God gives. What God gives is Jesus Christ as God’s self-giving love. The faith response is itself empowered by God who Himself is the author of our redemption. Christian ethics in whatever place and time is therefore a response ethic and thus a call to discipleship. And as the late William Spohn once put it, to be a disciple of Jesus is, among other things, to take seriously what Jesus took seriously. And what did Jesus take seriously?

Among many other things, Jesus took God, the human person, forgiveness, and reconciliation seriously. Jesus also teaches us either by his words and deeds the truths about human life, truths which come from God, such as when he teaches us about the indissolubility of marriage.

Now for part two!

African Christian ethics as outlined in my work has several characteristics. First, it assumes that there is a distinctiveness to Christian ethics. This distinctiveness as noted above, is evident in the areas of perception, motivation, and intention and so on. It also assumes that Christ has taught some moral truths which are uniquely his and valid for everyone.

Secondly, the uniqueness of African ethical discourse today arises from the fact that Christian ethics has met an African world in which there are living and active primal world-views which continue to have significant impact on how people construe life and reality in general and on how they make moral decisions.

The presence of African Traditional Religions as living and active worldviews raises enormous theological and ethical challenges for Christians. The uniqueness of African Christian ethics arises both from the questions the African contexts are raising and the various answers and insights the Christian community proposes to these challenges.

In trying to answer the question of the relevance or distinctness of African morality one must be cognizant of two audiences. One audience would be in Africa itself where African Traditional religion and African traditions are a continuous dialogue partner with Christianity. The other would be the world outside of Africa – Christian or secular entirely.

Let me briefly say something about the internal audience of African Christian morality. Given that African Tradition and Religion, laudable as they are, have severe limitations about ultimate reality and Meaning and about the moral agent and moral agency, I argue that one area where Christian ethics would make a difference in Africa is the question of human equality and dignity, more broadly, in the area of anthropology. Who and what is the human person?

Consider, for a moment, the issue of democracy and good governance in Africa. African democracies are all struggling or even failing as a result of several factors internal to Africa itself and sometimes coming from African cultures. Like cultures everywhere, African cultures have much that is right about them. However, because cultures are the creation of human beings, they too, like every other culture bear the human imprints of sin and limitation.

I believe strongly, however, that since cultures and traditions supply the grounds on which we stand to make sense of reality, African cultures and traditions need to be examined critically in order to see what, if any roles they play in the current African situation. Such a critique is necessary in this discussion on the failure of the democratic ideal in Africa in two important areas: human rights and leadership. African traditional societies had no culture of universal human rights in which equal humanity was granted to the other either based on common sonship and daughtership in God or on a universal recognition of the person’s humanity.

This non-appreciation of the total humanity of the other partly explains African participation in the Trans-Saharan and Trans- Atlantic slave trades. It is this same reason which partly informs much of Africa’s many ethnic clashes today from Biafra, the Rwandan debacle, the crisis and genocide in Darfur and all other conflicts in between. It is also this lack of the recognition of the full humanity of the other which partly makes opposing groups in many places who roam about looking to unleash violence and destruction on those who do not agree with them, in violation of an important pillar of democracy which is respect for the right of everyone to security and life, even if we do not share similar views.

But just as important is the “truly Christian” part of this, right? How does this aspect of your approach relate to the current prominent themes of “whiteness” and racial justice in theology and religious studies?

The “truly Christian” part of my book does not mean that Africans must be both Africans and white or anything else. Christianity is not a religion of white people.  There is a sense sometimes that Africans must be really like people in the West to be Christians. The movement called inculturation is a resistance against this tendency.

The West itself needs to be truly Christian just like Africa does. There is yet no “truly Christian community” anywhere. Christianity has had a much longer history in the West. So, it is to be expected that what you call “whiteness” in the Church would be prominent. But this is not the language I would use to describe the situation, as if there is a war between the various racial groups in the Church. In fact, there is mutual support between the churches and among Catholic intellectuals than we acknowledge.

The churches of the West including scholars have made tremendous efforts to help build up the churches and institutions in the Southern Hemisphere. Sometimes there are pockets of misguided people (theologians included) who look at the world only in terms of race and ethnicity. There is nothing we can do about that.

What I see more and more is a sense of reciprocity. Genuinely Christian people and groups in the Church are feeling the pulse of the churches everywhere and trying to find ways to share in the joys and sorrows of each one. What I say about the churches are also true of many theology departments and faculties in the world today. For example, the Theology department here at Notre Dame generously grants three graduate scholarships every year to African priests and sisters to study theology at Notre Dame. Many institutions of the West do that- think of Duquesne, Boston College, and many theology faculties in Europe.