YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A leading bishop in the Republic of the Congo has warned that an exponential rise in Christian Pentecostalism in the country is posing a stiff challenge to the Catholic Church, drawing people away amid what he described as “guerilla warfare” in the spiritual realm.
“They disrupt the faith of Catholics by offering quick and easy solutions to their problems,” said Archbishop Bienvenu Manamika Bafouakouahou of Brazzaville, in a wide-ranging interview with the Fides news agency.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Catholics constituted 33.3 percent of the population of Congo-Brazzaville in 2019, closely followed by the Awakening/Revival churches with 22.3 percent and other Protestants making up 19.9 percent.
Manamika said the promise of quick fixes from the revival churches seems to be hemorrhaging the Catholic Church.
“There are so-called “revival churches” or Pentecostal communities that wage a kind of “guerrilla warfare” on spiritual terrain, in the sense that they bitterly fight the Catholic Church,” he said.
He said the Pentecostals have been effective in exploiting the poverty of the people to promise miraculous solutions to their “pressing problems,” and often, people find comfort in such promises.
Such concerns are not new.
In 2017, Congo-Brazzaville’s bishops’ conference acknowledged the “dizzying rise” of Pentecostal movements, expressing alarm that “their modus operandi” has made many Catholics distraught, and no longer know what constitutes their Catholic identity.
“The authenticity of the Christian faith is threatened by syncretic practices inspired by spiritualist movements, traditional secret societies or other religious movements…this amalgam is due to the conception that the Congolese have of a ‘God-solution’ to all the immediate problems of life,” the bishops wrote.
They called on the Catholic faithful to “resist the temptation to join any movement likely to compromise their faith,” specifically warning them against “apostasy.”
Ignoring Pentecostalism may be counter-productive, warns some Catholic researchers and Clerics.
In a research paper titled, “Roman Catholicism versus Pentecostalism: The nexus of fundamentalism and religious freedom in Africa, a team of authors concluded, “Pentecostalism and its growth in Africa today may not be strategically demonstrated in an accurate fashion. But it is highly visible and has reshaped the religious landscape.
“All Christian forms are growing in Africa, but Pentecostalism enjoys the fastest growth rate. The main features of the movement include an intensive evangelistic fervor and passion for mission,” they wrote.
In 1970, Pentecostals represented just 5 percent of all Africans, but that figure has now more than doubled to an estimated 12 percent.
In 2019, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria, told Crux that the Catholic Church can actually learn from the Pentecostal movements.
The Catholic Church “cannot ignore the passion of the Pentecostals and the extent to which they have made the Gospel come alive,” he said.
Stan Chu Ilo, a research professor of World Christianity and African Studies at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University, told Crux that the growth of Pentecostal churches in Africa cannot simply be reduced to promises of instant solutions to poor and disillusioned people.
“This is a very narrow reading of Pentecostalism,” he said. He admitted that every religious movement has its weaknesses and strengths, and cited a 2015 conference in Nigeria organized by the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology that brought together theologians from various denominations.
“At this meeting we had some Pentecostal pastors and scholars. As they listened as one Catholic theologian berated Pentecostals as watering down the Gospel and preying on vulnerable and poor people, one of the Pentecostal pastors raised a serious objection that has stayed with me,” Ilo said.
“He asked us Catholic theologians and pastors in Africa one question: ‘If you are as good as you claim that you are, have you asked yourselves why your members are leaving your churches in droves and joining Pentecostals? As long as you continue to see Pentecostalism through a deficit lens, you will never see or hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches in Africa’,” he said.
Ilo said Pentecostalism and the Catholic Charismatic movement “is a good thing for the Catholic Church and the churches of Africa,” saying it’s critical that the Church takes a broader look at the phenomenon rather than simply dismissing them as “inferior or false.”
“We can learn a lot from them; we can cooperate with African Pentecostals and develop a greater understanding of each other and work together ecumenically to improve and strengthen authentic Christian witnessing to the truths of the Gospel in Africa,” he told Crux.
He admitted though that certain branches of Pentecostalism do pose some challenges, “but I really do not want to use the template of challenges and negation as the lens to look at these movements which are not going to go away simply because we dismiss them.”