ROME — During the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family, many of the biggest surprises are coming from the African continent, where the challenges vary greatly from those of Europe and the US.
Although the problems differ somewhat from one country to another, the second largest continent in the world has a handful of widely spread situations that worry Catholic bishops:
- Poverty in the family
- Cultural customs that consider a marriage valid only after the birth of a child or impregnation, the expectation of paying a “bride price”
- “Wife inheritance” (after the death of a married man, the community assigns a new husband to the widow)
Some typically Western concerns are also starting to become issues in Africa, such as divorce, contraception, assisted reproduction, abortion, and homosexuality. Although he didn’t mention each specifically, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos in Nigeria referred to these during a press conference in Rome Oct. 8.
“We get international organizations, countries, and groups that entice us to deviate from our cultural practices and traditions and even our religious beliefs because they think that their views should be ours, their opinions and their concept of life, should be ours,” Kaigama said.
“But, as they say, we’ve come of age.”
He insisted that the continent doesn’t need lectures about reproductive rights, nor does it want supplies of free condoms and artificial contraceptives.
“We want food, education, good roads, electricity, and health care,” the archbishop said. “We’re being offered the wrong things, and we’re expected to accept them because these organizations think we’re poor. And we’re saying, poverty is not about money; one can be poor in spirituality, ideas, education.”
“We might be poor materially, but we’re not poor in ideas,” he said.
Kaigama addressed the controversy over a new law in Nigeria, similar to those adopted by Uganda and other African countries, criminalizing homosexual relationships with up to 14 years in prison.
When the law was being debated in December 2011, Kaigama sent a letter to President Goodluck Jonathan describing it as “a right step in the right direction for the protection of the dignity of the human person.”
The bill was passed despite backlash from many countries. At that year’s Commonwealth conference in Perth, Australia, for instance, UK Prime Minister David Cameron told journalists that British aid “should have more strings attached.”
“We want to see countries that receive our aid adhering to proper human rights, and that includes how gay and lesbian people are treated,” he said.
In Rome, Kaigama stated that the position of the Nigerian bishops had been “grossly misunderstood.”
“The Catholic Church respects all human beings and believes all are created in the image and likeness of God,” he said.
While defending Church teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman, “that does not mean we hate people of another orientation. We do not support criminalizing people of a different orientation.”
Statistics show that more than 95 percent of the continent’s population considers same-sex relationships to be anti-African.
For Bishop Dominic Kimengich of Lodwar, Kenya, however, the fight to protect “traditional values” is already lost.
Based on his experience, most of the norms regulating marriage and family life inherited from African traditions are no longer upheld due to modern lifestyles characterized by secularism.
“We are in a situation where most of the African people are neither here nor there in what they believe in and what they stand for in life,” Kimengich told Crux.
“Most of them have discarded their African values and are yet to embrace fully the Christian values. Thus a man might marry one wife, but does not regard fidelity as a value, so he ends up having other women.”
Polygamy is also a big concern for many bishops from the developing world. While it may seem a fringe concern in the West, that’s not the grassroots reality in other parts of the world, including not only Africa, but also parts of the Middle East and Asia.
Though numbers vary widely, sociologists believe that tens of millions of men and women worldwide are involved in some form of polygamous marriages. In Senegal, for example, nearly 47 percent of marriages involve multiple partners.
Nigerian Dr. Eugene Ohu agrees with Keigama that the world shouldn’t try to impose its ideas on the continent. On the contrary, he said, “Western countries have a lot to learn from us, like the respect we have for the family as an institution.”
Speaking particularly of Nigeria, arguably the wealthiest country in the continent, the professor from the Lagos Business School told Crux that the respect Nigerians have for the family, constituted not only by the nuclear unit, but also the extended family, is something Western civilization could learn from.
“The respect we have for the elderly is something you don’t see in European countries,” Ohu said. “Grandparents, uncles, and aunts are usually involved in the life-altering decisions. To us, this isn’t meddling: it means wisdom and different perspectives.”
According to Congolese Dr. Rene Lumu, from the University Hospital of Kinshasa, another problem that affects the continent is the need for a better education.
“When children realize that their families cannot meet their needs, they leave the family home to fend for themselves,” he said. “As a result, parents lose their authority over them.”
Since schools are overcrowded and understaffed, Lumu says the institutions can’t get as involved as they should in each particular situation.
As the Rev. Petri Assenga of Tanzani wrote in an essay published in the 2014 Intams Review, the Church in Africa lives within a culture that is both friendly and hostile. African culture, in general, is friendly to Christianity, and the Church finds a true home in Africa.
“It is worth noting that the Catholic Church has more influence on the surrounding culture than other churches or faith traditions,” he wrote.
Both Lumu and Ohu agree with Assenga’s assertion, and they believe this “vote of confidence” has two sources: the unparalleled social work of the Church and the consistency of its teachings.
Regarding the expectation he has for the synod, Kimengich told Crux that there is no need for yet another document.
“What is needed is a pastoral road map that is concrete and very practical for implementation purposes,” he said. “We need a pastoral commitment with enough resources so that couples may be engaged in pastoral programs aimed at strengthening family life. Young people have to be educated about the demands of marriage and the raising of families.”
“Unless we target the young people,” he said, “we will achieve very little.”