In 21st century Catholicism, you can’t ignore Africa anymore

It’s commonplace to say that the Catholic Church, and the Vatican in particular, needs to hear the voices of the developing world. Two-thirds of the planet’s 1.2 billion Catholics now live outside the West, a share that will reach three-quarters by mid-century, and it seems only fair that those folks

It’s commonplace to say that the Catholic Church, and the Vatican in particular, needs to hear the voices of the developing world. Two-thirds of the planet’s 1.2 billion Catholics now live outside the West, a share that will reach three-quarters by mid-century, and it seems only fair that those folks claim a seat at the table.

Today we’re hearing their voices loud and clear, above all from the 150 million Catholics — and climbing — in Africa, and sometimes it makes for a bumpy ride.

A recent reminder comes from Kenya, where the country’s Minister for Health recently announced that a national medical institute will conduct joint tests with all stakeholders, including physicians advising the Catholic Church, on a tetanus vaccine being distributed to women aged 14 to 19 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.

The tests became necessary after Catholic bishops told a parliamentary committee in late October that sampling carried out by Catholic physicians had detected the presence of a hormone that induces miscarriages and eventually sterility, fueling suspicions that the immunizations are actually a “disguised population control program.”

Dr. Stephen K. Karanja, an obstetrician and gynecologist who serves as president of the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association, asserted that the WHO employed similar contraception-laced vaccines in Mexico, Nicaragua and the Philippines in the 1990s — all countries with large Catholic majorities.

Those allegations are a matter of record, as is the response from the WHO and its defenders. They say that tests purporting to show the presence of the hormone are false positives, and that plenty of women who have had the vaccine in the past have become pregnant and given birth to perfectly healthy children.

It remains to be seen what independent testing will show, but in the meantime, here are three observations about the significance of the Kenya fracas.

First, this is not a crude clash between faith and science, since Catholic health care centers across Kenya participate fully in the national vaccination regime, including those to prevent tetanus. Instead, this is a targeted objection to one campaign.

The Catholic Church in Africa is by far the continent’s largest private health care provider, with the WHO estimating that somewhere between 30 and 70 percent of all health infrastructure in Africa is due to faith-based organizations. Catholic facilities also train a disproportionate share of the continent’s medical professionals.

Second, this is not a mere tempest in a teapot, because Kenya is a bellwether Catholic nation in the early 21st century.

Its roughly 11 million Catholics form a quarter of the national population, and represent a pool of English-speaking faithful about the same size as the United Kingdom and Ireland combined. Moreover, Kenya tends to be where much of the intellectual, financial, and cultural capital of East Africa is concentrated. The Catholic University of East Africa is located in Nairobi.

As goes Kenya, in other words, so goes much of the Church in Africa and across the developing world.

Third, the controversy illustrates one of the defining features of African Catholicism today — a ferocious drive to defend traditional African values on sex and the family, coupled with deep resentment about Western actors perceived as insensitive to those values.

In the current case in Kenya, that anti-Western instinct is directed against secular organizations, but it’s often felt just as keenly with regard to Western personalities and institutions inside the Church.

In a piece I wrote while covering the recent Synod of Bishops on the family, I recalled that a famous book about Vatican II was titled “The Rhine Flows into the Tiber,” referring to the progressive German influence on the council. I suggested that the storyline in 2014 was that the Rhine flowed into the Tiber again, only this time it ran into the Zambezi.

My point was that once again prominent German prelates were leading a progressive bloc at a Vatican summit, only this time they met stiff resistance from a number of Africans defending what would conventionally be seen as conservative positions. In particular, several Africans emerged as forceful opponents of the push to relax the discipline barring divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving Communion.

The upshot is that Africa has emerged as a genuine force in Catholic conversation, and Westerners need to get used to establishing trust before real dialogue can begin.

On sexual morality, many African Catholics are profoundly convinced that there’s a secular Western conspiracy to cram a liberal ethic down their throats, and some believe it even reaches into the Church. Likewise on economic matters, many African Catholics are equally convinced that international structures are designed to keep their people in poverty, and thus are ferociously resistant to any effort to reconcile Catholic social teaching with the new realities of the global financial system.

As a result, both liberal and conservatives in the Catholic fold in the West sometimes face an uphill climb in convincing Africans that their intentions are benign.

The fact of the matter is that African Catholics often look at the West, both its secular and ecclesiastical expressions, with skepticism. Given the sorry history of Western colonial intervention on the continent, it’s hard to argue that bias is completely irrational.

In today’s Catholic Church, Africans have both the numbers and the self-confidence to back up their concerns. Whether they have legitimate reasons in any given case is almost beside the point, because anyone who wants to move the ball ignores that African pushback at their peril.

If you want to get anything done in 21st century Catholicism, in other words, one great tip is to involve Africans early and often.

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