For Catholics in Europe and North America, the burning question we usually want to ask about the coming of age of the Church in Africa, which today represents 16 percent of the global Catholic population and is marked by a new sense of self-confidence, is whether it’s going to drive Catholicism to the left or the right.
Conventional wisdom holds that it will make Catholicism both more conservative on sexual morality and the “wars of culture,” and more liberal on social justice issues such as income inequality, war and peace, and the environment.
There’s certainly truth to that assessment, and last October’s Synod of Bishops on the family proved the point by featuring African prelates taking a strongly conservative line against proposals to allow believers who divorce and remarry outside the Church to receive Communion.
A story out of Burundi this week, however, offers a clear illustration of why the best answer to the left v. right question may actually be “neither.”
On Sunday, Archbishop Simon Ntamwana of Gitega, the country’s second largest city, delivered a dramatic sermon about political rectitude, laced with Old Testament quotes, which was widely taken as an indictment of efforts by President Pierre Nkurunziza to jury-rig the national constitution to allow him to stand for a third five-year term.
The sermon built on comments earlier in March from Archbishop Evariste Ngoyagoye of Bujumbura, the capital, who said, “We call upon politicians in power not to speculate or misinterpret the constitution. All provisions about the president’s terms are very clear: no president can lead the country for more than two terms of five years each.”
A spokesman for the government said Sunday’s sermon caused “immense damage” to Nkurunziza, whose drive to extend his grip on power in June elections faces accusations of censorship and repression.
The bishops in Burundi, a country of 10 million people that’s 70 percent Catholic, have long played a role as the conscience of the nation, and they’ve paid a steep price. Archbishop Joachim Ruhuna was murdered in 1996 after condemning killings of ethnically Tutsi refugees by a Hutu rebel group, which went on to become the current government.
Seven years later, Irish Archbishop and Vatican envoy Michael Aidan Courtney was murdered by different Hutu rebels.
It’s not just bishops who have found themselves in the firing line. In September, three Italian nuns aged 75 to 83 were murdered at a convent, with some accusing the government-controlled intelligence services of involvement.
In many parts of the developing world, perhaps especially in Africa, politics aren’t typically organized in terms of left v. right. The fault lines are formed by kinship and patronage, so it’s not as if the stand taken by the Catholic leadership in Burundi can be meaningfully understood as either “liberal” or “conservative.”
It’s instead about good government and fighting corruption, which tends to be job No. 1 for Catholic activists in the global south.
Estimates put the global cost of corruption each year at more than $1 trillion, meaning that affluent nations could meet the UN-recommended Millennium Goals, throw open their markets, eliminate subsidies, and pay the “Tobin Tax” on currency transfers in full to stabilize developing economies, but it would make little difference if wealth continues to end up in the pockets of corrupt elites.
That reality, and not a desire to come off as either liberal or conservative, was what drove Cardinal John Onaiyekan to deliver a famous Christmas sermon in 2005 in the presence of Olusegun Obasanjo, a former general who ruled the country in the 1970s as a military dictator and as its elected president from 1999 to 2007.
Especially during his second term as president, Obasanjo’s administration drew charges of systemic corruption and anti-democratic tendencies. By late 2005, Obasanjo was making noise about revising the constitution to permit himself to run again, and Onaiyekan, then still an archbishop, basically told him to stand down.
Ironically, the sermon was delivered in Abuja’s sparkling new national cathedral, built by Obasanjo, himself a born-again Christian, to rival the national mosque next door. If Obasanjo expected that such largesse would buy the acquiescence of Christian leaders, Onaiyekan certainly torpedoed that strategy.
Nigerian Rev. Paulinus Odozor, a longtime friend of Onaiyekan and the first priest he ordained as bishop, now serves as an associate professor of Christian ethics and the theology of the world church at Notre Dame in South Bend. He has said that Onaiyekan “helped save democracy in Nigeria, and every Nigerian knows it.”
Earlier, the same motives drove the bishops of Malawi to issue a dramatic 1992 pastoral letter calling for an end to injustice, corruption, and nepotism, and demanding recognition of free expression and political opposition.
The letter, and the social uprising it generated, marked the beginning of the end for strongman Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who had been the quintessential African dictator of his era. Banda sashayed around his deeply impoverished country in elegant three-piece English suits, with matching handkerchiefs and a homburg hat, along with a fly-whisk that symbolized his absolute authority over life and death.
His unofficial motto was, “My word is the law,” to which the Catholic bishops were the first significant constituency in the country to openly respond, “No, it’s really not.”
It remains to be seen if the stand taken by Ntamwana and the other bishops in Burundi will be enough to shame Nkurunziza into withdrawing, and if not, whether it will influence his electoral prospects in June.
What it has already accomplished, however, is showing that the issues that dominate Catholic conversation in the West aren’t what most Africans are thinking about when they get out of bed in the morning.
Ask African Catholics for their views on the idées fixes of Western conversation – female priests, gay rights, birth control, Communion for the divorced and remarried, and so on – and you’ll elicit a range of opinion. Ask those same Catholics to identify their own priorities, however, and these are rarely the matters they raise.
Their horizons instead are formed by the matters of greatest immediate import for their people, which tend to be poverty and the way poverty is reinforced by poor governance and corruption.
In other words, the result of the looming “African moment” in Catholicism may not be an ideological lurch, but rather a rebooting of the Church’s priorities in a way that makes the tussle between liberals and conservatives seem less the heart of the matter and more a distraction.