Just like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, it’s easier to sort through items in the news when you know what the big picture is supposed to look like. It’s already clear that one of the Catholic megatrends of our time is the coming of age of the Church in Africa, which gives three recent storylines special importance.

  • In late February, the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), the continent-wide assembly of African bishops, announced the appointment of a liaison with the African Union as a first step towards permanent observer status. The mission is to promote development on the continent on the basis of two documents: the African Union’s “Agenda 2063,” and Africae Munus, or “The Pledge for Africa,” the concluding document of a 2009 Synod of Bishops for Africa held in the Vatican.
  • Following a meeting in Namibia in mid-March, heads of national and regional Peace and Justice Commissions across Africa announced plans to create a “Continental Reconciliation Committee,” the idea of which is to address the causes of conflict and also to dispatch skilled mediators when new conflicts break out.
  • Drawing on the example of Catholic leaders in Latin America who created the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network in 2014 to fight deforestation, African Catholic activists have announced plans to launch an “African Church Network” to combat the negative impact of climate change and to resist assaults on African rainforests.

Taken together, what these steps illustrate is a Catholic Church in Africa that aspires to a leadership role across the continent, in politics, in conflict resolution, in environmental protection – basically in everything.

The drive to observer status at the African Union is especially telling, because it suggests that the African bishops want to replicate on their continent the role the Vatican plays on the global stage as a voice of conscience, arguably the world’s most important source of what political scientist Joseph Nye calls “soft power.”

(By the way, people are taking this push to expand the Church’s reach at the African Union seriously indeed. A human rights group called “Justice Africa,” founded in 1999 by four well-known activists, has criticized it as a “worrying sign of Catholic thought becoming embedded within a political institution,” pointing specifically to the Church’s opposition to the use of condoms to fight HIV/AIDS.)

It’s not just in their own backyard where African Catholics are emerging as protagonists, but also in the global Church.

For proof, one need look no further than last fall’s Synod of Bishops on the Family, where African prelates played a starring role in debates over outreach to gays and lesbians and whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics ought to be able to receive Communion, generally upholding traditional positions.

There’s every reason to believe the Africans intend to be at the heart of things again this fall, when a second Synod of Bishops on the family takes places in Rome.

“Africa has matured, and is gradually taking its place as a full equal in both the international arena and the international Catholic Church,” said Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana, in a mid-February interview with Crux.

Palmer-Buckle was elected in January by his fellow bishops in Africa as one of their representatives to the synod.

It’s not difficult to understand this mounting self-confidence.

During the 20th century, the Catholic population of sub-Saharan Africa went from 1.9 million to more than 130 million — a staggering growth rate of 6,708 percent. Africans started the century as less than 1 percent of the global Catholic population, and finished it at around 16 percent.

Vocations are also booming. Bigard Memorial Seminary in southeastern Nigeria, with an enrollment of 1,225, is the largest Catholic seminary in the world. Its student population is roughly one-quarter the total number of seminarians in the entire United States, and many of its graduates go on to serve as foreign missionaries.

Catholicism around the world may still need material resources from Europe and North America, but today it’s also increasingly dependent upon the human capital that flows from places such as various Africa nations and the Philippines.

One might actually argue that Africans today are the new Germans, in that German Catholics for many years have been able to influence which pastoral projects in the developing world flourish and which don’t through their sizeable overseas assistance funds such as Misereor and Adveniat. (The Catholic Church in Germany benefits from a state-run “church tax” system, which gives them significant resources to dole out.)

Today, African bishops can sometimes influence which parishes and missions in the West are able to keep going based on the choice of whether to release a priest to serve there. That’s despite the fact that the priest shortage is actually much more acute in Africa than in Europe or the United States, because a growing Church is able to baptize people much more rapidly than it can ordain them.

For Americans of both the left and the right, this “African Moment” will cheer and consternate in roughly equal measure.

On the “wars of culture,” the bulk of African Catholicism is firmly ensconced on what Westerners consider the right. African Catholic leaders generally strike a robustly traditional stance on matters such as homosexuality and abortion, based not only on Catholic teaching, but also their own cultural mores.

It’s important not to over-generalize, because African Catholics can surprise. For instance, despite impressions of a near-uniform African line against Communion for the divorced and remarried, Palmer-Buckle has said he’s open to flexibility on a case-by-case basis.

Yet overall, the most ardent pro-lifers in Catholicism generally see Africa as a bastion of hope.

On other matters, such as war and peace, economic justice and the ethics of free-market global capitalism, immigrant rights, the environment, and foreign affairs, the mainstream of African Catholic opinion would generally be considered the left, if not the far left, of American political debate.

Here’s how Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, described African views of American foreign policy in an interview some years ago.

“There’s a feeling of arrogance,” Onaiyekan said. “Put simplistically, some people wonder, ‘Is it because you have the atomic bomb that you think we must agree with you? What gives you the right to decide that the elected government in a particular country must change?’”

“Many of the tragedies of world history have been the result of empires, and in some ways that’s what we face today — globalization through imperialism,” Onaiyekan said. “It’s been tried for 5,000 years, but it’s never succeeded.”

Or consider the Nigerian prelate on American Christian attitudes toward military force.

“As Africans, we are often surprised by the extent to which our brothers and sisters in the North will sometimes follow only half of the gospel,” Onaiyekan said. “Some Christians will oppose abortion but support war. How can you say no to the killing of a fetus, but yes to the killing of an adult?”

Onaiyekan is hardly a rogue. He’s one of the most influential prelates in Africa, based in part on the role he’s played in his home nation. The Rev. Paulinus Odozor, a Nigerian priest who teaches theology at Notre Dame, said recently that Onaiyekan “helped save democracy in Nigeria” by shaming former president Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, into peacefully relinquishing power in 2007.

Of course, it’s not as if Africans will be able to dictate the outcome of Catholic discussions by themselves, and honestly, most have no interest in doing so. Having felt the sting of colonial control on the receiving end, most Africans have no desire to start dishing it out to others.

However, Africans both at the top and the bottom of the Church do seem increasingly determined to assert themselves. By itself, that probably means we’re in for a more interesting, and also more unpredictable, ride.