africa logoROME — In what is arguably one of the most significant gatherings of African Catholic leaders in Rome since the second Synod of Bishops for Africa in 2009, the University of Notre Dame is sponsoring a major conference on March 22-25 on African Christian Theology.

Focused on “Memories and Mission for the 21st Century,” and aiming to remember African theology’s origins in order to envision its future, the conference will bring together a cross-section of African theologians, international scholars of religion and society, Church leaders, and more at Notre Dame’s “Global Gateway” center near the Colosseum in Rome.

Together, participants will try to rethink African theology and its nature, and what it can contribute both to African churches and societies, and also the world as a whole.

Several of the continent’s most prominent ecclesiastical leaders will take part, including Nigerian Cardinals Francis Arinze and John Onaiyekan; Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, the Archbishop of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a member of the group of cardinal advisers who’re helping Pope Francis reform the Roman curia; and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, head of the Vatican’s office for Integral Human Development.

Convened by Nigerian theologian Father Paulinus Odozor and the Center for Ethics and Culture of the University of Notre Dame, the gathering aims to continue a conversation initiated by a 2001 pastoral letter of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s titled “A Call to Solidarity with Africa”.

Conference materials state that African Christian theology emerged as a formal branch of study in the Catholic Church in the mid-20th century when several African priests were trained in Rome and studied at various European universities.

According to Odozor, it was then that Africans began to approach the faith as “African Christians,” instead of being “merely the ‘consumers’ of a Eurocentric understanding of the Christian faith.”

During the three-day conference, Father Michal Perry, head of the worldwide Franciscan order, will speak about social reconciliation and the role the Church is playing in three countries in conflict: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

Meanwhile, Jesuit Father Ludovic Lado, from the Catholic University of Central Africa, will speak about African Pentecostalism in an emerging world Church. (The explosive growth of Pentecostalism across the developing world, and especially in Africa, is considered by many observers to have been among the most important religious realignments of the last part of the 20th century.)

Amy Servais of Mater Domini in Cape Town, South Africa, will speak on youth, sexuality, and relationships in Africa; while Dianne Pinderhughes, a professor at Notre Dame, will discuss social disorganization and social disintegration, providing some observations for black Catholics.

The list of topics is sprawling, but it includes Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, as well as his apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia; the challenges of Catholic Social Teaching; “Islam and Christianity in dialogue in Africa,” and “Women, gender and theology of the African Church.”

As Odozor told Crux, African theology is being influenced more and more by concerns that go beyond the relationship with African Traditional Religion, which was perhaps the central concern fifty years ago.

“Colonialism, independence, war, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the rise of Islamic extremism have fundamentally altered the African landscape,” he said via email.

“Similarly, globalization, the sexual revolution, and the simultaneous rise of the Church in the Southern Hemisphere and its contraction in many Western countries have changed the way the African Church thinks about itself and its place in the world.”

Continuous demographic growth is helping change the global church’s center of gravity from Europe and North America to the global south, with Africa increasingly occupying a pride of place.

According to the World Christian Database, by 2050, Africa should have over 450 million Catholics, becoming by far the world’s largest Catholic continent, while Catholics are projected to shrink in Europe. Some 30 years from now, the Catholic population in Africa is expected to almost double that in Europe.

The church from the global south is not only growing in numbers, but also in influence. There are currently 24 African members in the College of Cardinals, 14 of whom are under the age of 80, meaning possible candidates for the papacy in a future conclave. They represent 12 percent of the electors, not far from the estimated 12.63 percentage African Catholics represent of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.

Furthermore, the current number represents an increase of seven compared to what it was only three years ago. On the other hand, Europe today has 109 cardinals, 52 of whom are under 80, while there were 108 three years ago, 53 of whom were eligible for the papacy.

Two African cardinals currently play key Vatican roles: Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea heads the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, while Turkson was tapped to run the pope’s brand new Dicastery for Integral Human Development.

Africans have also been involved in every major initiative Pope Francis has implemented to reform the Vatican, from appointing Monsengwo to his “C9” council of advisers to making Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, a member of his new Council for the Economy.

African prelates increasingly are not afraid to raise their voices.

During the Synod of Bishops on the Family back in 2014, it was noted that there was no African member in the committee charged with drafting the final document. Several objected, and Napier was promptly added by Francis.

A year later, during another synod, two of the 13 cardinals who wrote to the pope expressing concerns over the synod process were from Africa: Napier and Sarah. The list also included Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York; George Pell, who runs the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy; and German Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Against that backdrop, the conference being staged in Rome this week is another illustration that the rise of Africa in the Catholic church is here to stay, and the diverse program and personalities taking part in it are likely to offer a “reality check.”

While arguments against what Pope Francis has dubbed “ideological colonization” on issues of sexual morality are expected, so is ferment about the ethical failures of free-market capitalism and the ignoring of immigrants and refugees — perhaps suggesting that during this “African moment” in the Church, one challenge for Catholics elsewhere may be rethinking the usual binary categories of left and right.