A prominent Catholic commentator in South Africa has said that after the resignation of a Nigerian bishop following six years of protests, and despite an extraordinary papal intervention on his behalf, it’s clear the Vatican doesn’t adequately understand Africa, and it’s time to establish a Pontifical Commission for Africa to provide greater insight.
“The case of Ahiara has never really been a challenge to papal authority,” wrote Father Lawrence M. Ndlovu of Johannesburg, South Africa, in a recent column. “It would seem that it is also not about the leadership qualities of [the bishop].”
“It is a case of not paying sufficient attention to the specificity of the particular place and community,” Ndlovu wrote, who comments frequently on Church affairs both for Catholic and secular media.
The reference is to the case of Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke in the Diocese of Ahiara, Nigeria, who was appointed in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI but never able to enter the diocese because of protests and the threat of violence. Okpaleke is not from the majority linguistic and cultural group in the area, and many members of that group took the appointment as a deliberate slight.
In June 2017, Pope Francis took the extraordinary step of demanding that every priest in the diocese write him a personal letter apologizing for opposing Okpaleke and vowing to accept his authority. Despite that backing, Okpaleke tendered his resignation in mid-February, saying the blowback had not diminished.
“Exercising the ministry in a diocese where priests who are supposed to be my immediate and closest collaborators, brothers, friends, and sons are at war with one another, with the laity and with me as their chief shepherd would be disastrous and a threat to salvation of souls – including my own soul,” he wrote.
While Ndlovu faulted priests and clergy in Ahiara who showed opposition in a manner displaying “a lack of Christian virtue,” he nevertheless suggested the case suggests a disconnect in Rome with African realities.
“Issues of culture and tribalism are no footnote in African society, nor are they in the world generally,” he wrote.
“The Church takes into consideration these kinds of nuances by having the consultations done on the ground, and by working through nunciatures based in particular countries. However, it takes a certain effort in assimilation for someone from outside to really settle into an area,” he wrote.
Ndlovu suggested that something akin to the Okpaleke appointment wouldn’t be well-received in his country either.
“One can only imagine if, here in South Africa, with our own xenophobic tendencies, a non-South African was appointed bishop,” he wrote. “It would not be easy.”
That background, Ndlovu argued, suggests the need for greater sensitivity to Africa.
“This experience has shown, I believe, that there is a need for the universal Church to prioritize and engage with Africa more extensively and more formally,” he wrote.
Specifically, he called for the creation of a “Pontifical Commission for Africa,” analogous to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America which was founded in 1958 under Pope Pius XII, charging it with providing assistance to, and examining matters pertaining to, the Church in Latin America.
“It is unbelievable that there is no Pontifical Commission for Africa similar to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America,” Ndlovu wrote.
As of early 2018, the Pontifical Commission for Latin America was made up of sixteen cardinals from across the region or with personal experience of Latin America, as well as two archbishops and a bishop. Its president is always the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, which is currently Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet.
Ndlovu also argued that responsibility for naming bishops in Africa should be transferred from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican’s primary missionary department, to the Congregation for Bishops, as is already the case for Latin America.
“It is also unbelievable that in this day and age in Africa, where the Church is growing, bishops are not appointed by the Congregation for Bishops, because it is still considered a ‘mission territory’,” he wrote.
“If the case of the Diocese of Ahiara does not convince the Church for the need to have such a commission for Africa, and the attention of the Congregation for Bishops, then nothing else will,” Ndlovu said.
He recommended that such moves be considered by the pope’s council of cardinal advisors from around the world, whose lone African member is currently Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“As the Pope’s cardinal advisors, also called the ‘Council of Cardinals’, prepare to conclude their work on the reform of the Roman Curia, I hope that they have taken these issues into account,” Ndlovu wrote.
The column appeared in “Spotlight Africa,” an online outlet for news and commentary sponsored by the Jesuit Institute of South Africa.