How Africa is chang­ing the Catholic Church

The Prince George Citizen - - Religion - El­iz­a­beth A. FOS­TER Spe­cial To The Washington Post

Pope Fran­cis be­gan a three-na­tion Africa tour last week, and for good rea­son. Africa has the fastest-growing Catholic pop­u­la­tion on the planet, which is pro­jected to reach nearly 350 mil­lion by 2050.

As Fran­cis reaches out to this growing pop­u­la­tion of the faith­ful, he would do well to look to the his­tory of Catholi­cism in the re­gion. He should do so not just to con­nect Catholic Africans to their past, but to un­der­score his own mes­sage of change. As a re­former who seeks to shake up the church, Fran­cis can draw in­spi­ra­tion from Africans who played a key role in the re­ori­en­ta­tion of Catholi­cism in the 1950s and 1960s.

Fran­cis’s visit comes at a mo­ment when Catholi­cism is in the midst of a ti­tanic shift, com­pa­ra­ble in his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance to its early spread in the Ro­man Em­pire or to the up­heavals of the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion. The church’s strength in its long­time stronghold­s in Europe is evap­o­rat­ing. Pri­estly vocations are so rare there that bish­ops in­creas­ingly rely on clergy from Africa to lead their churches. In 2015, for ex­am­ple, there were over 1,000 fran­co­phone African priests work­ing in France.

The church’s growth in Africa is part of its stun­ning suc­cess in the global south, which the elec­tion of Fran­cis, the first Latin Amer­i­can pope, re­flects.

What is equally re­mark­able is that the Catholic trans­for­ma­tion in Africa has come about in the space of only two gen­er­a­tions. Con­sider the fact that there were no mod­ern African saints in the church un­til 1964, when Paul VI can­on­ized the Ugan­dan mar­tyrs dur­ing the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil. More­over, no sit­ting pope had set foot in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa un­til 50 years ago, when Paul went to Uganda to visit the new saints’ shrine in the sum­mer of 1969.

At that time, though much of Africa had become in­de­pen­dent from Euro­pean con­trol, the church still re­lied heav­ily on mis­sion­ar­ies from the former colo­nial pow­ers to tend its African flocks. African prelates oc­cu­pied the most vis­i­ble epis­co­pal seats be­gin­ning in the late 1950s, but there were not enough of them, nor enough African priests, to go around. Yet to­day, these same mis­sion­ary so­ci­eties are in­creas­ingly African in com­po­si­tion.

The ven­er­a­ble So­ci­ety of Mis­sion­ar­ies of Africa, founded by the French Car­di­nal Charles Lav­igerie and known col­lo­qui­ally as the White Fa­thers, is cur­rently headed by a Zam­bian, Father Stan­ley Lubungo.

How did this tran­si­tion hap­pen so quickly? And why did it take place in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury?

Af­ter all, Euro­pean Catholic mis­sion­ar­ies had been evan­ge­liz­ing Africa for decades, some­times cen­turies, be­fore that. Why did a process that had pro­ceeded in­cre­men­tally for a long time sud­denly ac­cel­er­ate ex­po­nen­tially?

The era of de­col­o­niza­tion be­tween 1945 and 1965 was the crucial turn­ing point. Af­ter the Sec­ond World War, even as Euro­pean pow­ers were try­ing des­per­ately to hold on to their African colonies, the Vat­i­can be­gan dis­tanc­ing it­self from colo­nial regimes and ex­hort­ing Euro­pean mis­sion­ar­ies to train their own African replacemen­ts as quickly as pos­si­ble.

At first, the Vat­i­can thought al­most ex­clu­sively in terms of hav­ing enough lo­cal clergy on the ground to man the pul­pits should Euro­peans be ex­pelled from a given ter­ri­tory.

But “de­col­o­niz­ing” the church came to mean much more than that, thanks to African Catholic in­tel­lec­tu­als, clergy and laity who called on the hi­er­ar­chy to make Catholi­cism more hos­pitable to Africans. For them, this meant hold­ing Catholi­cism to its fun­da­men­tal claim to be uni­ver­sal, and not merely Euro­pean. It had to be able to em­brace African cul­ture, African val­ues and African peo­ple.

The most promi­nent among these ac­tivist African Catholics was Alioune Diop, a Sene­galese con­vert from Is­lam who was the be­hind-the-scenes or­ga­nizer of the negri­tude move­ment.

Negri­tude, which first emerged among African and Afro-Caribbean fran­co­phone writ­ers in mid-20th-cen­tury Paris, cel­e­brated black lit­er­a­ture, art and cul­ture, while re­ject­ing colo­nial­ism and as­sim­i­la­tion to Euro­pean norms.

Diop founded the bilin­gual jour­nal Présence Africaine, which pub­lished the work of black writ­ers, thinkers and artists, and a publishing house and a book­store of the same name.

He founded the So­ci­ety of African Cul­ture, and he or­ga­nized land­mark in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences of black artists and in­tel­lec­tu­als in Paris in 1956, Rome in 1959 and Dakar in 1966. Diop also cul­ti­vated a self-con­sciously Catholic strand of negri­tude that used all of these plat­forms to push for a new, more in­clu­sive vi­sion of Catholi­cism.

Be­gin­ning in the late 1940s, Diop was a tire­less ad­vo­cate for the re­form of his adopted faith, and he gained the ear of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI.

Dur­ing the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil, he or­ga­nized a stand­ing lobby in Rome of the Catholics of the So­ci­ety of African Cul­ture. In 1963, in the midst of the coun­cil, he lamented on Vat­i­can ra­dio that African Catholics had to “bor­row the­o­log­i­cal thought, spir­i­tu­al­ity, li­turgy” from the West and ex­pressed his wish that they be able to “ex­press their African per­son­hood at the very heart of Catholi­cism.”

Diop felt it was time for Africans, long on the re­ceiv­ing end of mis­sion­ary in­struc­tion, to give some of their own wis­dom to the church. He cited, for ex­am­ple, the open­ness to­ward Is­lam that char­ac­ter­ized the Catholics of his na­tive Sene­gal. This idea was ad­vanced dur­ing the coun­cil by the young African arch­bishop of Dakar, Hy­acinthe Thi­an­doum, and was re­flected in its fi­nal teach­ings.

There was an im­por­tant con­nec­tion, there­fore, be­tween the de­col­o­niza­tion of Africa and the re­ori­en­ta­tion of Catholi­cism at the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil. Yes, there were the sym­bolic ges­tures of can­on­iz­ing African saints, or the elevation of Paul Zoun­grana, the first fran­co­phone African car­di­nal, who read one of the coun­cil’s clos­ing mes­sages to the faith­ful in 1965.

Yet there was also the spirit of di­a­logue with other faiths, greater open­ness to the world be­yond Europe and sol­i­dar­ity with the im­pov­er­ished peo­ples of the de­vel­op­ing world. African Catholic in­tel­lec­tu­als in­sisted that they had knowl­edge, born of their unique cul­tures and of their ex­pe­ri­ence of col­o­niza­tion, to share with Euro­pean Catholics. The hi­er­ar­chy lis­tened to them, which set the stage for the church’s rapid ex­pan­sion in Africa.

It does not fol­low, how­ever, that African Catholics are now aligned with pro­gres­sive Euro­peans, even though the two groups were al­lied against colo­nial­ism and racism in the 1950s and 1960s. On the con­trary, many, though cer­tainly not all, of to­day’s African prelates, clergy and laity are more so­cially con­ser­va­tive than their Euro­pean coun­ter­parts, and some African Catholic lead­ers are skep­ti­cal of Fran­cis. Car­di­nal Robert Sarah, a promi­nent tra­di­tion­al­ist from Guinea, has de­nounced the “idol­a­try of West­ern free­dom” as an “Apoca­lyp­tic beast” and has crit­i­cized same-sex mar­riage, gen­der flu­id­ity, di­vorce, abor­tion and eu­thana­sia as vi­tal threats to the fam­ily.

Left­ist Euro­pean and Amer­i­can Catholics are of­ten dis­mayed by such stri­dent points of view, yet it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that Diop, re­gard­less of whether he would have agreed with Sarah, had ar­gued that African Catholics should not have to con­form to pre­vail­ing Euro­pean ideas and val­ues.

Given the growth of the faith in Africa, it seems rea­son­able to ex­pect that an African may be in Fran­cis’s seat be­fore another two gen­er­a­tions pass, and per­haps much sooner. It is hard to see how Euro­pean dom­i­nance of the Col­lege of Car­di­nals can per­sist in­def­i­nitely, given the de­mo­graph­ics of the church. African lead­er­ship could take the church in a more pro­gres­sive di­rec­tion in some ways, but it might do quite the op­po­site in oth­ers.

The only cer­tainty is that while all roads still lead to Rome for now, the his­toric seat of the church is in­creas­ingly on the re­mote pe­riph­ery of a new Catholic em­pire of the global south.

— El­iz­a­beth A. Fos­ter is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Tufts Univer­sity. Her most re­cent book is African Catholic: De­col­o­niza­tion and the Trans­for­ma­tion of

the Church.

AP PHOTO

Pope Fran­cis de­liv­ers his mes­sage dur­ing his visit to the City of Friend­ship com­mu­nity in Aka­ma­soa, Mada­gas­car, last Sun­day.

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