As Africa goes . . .
Quite a bit has been written in the last few years about the rising importance of religion in the world, especially in the “global south”, and particularly in Africa. Those who are paying attention to world affairs with at least some attempt at objectivity recognize, for example, that the tendency of the United States to treat all world problems from a purely secular point of view—as if religion is as insignificant in the lives of everyone else as it is for American political leaders—is extremely counter-productive diplomatically, especially in the Middle East and, again, in the global south.
Africa in particular is a continent in which Western secularized values are in many respects foreign and unwelcome, while Christianity is fairly strong. The natural religiosity of most Africans has not, apparently, been rooted out by false philosophies and materialistic success. Africa occupies about 20% of the world’s land mass and 15% of the world’s population, and it enjoys the highest rate of population growth. The Christian population of Africa has grown from about nine million in 1900 to over 400 million today, a figure roughly comparable to the number of Muslims, who are far more numerous in the north, while Christians predominate in the south. About 17% of Africa’s one billion people are Catholics—over a hundred million more than in the United States.
Vocations are extremely strong in Africa. Vocations to the priesthood are up by about 25% since 2000. The number of non-ordained male religious is up nearly ten percent, and the number of women religious has grown by well over 15%. Many of us in the United States have benefited from the assignment of African priests to our own churches. Those whom I have encountered have been uniformly well-educated, deeply spiritual, and faithful to the mind of the Church. As a general rule, there is no identity crisis among African priests. All of these considerations have led me to keep a close eye on the current Synod of Bishops in Rome, which is devoted to Africa. It provides a signal opportunity for reflection on the future.
Don’t get me wrong: Africa, and the African Church, face some very significant problems. Speaking at the Synod (technically called the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, the first one having been held under John Paul II), a number of African prelates have drawn attention to the need to solve certain key internal Church problems before African Catholicism can become the force for good throughout the world that we would truly like to see. As Vatican observer John Allen summarized it, the bishops have pointed to the lingering influence of ethnic ties within the clergy, the dangers of excessive use of personal authority, the need to appeal to distinctively African sensibilities, and the importance of a stronger application of social justice to Church workers.
In addition to these ecclesiastical challenges, it is well-known that the people of Africa suffer a number of significant social evils, including widespread poverty, tribal warfare, dictatorial rule, the baneful influence of some traditional African religious beliefs such as witchcraft, a high rate of promiscuity and an extremely high rate of AIDS, not to mention widespread malaria and tuberculosis. The vast majority of these evils strike directly at the African family, and must be addressed effectively if the full potential of the African people and of the Catholic Church in Africa are to be realized.
While the Synod Fathers have called attention to all of these problems, they have also repeatedly stressed how much worse things are because of the deliberate efforts by Western nations to export their “spiritual toxic waste” to Africa (a phrase used by Benedict XVI and repeated at the Synod), including gender theory, condoms and population control plans, which are often linked to foreign aid. Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana, who serves as the Relator General of the Synod and so has the task of summarizing and organizing the various episcopal interventions, described these outside influences as a “ferocious onslaught”, noting that “many synod fathers bemoaned the fate of the family in Africa.” Cardinal Turkson divided the various sources of this onslaught into three categories: ideological, clinical, and emerging "alternative" lifestyles. Among the deleterious outside influences identified by the bishops were gender ideology, a new global sexual ethic, genetic engineering, sterilization, same-sex marriage, and Planned Parenthood and Reproductive Health Education (Planned Parenthood was mentioned specifically, and by name).
African Solutions are Different
But what is so strikingly upbeat about Africa is that most of these problems are discussed by Africans in terms and categories which differ significantly from those of the secular West. For example, many Africans are aware that the prevalance of AIDS has not been curtailed at all through the use of condoms, whereas it has been dramatically curtailed in those regions (in fact, in every one of those regions and only in those regions) in which programs have stressed personal responsibility, sexual abstinence and monogamous fidelity (such as Uganda and Kenya, as well as several places outside of Africa). This understanding of reality is ideologically screened out of the Western mind, just as it is screened out of most Western “efforts to help.”
Here’s another example. To the chagrin of many Western observers, Catholic bishops in Africa cannot be divided into the tired categories of left and right so typical of the secularized West. Whereas in the United States bishops tend to be more liberal on public issues to the degree that they are less committed to traditional Catholic doctrine and sexual morality, in Africa it is quite common for the bishops to vigorously defend Catholic doctrine and Church teaching on personal and sexual morality while also stressing solidarity and social responsibility. In other words, the Catholic outlook in Africa has not been distorted nearly as much by the secular categories which continuously afflict Catholic thought in the West.
We see a similar freshness in the African Catholic approach to health care. In Africa there are strong traditions of medicine which combine herbal and holistic wisdom with crass superstition. Now, in the United States, there is a severe tendency for the scientific-medical establishment to fight all traditional medicine as inherently superstitious, and to treat problems piecemeal, without regard to the whole man. (I say a tendency; this is by no means a universal fault.) But the Church in Africa wishes to take the responsibility upon itself to distinguish good and bad medical practices, to encourage in Church institutions the controlled study of traditional medicine, and to recognize wherever possible both its legitimate benefits and its significantly lower costs.
Here again, of course, Africa must stave off the West. At the Synod, the head of the Pontifical Council for Health Care lamented the lack of solidarity among nations that has caused health services in Africa to “suffer the ideological pressure of globalization and secularization with the evident drop in financial aid that places them at risk of failure.” Meanwhile, Bishop Joseph Shipandeni Shikongo of Rundu in Namibia complained of the unscrupulous distribution of experimental, fake and diluted Western medicines in Africa—dangerous or ineffective concoctions which too often reduce the patient to poverty while failing to heal. Here we have another failure of solidarity, exemplified in business practices which take advantage of the relative lack of regulatory control in most African countries.
. . . so goes the world.
In these and many other areas of African life, the Catholic Church is not perceived as an obscurantist organization determined to derail superior secular solutions to the world’s problems, as is so often the case in the West. She is rather seen as a champion of the people and a source of enlightenment. No doubt this difference in perception arises partly from the strong openness in African life to the spiritual and supernatural, an openness which has not been systematically eliminated by the historical anomaly of Western secularization. After all, Western secularization has at its root certain highly specific historical problems that are not part of the African experience. But this positive view of Church and Faith is also surely reinforced by the African experience of European imperialism.
Just yesterday at the Synod, Cardinal Théodore-Adrien Sarr, archbishop of Dakar, described the “cultural imperialism” of the West, with clear references to that former political imperialism and continuing economic imperialism which is such a crucial component of African history. “If they wish to help us,” said Cardinal Sarr, “they cannot filter ideas to us that do not seem correct to us. We want to be helped but in truth, and respected for what we are. Western nations must get rid of the idea that everything they believe and do must become the rule in the world.” Cardinal John Njue, archbishop of Nairobi in Kenya, emphasized the same point: “It is not right to give aid conditioned on a change of peoples’ values regarding subjects such as abortion and the concept of the family. Africans are in need of cooperation but it is necessary to respect their independence, their culture and the dignity of the human person.”
I’m no expert on Africa, still less on world dynamics. And certainly there are other important regions to watch. But the current Synod is raising all sorts of interesting possibilities. There can be no question that the association of Western ideas with imperialism in Africa is a powerful innoculation against the infection of secularism. It is also rather obvious that the West as we know it today is dying, breathing its last just as it reaches the height of its secularist hubris. Some of us may live long enough to see a dramatic shift in the balance of world power, which must come eventually as surely as day follows night. In some future shift—if not the next, then another—it is highly probable that Africa will play a surprising and fascinating role, perhaps even a role which will enable the Church once again to bring hope to a weary world.
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