Between Nov. 18-20, the head of the Roman Catholic Church Benedict XVI was on a visit to Benin, the pope’s second outing to Africa. The official motive was to present the conclusions from a 2009 Synod of Bishops for Africa, which Benedict did in the form of a 138-page document titled Africae Munus, or “Africa’s Commitment.”
John Allen, the Vatican analyst for CNN and NPR, writes:
Africae Munus contains perhaps the strongest papal rhetoric ever recorded on the problem of illiteracy, which Benedict compared to the pandemics afflicting Africa and called a form of “social death.” His language on the empowerment of women was also striking, insisting that the church has a duty to promote a social role for women “equal to that of men.”
At the same time Allen notes that Benedict XVI’s twist on liberation theology (the theological movement pioneered in Latin America in the 1960s and ’70s, which sought to place the church on the side of the poor) is rooted in three basic convictions:
- The supernatural realm is the deepest and most “real” level of existence. Material forms of reality, including economic and political structures, are fundamentally conditioned by the quality of humanity’s relationship with God.
- Individual transformation must precede social transformation. Systems and structures cannot be liberated if the individual human heart doesn’t change first.
- Attempts by the church to dictate concrete political solutions end in disaster, among other things performing a disservice to the poor by reducing the social appetite for God. Anyone as preoccupied with secularism as Benedict XVI can’t help but realize that the widespread rejection of religious faith in parts of the West today is , at least in part, a reaction against centuries of theocracy and clerical privilege.
Let’s take a look at the passages from the document that have relevance for Zimbabwean church and society.
In the Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, John Paul II observed that “despite the modern civilization of the ‘global village’, in Africa as elsewhere in the world the spirit of dialogue, peace and reconciliation is far from dwelling in the hearts of everyone. Wars, conflicts and racist and xenophobic attitudes still play too large a role in the world of human relations.”The hope that marks authentic Christian living reminds us that the Holy Spirit is at work everywhere, in Africa as much as anywhere else, and that the power of life, born of love, always prevails over the power of death. Hence the Synod Fathers could see that the difficulties encountered by the countries and particular Churches in Africa are not so much insurmountable obstacles, but challenges, prompting us to draw upon the best of ourselves: our imagination, our intelligence, our vocation to follow without compromise in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, to seek God, “Eternal Love and Absolute Truth”. Together with all sectors of African society, the Church therefore feels called to respond to these challenges. It is, in some sense, an imperative born of the Gospel.
John Paul II observed that “despite the modern civilization of the ‘global village’, in Africa as elsewhere in the world the spirit of dialogue, peace and reconciliation is far from dwelling in the hearts of everyone. Wars, conflicts and racist and xenophobic attitudes still play too large a role in the world of human relations.”The hope that marks authentic Christian living reminds us that the Holy Spirit is at work everywhere, in Africa as much as anywhere else, and that the power of life, born of love, always prevails over the power of death. Hence the Synod Fathers could see that the difficulties encountered by the countries and particular Churches in Africa are not so much insurmountable obstacles, but challenges, prompting us to draw upon the best of ourselves: our imagination, our intelligence, our vocation to follow without compromise in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, to seek God, “Eternal Love and Absolute Truth”. Together with all sectors of African society, the Church therefore feels called to respond to these challenges. It is, in some sense, an imperative born of the Gospel.
In this anthropological crisis which the African continent is facing, paths of hope will be discovered by fostering dialogue among the members of its constituent religious, social, political, economic, cultural and scientific communities. Africa will have to rediscover and promote a concept of the person and his or her relationship with reality that is the fruit of a profound spiritual renewal.
God never abandons his people. I see no need to dwell at length on the various socio-political, ethnic, economic or ecological situations that Africans face daily and that cannot be ignored. Africans know better than anyone else how difficult, disturbing and even tragic these situations can very often be. I pay tribute to Africans and to all the Christians of that continent who face these situations with courage and dignity. Rightly, they want this dignity to be recognized and respected. I can assure them that the Church loves and respects Africa.
Jesus Christ, who invites us to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Mt 5:13-14), offers us the power of the Spirit to help us come ever closer to attaining this ideal.
Christ at the heart of African life: The source of reconciliation, justice and peace
Through her Justice and Peace Commissions, the Church is engaged in the civic formation of citizens and in assisting with the electoral process in a number of countries. In this way she contributes to the education of peoples, awakening their consciences and their civic responsibility. This particular educational role is appreciated by a great many countries which recognize the Church as a peacemaker, an agent of reconciliation and a herald of justice. It is worth repeating that, while a distinction must be made between the role of pastors and that of the lay faithful, the Church’s mission is not political in nature. Her task is to open the world to the religious sense by proclaiming Christ. The Church wishes to be the sign and safeguard of the human person’s transcendence. She must also enable people to seek the supreme truth regarding their deepest identity and their questions, so that just solutions can be found to their problems.
Benedict stressed that if the Catholic church is to preach good governance and the fight against corruption to Africa’s political and economic leaders, it must practice good government itself in the way it manages its own resources. The question is, will Catholic leaders in Africa actually take that to heart?
Financial transparency within the Church
Speaking to Africa’s bishops, Benedict writes: “To make your message credible, see to it that your dioceses become models in the conduct of personnel, in transparency and good financial management.”
“Do not hesitate to seek help from experts in auditing, so as to give a good example to the faithful and to society at large,” the pope writes.
At another point, Benedict insists that church employees must receive “just remuneration … in order to strengthen the church’s credibility.” He also directs a similar message to church-affiliated health care institutions, insisting that “the management of grant monies must aim at transparency.”
Given the great ferment of peoples, cultures and religions which marks our age, Catholic universities and academic institutions play an essential role in the patient, rigorous and humble search for the light which comes from Truth. Only a truth capable of transcending human standards of measure, conditioned by their own limitations, brings peace to individuals and reconciliation to societies.
Dear brothers and sisters in Catholic universities and academic institutions, it falls to you, on the one hand, to shape the minds and hearts of the younger generation in the light of the Gospel and, on the other, to help African societies better to understand the challenges confronting them today by providing Africa, through your research and analyses, with the light she needs.
“Perhaps this century will permit, by God’s grace, the rebirth on your continent, albeit surely in a new and different form, of the prestigious School of Alexandria. Why should we not hope that it could furnish today’s Africans and the universal Church with great theologians and spiritual masters who could contribute to the sanctification of the inhabitants of this continent and of the whole Church?”
For if it is to be effective, the prevention of AIDS must be based on a sex education that is itself grounded in an anthropology anchored in the natural law and enlightened by the word of God and the Church’s teaching.
It is surely necessary to raise the awareness of governments so that they will increase their support for schooling. The Church recognizes and respects the role of the state in the educational domain. She nevertheless affirms her legitimate right to play her part, offering her particular contribution. And it would be helpful to remind the state that the Church has a right to educate according to her own rules and in her own buildings. This is a right which is part of that freedom of action “which her responsibility for human salvation requires”. Many African states recognize the eminent and disinterested role played by the Church through her educational structures in building up their nations. I therefore strongly encourage governments in their efforts to support this educational work.
Respect for creation and the ecosystem
Together with the Synod Fathers, I ask all the members of the Church to work and speak out in favour of an economy that cares for the poor and is resolutely opposed to an unjust order which, under the pretext of reducing poverty, has often helped to aggravate it. God has given Africa important natural resources.
Given the chronic poverty of its people, who suffer the effects of exploitation and embezzlement of funds both locally and abroad, the opulence of certain groups shocks the human conscience. Organized for the creation of wealth in their homelands, and not infrequently with the complicity of those in power in Africa, these groups too often ensure their own prosperity at the expense of the well-being of the local population. Acting in concert with all other components of civil society, the Church must speak out against the unjust order that prevents the peoples of Africa from consolidating their economies and “from developing according to their cultural characteristics”. Moreover, it is incumbent upon the Church to strive that “every people may be the principal agent of its own economic and social progress … and may help to bring about the universal common good as an active and responsible member of the human family, on an equal footing with other peoples.”
Information and Disinformation
Everyone knows that the new information technologies are capable of being powerful instruments for unity and peace, but also for destruction and division. From a moral standpoint they can offer either a service or a disservice, propagate truth as well as falsehood, propose what is base as well as what is beautiful. The flood of news or non-news, to say nothing of images, can be informative but also powerfully manipulative. Information can readily become disinformation, and formation deformation. The media can be a force for authentic humanization, but just as easily prove dehumanizing.
The media can avoid this danger if “they are geared towards a vision of the person and the common good that reflects truly universal values. Just because social communications increase the possibilities of interconnection and the dissemination of ideas, it does not follow that they promote freedom or internationalize development and democracy for all. To achieve goals of this kind, they need to focus on promoting the dignity of persons and peoples; they need to be clearly inspired by charity and placed at the service of truth, of the good, and of natural and supernatural fraternity.”
The Church needs to be increasingly present in the media so as to make them not only a tool for the spread of the Gospel but also for educating the African peoples to reconciliation in truth, and the promotion of justice and peace. A solid formation in ethics and truthfulness will help journalists to avoid the attraction of the sensational, as well as the temptation to manipulate information and to make easy money. Christian journalists should not be afraid to show their faith! They should be proud of it! The presence and activity of competent lay faithful in the world of public and private communications should also be encouraged. Like leaven in the dough, they will continue to testify to the positive and constructive contribution which the teaching of Christ and his Church makes to the world.
Non-African missionaries, responding generously to the Lord’s call with ardent apostolic zeal, came to share the joy of revelation. Following in their footsteps, Africans are today missionaries on other continents. How can we fail here to pay them special tribute?
The missionaries who came to Africa – priests, men and women religious and lay people – built churches, schools and dispensaries, and did much to shape the face of today’s African culture, but above all they built up the Body of Christ and enriched the Lord’s dwelling place. They knew well how to share the salt of the word and spread the light of the sacraments. Most of all, they gave to Africa their most precious treasure: Jesus Christ.
Thanks to them numerous traditional cultures were freed from ancestral fears and from unclean spirits (Mt 10:1). From the good seed that they sowed (Mt 13:24) arose many African saints, who still serve as models and ought to inspire us all the more. It would be profitable to renew and promote devotion to these saints. Their commitment to the cause of the Gospel was at times shown in a heroic manner, even at the cost of their lives. Once again the words of Tertullian proved true: “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”. I give thanks to God for all these holy men and women, signs of the vitality of the Church in Africa.
I encourage the Pastors of the local Churches to recognize among servants of the Gospel in Africa those who could be canonized according to the norms of the Church, not only in order to increase the number of African saints, but also to obtain new intercessors in heaven to accompany the Church on her pilgrim journey and to plead before God for the African continent. I entrust to Our Lady of Africa and to the saints of this beloved continent the Church that dwells there.
The Church lives daily alongside the followers of traditional African religions. With their reference to ancestors and to a form of mediation between man and Immanence, these religions are the cultural and spiritual soil from which most Christian converts spring and with which they continue to have daily contact.
It is worth singling out knowledgeable individual converts, who could provide the Church with guidance in gaining a deeper and more accurate knowledge of the traditions, the culture and the traditional religions. This would make it easier to identify points of real divergence. It would also help to clarify the vital distinction between culture and cult and to discard those magical elements which cause division and ruin for families and societies.
In this regard, the Second Vatican Council taught that the Church “urges her sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their life and culture.”It would help to manifest the treasures of the Church’s sacramental life and spirituality in all their depth and to pass them on more effectively in catechesis, if the Church were to carry out a theological study of those elements of the traditional African cultures in conformity with Christ’s teaching.
Witchcraft, which is based on the traditional religions, is currently experiencing a certain revival. Old fears are re-surfacing and creating paralyzing bonds of subjection. Anxiety over health, well-being, children, the climate, and protection from evil spirits at times lead people to have recourse to practices of traditional African religions that are incompatible with Christian teaching.
The problem of “dual affiliation” – to Christianity and to the traditional African religions – remains a challenge. Through profound catechesis and inculturation, the Church in Africa needs to help people to discover the fullness of Gospel values. It is important to determine the profound meaning of these practices of witchcraft by identifying the many theological, social and pastoral implications of this scourge.
Once more I say: “Get up, Church in Africa… because you are being called by the heavenly Father, whom your ancestors invoked as Creator even before knowing his merciful closeness revealed in his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Set out on the path of a new evangelization with the courage that comes to you from the Holy Spirit.”