Pope Benedict's indifference and Africa's faith

If Pope Benedict XVI does not personally adopt a larger advocacy for poverty elimination in Africa, this same poverty, coupled with the perception of the church’s indifference towards it, will trigger a significant exodus from the Catholic faith over the next twenty to thirty years

David Mikhail
19 January 2006

While the most expansive African debt forgiveness initiative yet was coming to fruition in Gleneagles last summer, the Vatican’s presence was only marginally visible. Not a papal delegation but a collective of African bishops met with G8 representatives to lobby for debt relief for their continent. The fact that the full voice of the new papacy was not heard on this cause is an indication of a broader issue that may have a significant adverse effect on the Catholic Church as it exists in the African continent.

If Pope Benedict XVI does not personally adopt a larger advocacy for poverty elimination in Africa, this same poverty, coupled with the perception of the church’s indifference towards it, will trigger a significant exodus from the Catholic faith over the next twenty to thirty years. The dimensions of the problem become clearer when one notes that the Vatican has benefited tremendously from a dramatic increase in African followers, whose numbers have gone from 55 million to 144 million since the late 1970s.

In its brief history, the Benedictine pontificate has revealed the Pope’s distinct tendency to relegate specific matters relating to African poverty to those beneath him or to a Vatican offshoot. A week before the G8 summit, it was Archbishop Celestino Migliore, speaking on behalf of Pope Benedict and the Holy See, who publicised the Vatican’s endorsement of the debt relief proposal. Similarly, in a recent address to the UN General Assembly, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Cardinal Secretary of State, voiced the Vatican’s pleasure in the outcome of the G8 summit, qualifying this statement by saying that the "first and foremost" priority of the Holy See was a spiritual one. Likewise, it was not the Pope but the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Vatican body in charge of stimulating the Catholic Community to "foster progress in needy regions and social justice on the international scene", that released a statement expressing approval for the agreed plan of debt forgiveness. The Pontifical Council for Health Care has also been vocal in calling attention to the sickly poor in Africa, as well as elsewhere. In a recent speech to the World Health Organization, the Council’s president Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan spoke out in harsh terms against the "diseases of poverty" such as malaria, smallpox and fever, and condemned the lack of access for the poor to curative drugs. He also pointed out that the Catholic Church has provided over a quarter of the AIDS care centres in the world, including Africa.

Conversely, Pope Benedict, in his personal engagements with Africa, has demonstrated a strong willingness to lend his personal voice to the issues of sexual morality and the maintenance of the Catholic following. Last year on 25 May, a date historically regarded as the "Day for Africa", his focus was on the maintenance of Catholic beliefs: he requested that the audience of 27,000 sustain their faith in the face of suffering. In the lead up to the first major assembly of African Bishops since the passing of Pope John Paul II, he emphasized the African clergy’s duty to prevent the continent from going the socially permissive way of Europe. In a separate meeting he urged thirty-three bishops from five countries in the southern portion of the continent to promote chastity and to reverse the "breakdown in sexual morality" that has led to the proliferation of the AIDS virus. In none of these addresses, all of them within a few months of the G8 summit, did the Pope discuss in any substantive way, African debt relief or poverty.

Though it would be inaccurate to say that Pope Benedict never broaches the issue of African poverty, he has rarely made it the center of his advocacy. Meeting bishops from Burundi in response to the nation’s history of civil war, he encouraged them to address poverty because many Burundians "know extreme poverty and interior distress, and are tempted to return to ancient practices not purified by the Spirit of the Lord, or to sects." During a Sunday prayer in July 2005, he sandwiched a brief call for the G8 to address African poverty between the Prayer of the Angelus and a salutation to the English-speaking visitors of St. Peter’s Square. While Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan demand more leadership and economic involvement from the international community in battling the global AIDS pandemic, Pope Benedict, in his recent speech on "World AIDS Day", focused on how fidelity and abstinence programs have been a successful approach to combating the disease on the African continent.

The result is that Pope Benedict gives the impression of a certain indifference to African social problems at the highest levels of the Vatican. In this splitting of the Vatican message, African Catholics may observe that Pope Benedict’s fundamental concerns are merely twofold: that Africans follow the strict sexual code of the church and that they do not fall prey either to another of the world religions or to an indigenous one. The worst possible interpretation would be that the Pope is not very troubled by the day-to-day challenges of feeding victims of famines, such as those recently seen in Niger, Malawi and Kenya, or in providing appropriate healthcare to remedy diseases now extinct in the rest of the world.

The substantial loss of Catholic support in Latin America should be a cautionary tale in this regard. According to a University of Notre Damereport, 70% of Latin Americans now classify themselves as Catholics – a steep decline from the 90+ percent figure of fifty years ago. While popular theory holds that the increasingly conservative papacy of Pope John Paul II contributed to the spiritual migration, it was actually the polarisation of wealth that created contemporary reality. A 2005 Associated Press report detailed how the majority of Latin American conversions were poor people who left the Catholic faith to practice Evangelism, a religion defined by its attention to poor followers. Because Evangelists make an overt effort to preach to the specific topics of wealth, poverty, and social advancement, the religion has a kind of economic and spiritual populism which has succeeded in attracting neglected, former Catholics. According to an article in Religioscope, the Venezuelan, Brazilian, and Guatemalan evangelical populations are at 10, 20, and 30% respectively, with the Venezuelan figure likely to rise given Hugo Chavez’ consistent and damning characterisation of Catholicism as an elitist faith. It has not been the perception of Catholicism as antiquated that has pushed Latin Americans away; it has been the indictment of its indifference to poverty.

There is little reason to believe that the current Pope will be receptive to a brand of Catholicism that prominently embraces the cause of the poor. Latin America was the veritable Eden of the Liberation Theology movement, a philosophy asserting Catholicism’s role in remedying the ills of both social and economic injustice. A hybrid of Catholicism and Marxism established in the late 1950s, Liberation Theology reached its pinnacle in the early 1970s, specifically after the Second Vatican Council, when the clergyman and theologian Leonardo Boff published his renowned series of articles espousing the faith. In spite of its seemingly virtuous message, the current pope, at the time merely the young cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, censured and silenced Boff in 1985. Ratzinger went on to classify Liberation Theology as radical and a threat to the Catholic Church.

Not only might African Catholicism suffer a future as dim as the present of its Latin American variant, factors singular to Africa might even exacerbate the situation. The African religious landscape is hyper-competitive in comparison to Latin America. In addition to other religions, including Islam which exceeds Catholicism threefold, there is also a myriad of animist faiths that have a multiple-century start on the Vatican. The ratio of African priests to followers is also rather low, leading to inordinate pressure on clergy to maintain congregations, and lessening their ability to cultivate new Catholics. A statistical study released by the Vatican in 2003 stated that there were 28,000 followers for every priest, in contrast to Europe and America where the ratio is one priest to approximately 3,500 and 7,000 respectively.

Finally, Catholicism’s recent association with African atrocities has tremendous potential to alienate current and future followers. For numerous reasons, the barbarism that occurred in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo has already contributed, and may continue to contribute, to the abandonment of Catholicism. The fact that many of the actors who facilitated the Rwandan genocide were Catholics has helped create a perception of the Church’s passive involvement in the "cleansing" of 800,000 lives. And the sectarian victimisation of Catholics during massacres both in Rwanda, and currently in the Democratic Republic of Congo according to the US State Department, may also lead to flight from the faith. These specific nations represent large concentrations of African Catholics: the Democratic Republic of Congo still has the largest following with approximately 30 million worshippers, while over 60% of Rwanda’s population is Catholic. In Rwanda there has already been a 6 to 12 percent decrease in Catholic followers since the end of the atrocities, according to the Catholic News Service. The 2003 Vatican study stated that while the trend in the continent overall is still upward, "the growth rate has considerably slackened."

The most disheartening aspect of this trend is that the next twenty-five to thirty years of potential Catholic decline may reverse the previous decades of real progress-gains that were largely due to the efforts of Pope John Paul II. In spite of his characterization as a zealous disciple of Catholic orthodoxy, the previous pope’s approach to Africa was as proactive as it was progressive. His engagement with the continent exceeded that of most heads of state: he made twelve trips to Africa and visited every nation over the span of his papacy. He also endorsed the "Africanisation" of the Catholic mass so as to allow clergy to incorporate some African culture.

Most important were the proclamations he made in his "Ecclesia in Africa", his apostolic exhortation that preceded the first African Synod in 1994. In addition to calling for the maintenance of the African family structure and culture, he directly addressed the issues of disease and poverty. He recognised and spoke to the realities of economic dearth and "inadequate medical services" and made a plea to both scientists and politicians "to use every means available in order to put an end to this scourge." As for debt relief, reiterating the Synod fathers’ words, he asked heads of governments "not to crush their peoples with internal and external debts." He went on to ask the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to alleviate the debt of African countries – a good ten years before the Gleneagles summit. His advocacy continued well after 1995, most notably in 2000 when he personally supported the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which called for African debt forgiveness. It is no coincidence that the tripling of Catholic followers in Africa occurred during the previous pontificate, largely as a result of the pope taking on the cause of African betterment himself.

Pope Benedict should be keen to become a vocal advocate for the continent, whether or not he is confident of his ability to engender real improvement. Between 1978 and 2003 the Catholic Church experienced an increase of 329 million followers, 90 million of whom were supplied by Africa. Africa is already seen as the key to maintaining the breadth of the Catholic base, which now exceeds a billion people, despite the continuing steep decline in Catholic worship in Latin America and in Europe, where the Catholic following has shrunk to the levels of twenty-five years ago.

But there is additional reason. The issue underlying the choice of Pope John Paul II’s replacement was whether the Vatican would make a statement as to Catholicism’s universality - would they use the election of the new pope to state that Catholicism was not a purely Euro-centric faith? If this Holy See continues to focus only on deepening their following, ignoring the biblical plagues of Africa, then it will only enhance the notion that Catholics don’t care about the non-European world. Unlike South America and Europe, where Catholicism took a serious blow, Africa may be the land whose potential was undermined before it was truly nourished.

In his controversial and enlightening exegesis on religion "Why I Am Not a Christian", Bertrand Russell asserted that a good life simply entails love and understanding. There is no question that Pope Benedict’s relationship with the African Continent, even in its narrow scope, is based on both of these premises. However, as the pope before him did, Pope Benedict must personally and prominently display concern for the way Africans are living, just as much as for the way they are worshipping. The improvement of the African continent is too important a goal, and the current reality too horrific, to have others take the lead. If Africans feel shunned by this pope, they will shun the Catholic faith in return. And this silence will define a troubled relationship for decades to come.

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