Benedict's Africa plan: Stay spiritual, and stay Catholic

Ouidah, Benin

Pope Benedict XVI came to Africa this weekend primarily to deliver his conclusions from a 2009 Synod of Bishops for Africa, representing a papal game plan for the faith in the region of its most explosive growth. He chose an evocative setting – the city of Ouidah on Benin’s Atlantic coast, a onetime slave port known as the spiritual capital of the Vodun religion, referred to in the West as voodoo.

The pontiff has repeatedly touted Africa as a source of hope, and he came it again today, repeating a 2009 line that Africa represents a “spiritual lung for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope.”

Benedict’s 138-page document on Africa, titled Africae Munus, or “Africa’s Commitment,” contains a bewildering variety of specifics, but its core boils down to two pleas to Africa’s roughly 150 million faithful: Stay on the spiritual plane, as opposed to becoming a political party, and stay Catholic.

In effect, Benedict argues throughout the text that the best contribution Catholicism can make to reconciliation, justice and peace in Africa, which was the theme of synod, is by fulfilling its spiritual mission – reconciling humanity to God and one another through Christ. Preaching the gospel, promoting the sacraments, and saving souls, the pope implied, is the distinctive contribution of the church to the quest for peace and justice.

“To deprive the African continent of God would be to make it die a slow death, by taking away its very soul,” the pope warned.

In that sense, Benedict called upon Catholics, and especially clergy, to avoid “immediate engagement with politics” – though at the same time, the pontiff also clearly rejected the equal-and-opposite danger of “withdrawal” and “escape from concrete historical responsibility.”

“The church’s mission is not political in nature,” the pope writes at one point, and at another he adds that “Christ does not propose a revolution of a social or political kind.”

The temptation to direct political engagement may be especially strong in Africa, where religious bodies are often the most trusted exponents of civil society and of resistance to corrupt regimes. Ironically, one former Archbishop of Cotonou in Benin served, in effect, as the country’s leader during a transition from Marxism to democracy in the early 1990s.

Benedict also called on African Catholics to take their cues from church teaching and tradition, as opposed to an excessively “African” form of the faith. He referred to “dual affiliation”, meaning Catholics who also practice tribal religions, as a serious problem.

For instance, the pope insisted that Catholics must practice individual confession, rather than drawing upon indigenous reconciliation ceremonies rooted in traditional African religion. (He called upon the African bishops to carry out a study of these reconciliation ceremonies, while stressing that they “cannot in any way take the place of the sacrament.”)

Benedict also rejected witchcraft, calling it a “scourge,” and called on African bishops not to “absolutize African culture,” which could lead to spiritual excuses for “a nationalism that can easily blind.”

Much of the specific content of Africae Munus is already familiar, but two distinct themes stand out.

First, Benedict clearly links the push to fight corruption in political and economic life to the need for good government inside the church itself.

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.”

Second, this theologian-pope encouraged the bishops of Africa to take a special interest in “the life of the intellect and reason, so as to foster a habit of rational dialogue and critical analysis within society and in the church.”

Repeating the most distinctive feature of his own comments at the 2009 Synod for Africa, Benedict augured the emergence in the 21st century of a distinctively African contribution to Catholic theology, analogous to the great Africa fathers of the early church such as Clement and Origen.

“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,” the pope writes.

In terms of other specifics, Africae Munus contains a wide variety of papal recommendations and injunctions. They include:

  • An endorsement of truth and reconciliation commissions, stressing that reconciliation must not come at the expense of accountability. It must include, he writes, “the pursuit of those responsible for these conflicts, those who commissioned crimes and who were involved in trafficking of all kinds, and the determination of their responsibility. Victims have a right to truth and justice.”

  • The church’s responsibility to act as a “sentinel” in denouncing injustice. The church, the pope writes, “feels the duty to be present wherever human suffering exists and to make heard the silent cry of the innocent who suffer persecution, or of peoples whose governments mortgage the present and future for personal interests.”

  • Calling on Africans to preserve the traditional family, which, Benedict warns, faces various threats: “Distortion of the very notion of marriage and family, devaluation of maternity and trivialization of abortion, easy divorce and the relativism of a ‘new ethics.’”

  • A strong plug to defend the rights and role of women. “Women’s dignity and rights, as well as their essential contribution to the family and to society, have not been fully acknowledged or appreciated,” the pope writes. “The church has the duty to contribute to the recognition and liberation of women” and to promote for them “a place in society equal to that of men.”

  • Defense of church teaching on abstinence outside marriage and fidelity within it as the best anti-AIDS strategy, coupled with a strong call for anti-AIDS medication to be made widely available “at minimum cost.”

  • A call to combat illiteracy, which the pope called “a scourge on a par with the pandemics” and “a form of social death.” (According to the United Nations, illiteracy rates in West Africa, where Benin is located, are the highest in the world. Sixty-five million adults in the region, representing forty percent of the adult population, cannot read and write.)

  • Urging political leaders to combat poverty and to protect the environment. “Fundamental goods such as land and water,” the pope writes, are critical for “the human life of present and future generations and for peace between peoples.”

  • Support for an independent judiciary and human prison systems, and for abolition of the death penalty.

  • Endorsement of good government and anti-corruption efforts.

  • A mixed evaluation of African Independent Churches, which encompass a sprawling variety of Evangelical and Pentecostal movements as well as syncretistic forms of traditional tribal religion. Benedict warns that they sometimes “offer a religious veneer to a variety of heterodox, anti-Christian beliefs, but also writes that they are a new reality “in the ecumenical field.”

  • Support for dialogue with Muslims, coupled with insistence on respect for freedom of belief and worship. “Religious freedom is the road to peace,” the pope writes.

Many experts have predicted an “African moment” in the global church in the 21st century, given Catholicism’s explosive growth here. (The Catholic population of sub-Saharan Africa grew almost 7,000 percent during the 20th century.) One foretaste of that “African moment” has been the rapid growth in African priests serving outside the continent, especially in Europe and North America.

Despite the fact that the priest shortage is actually far more acute in Africa than in the West – the priest-to-person ratio is the United States is 1-1,300, while in sub-Saharan Africa it’s almost 1-5,000 --- Benedict encouraged what observers often refer to as the “reverse mission,” meaning African priests serving in the Western societies which once dispatched missionaries to Africa.

The pope called on African bishops to “respond generously to the requests of their confreres in countries lacking vocations, and assist the faithful deprived of priests.”

NCR senior correspondent is traveling with the pope in Benin. Below are a list of stories he has filed so far. Watch the NCR website for updates throughout the weekend.

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