African theologians, bishops cry out for more expansive synod discussions

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.
Assumption Sr. Veronica Rop of Kenya and Sr. Wilhelmina Uhai, a member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in Tanzania, are seen at the Theological Colloquium on Church, Religion, and Society in Africa at Hekima University College in Nairobi July 17. (NCR photos/Joshua J. McElwee)
Assumption Sr. Veronica Rop of Kenya and Sr. Wilhelmina Uhai, a member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in Tanzania, are seen at the Theological Colloquium on Church, Religion, and Society in Africa at Hekima University College in Nairobi July 17. (NCR photos/Joshua J. McElwee)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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A number of prominent theologians and bishops from across the African continent have sharply called for more expansive discussions at this fall's global meeting of Catholic bishops on family issues, saying last year's event focused too heavily on subjects mainly of concern to Europeans and North Americans.

Last year's discussions -- which attracted global media coverage scrutinizing bishops' stances on controversial questions like divorce and remarriage and same-sex relationships -- left out a multitude of pressing issues facing millions living throughout Africa, the prelates and academics argued at a groundbreaking conference here July 16-18.

In a reflection of the tone of the event, one theologian-participant made a poignant, echoing plea. The global church, she said, must entirely refocus itself to speak for voiceless Africans who are suffering in many ways.

 "How outraged are we? Who is keeping a tab?" Nontando Hadebe cried out to other participants at the gathering, speaking specifically of the kidnapping of some 300 schoolgirls by the Boko Haram terrorist group in Nigeria in 2014.

"There just needs to be an institution that says no -- no more!" she continued, calling on the church to reorient to become the "guardian, sustainer, protector" of African and black lives.

"We need an institution that is outraged and that sustains that outrage as a prophetic teaching," said the South African, a rising theologian who has focused her work on the struggles of African women.

Hadebe, who teaches at Johannesburg's St. Augustine College, was one of 36 of the continent's most prominent Catholic ethicists gathered for the discussions, the last in a three-year series of such meetings being held at the Jesuit-run Hekima University College since 2013.

Organized as a "Theological Colloquium on Church, Religion, and Society in Africa," this year's event saw the academics and selected prelates discuss a wide range of issues, such as questions of ecological destruction and religious fundamentalism, and how Pope Francis is impacting the shape of Africa's church structures.

But many of the conversations focused most on the October meeting of the Synod of Bishops, the second of two back-to-back bishops' meetings called by Francis for 2014 and 2015 to focus on family life issues.

Among those addressing that subject were three prelates: Rustenburg, South Africa, Bishop Kevin Dowling; Malindi, Kenya, Bishop Emanuel Barbara; and Kibungo, Rwanda, Bishop Antoine Kambanda.

Both Dowling and Barbara bluntly faulted the 2014 meeting for not focusing enough on African issues.

Dowling, a prominent global voice as a co-president of the international Catholic peace group Pax Christi, said he hoped the 2015 event would avoid simply restating doctrines in "predominantly Eurocentric constructs."

More time at the meeting, he said, should be spent on "all the systemic issues which threaten relationships between people in societies and make it so hard for parents today to nourish their relationship with their own children and so bring them up in wholesome and life-giving ways."

Barbara, who has been selected as a substitute to attend the synod should the Kenyan bishops elected to do so not be able, said the first synod was focused "much more on a Europe or a European culture which got converted to Christianity and is now facing big challenges because of the new era."

Africans, Barbara said, face many different challenges than Europeans. Many Africans, he said, are still dealing with issues related to being newer converts to Christianity and in trying to live their faith while respecting their traditional cultures.

The Kenyan bishop called for a new theology of marriage from an African context.

"If we want to have respect to our African Christian families, we need to work seriously on an African Christian theology of marriage," he said. "It's not enough to apply other models that have been there for centuries."

One theologian, Ugandan Emmanuel Katongole, even criticized what he called a "tyranny of pressing moral questions" that immediately reduces problems the church needs to face down to issues of sexuality or authority.

"The overall effect of starting with the 'pressing moral questions' is to make a parody of the African voice," said Katongole, a professor of theology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute. "It is to obscure what might be more broad, urgent but perhaps less sexy issues affecting millions of Africans."

"One wonders why sexuality is a pressing moral question but the fact that millions of Africans lack basic necessities like water, food and shelter is not," he said. "Why is sexual orientation a basic human right, but not the right to water?"

Call for African organization

In three expansive sessions at the Nairobi gathering focused on "Gospel of Family: From Africa to the World Church," the participants brought up a diverse range of unique family topics they said are facing the church on their continent but had not been adequately discussed at the 2014 synod.

Among the issues, too many to list in full:

  • Identity struggles for Africans who feel separated from their traditional cultures after Christian conversion;
  • Gender-based violence in households, overwhelmingly against women;
  • Missing presence of fathers in family life;
  • Large-scale, crippling poverty;
  • Lack of "principled, ethical leadership" in both governmental and church spheres.

Several participants at the gathering called for leaders in the African church to work more closely together in order to coordinate in speaking out about such issues at the 2015 synod.

One theologian, Jesuit Fr. Paul Bere, said he felt a "deep lament" that the complexity of issues facing Africans was not discussed at the 2014 event.

"It is so sad that the church of Africa did not make its voice heard and I doubt it will be heard in the upcoming synod," said Bere, a native of Burkina Faso who teaches at the Institut de Théologie de la Compagnie de Jésus in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Bere, who also served from 2009 to 2014 as a consultor to the Synod of Bishops' secretariat office at the Vatican, said African voices were not being heard because the different African churches were not organizing their arguments together.

Maryknoll Fr. Joseph Healey, an American who has lived in Eastern Africa for nearly 40 years, said the African bishops "have not come up with a strategy to clearly and incisively present in Rome [their] priorities."

"Unlike other continents, which plan together and then come with clear priorities, our African interventions are often scattered and not planned together," he said.

Barbara, whose Malindi diocese sits some 300 miles east of Nairobi on the Indian Ocean, focused his remarks on speaking for African Catholics struggling to live in both their traditional and Christian cultures.

The bishop said he constantly hears from Catholics in his diocese who feel "they are not living totally as Africans because they became Christians."

Barbara also identified two specific proposals he said he had asked bishops at October's synod to consider, writing to the Vatican synod office with suggestions: creation of a more gradual form of consent for marriage, and more extensive preparation courses for couples considering marriage.

On the first issue, the Kenyan bishop said traditional African marriages normally involved much more than the simple "Yes, I do" that provides for consent between married couples in Christian marriages. In the past, he said, consent between couples was even made over years -- as the couples lived with one another, and their families came to be gradually meshed together.

"Can we still today speak of a universal form of marriage where the only consent -- 'Yes, I do,' coming from a Latin, German culture -- will be sufficient to sanction a marriage?" Barbara asked.

"In the African context, it used to take stages," he said. "There used to be involved both families before the marriage will come to be something. Is it enough today still to insist in our own culture, in our environment in Africa, that it is enough that you go in front of the priest or the minister and say, 'Yes, I do?' "

The Kenyan bishop also said that church teaching on contraception and fertility focuses too specifically on defining sinful behavior.

"It is too simplistic to speak that our African Christian couples can only be taught about the good or negative effects of contraception, infertility, or fertility under just the category of what is sinful or not," said Barbara. "It is too simplistic for a culture where fertility is one of the most important elements in marriage."

The Ugandan theologian, Katongole, presented seven social challenges he said face African churches and "press for fresh theological imaginations of what the church in Africa need to be, ought to be, and how it can respond to these challenges."

Identifying sub-Saharan Africa as having the fastest-growing population in the world, the Notre Dame professor cited statistics that more than 50 percent of youth there are illiterate and unemployed.

"This will press the church in Africa," said Katongole. "What kind of church will we have? I think in responding to this challenge, the African church will find herself drawing more on the ecclesiological vision of Pope Francis, of the church of the poor for the poor."

'Big man' leadership

But the theologian also said that one of the key problems facing the church in Africa is a tendency to mirror in its structures a type of leadership popular in African governments, where one key figure exercises power as a "big man" or a "boss."

"Church leadership, unfortunately, has by and large both mirrored and radiated the same style of leadership, where the bishop and to lesser extent the priest exercises chief and unquestionable lordship over those they lead," said Katongole. "Accordingly, church institutions are characterized by the same and in some cases even worse forms of corruption and opacity."

The theologian called on bishops "to recover a vision of the church" grounded by Jesus' call to be servants.

Kenyan theologian Philomena Mwaura identified violence against women and lack of stable fathers in African countries as issues the October synod should discuss.

Mwaura, an associate professor at Kenya's public Kenyatta University, said there is a "crisis" in fatherhood on her continent, citing figures that only 3 percent of Africans say they have a good relationship with their fathers.

"The challenge in the modern African family today is the presence of fathers," she said. "Boys do not have mentors; they do not have role models."

The Nairobi event was convened by Hekima University College's principal, Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator. A Nigerian native who recently finished a term as the provincial of his order's East Africa province, Orobator arranged the three years of the theological conferences with distinct themes.

This year's theme was: "An Agenda for Vatican III: Ideas, Issues, and Resources from Africa for the World Church." Besides the family synod, other sessions also focused on ecological issues, religious violence, and the so-called pressing moral issues across the continent.

This year's event was also marked by an unusual amount of open dialogue for a theological conference. Presentations were limited to 10 minutes so that participants could spend time discussing ideas together.

During an opening conversational session July 16, participants roundly praised the three-year cycle, saying it had allowed them to expand their horizons by learning about the diverse range of experiences across their continent.

Kambanda, the Rwandan bishop, mentioned that he was appointed to his ministry two years ago and found his participation in the colloquia timely.

"It was providential for me as a new bishop in the diocese," he said, adding that he had just helped launch the process to create a new pastoral plan for his diocese in southeastern Rwanda.

"Here, I learned practical theology," said Kambanda. "Theology in practice, which inspired me in this pastoral plan."

Dowling, the South African bishop, said he knew that many theologians face difficulties in their work with the leadership in their dioceses.

"You face systemic challenges in the church and I'm very conscious of those," he told the group. "It's very important that you know that some of us in leadership not only love you but fully support you."

"Your role and calling is to push the boundaries, however difficult that may be," Dowling said.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

A version of this story appeared in the August 14-27, 2015 print issue under the headline: African theologians, bishops cry out for more expansive synod discussions.

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