BIA Benedict XVI Institute for Africa
Agbaw Ebai

Agbaw Ebai Ashley

The Church in Africa and the 2015 Synod on the Family

There are an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world, according to Vatican figures. More than 40% of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America – but Africa has seen the biggest growth in Catholic congregations in recent years. At the start of the 20th century, Africa had about 3 million Catholics. Today, a decade and a half into the 21st century, Africa counts 185 million Catholics. By 2025, Africa will account for over 23% of the World’s Catholics. If, as the saying goes, numbers are destiny, then it is surely the case that Catholicism is experiencing an “African moment” today.

In a recent interview with ZENIT, Archbishop Charles Palmer Buckle of Accra, Ghana, argued that the proper hermeneutic of approaching Africa’s presence at the 2015 Synod on the Family is to pay attention to the landmark historical developments that have shaped the Church in Africa in the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century. In this light, Archbishop Buckle highlighted the 1994 Synod for Africa that had as theme, “Church as Family,” and the 2009 Synod for Africa, that focused on Justice, Peace and Reconciliation. Based on these two Synods, the Church in Africa came to Synod 2015 with a somewhat critical discerning heart and mind. In the words of the Ghanaian Archbishop: “So for us, coming to participate in the synod for the family, is like bringing coal to new castle. We are here to share. We have been here sharing from our own experience, from our own cultural perspectives, but we are open and here to listen to what the family means to Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans, to people from North America. We are listening very attentively because we would like to avoid the pitfalls that families in these co-called advanced countries have fallen into. We would like also to help them look at families from its beautiful, original perspective. So we believe we are being enriched and we are enriching also, all the other participants.” From these words of Archbishop Buckle, the perspective of the African Church to the 2015 Synod is therefore twofold, to be enriched by the global Church, and likewise to enrich the global Church. The Church in Africa no longer sees herself as an infant, whose only legitimate role is to listen to the local churches of the Western world. The Church in Africa has clearly come of age.

This journey to maturity has had some significant providential moments, in addition to the two synods of 1994 and 2009, respectively convened by St. John Paul the Great, and Benedict XVI, the shy, gentle, saintly, scholarly Bavarian, a man clearly already in the ranks of Augustine, Aquinas, Jerome, Gregory and Newman, a Doctor of the Church while still living within the pilgrim sinful Church! Let us return to the historical hand marks that formed the African Church for Synod 2015, hoping to find in them a hermeneutical key to the issues that marked this Synod.

Without any pretense to biblical competence – since my world is restricted to explaining the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one can readily think of the encounter between the Queen from Ethiopia and Solomon (1 Kgs. 10; Mt. 12:42), to constitute a significant moment in the unfolding of salvation history for the Church that is in Africa. This meeting should constitute a part of the African ecclesial experience, granted that the history of the Church did not begin with Jesus Christ. In fact, to the repeated question whether Jesus founded the Church or not, the only legitimate response will be that such a question is a false question, for Jesus did not need to “found” a Church, since the Church, the called community of YHWH, was already in existence, from the call of Abraham. The Fathers would even talk about the Church from Abel the Just!  What Jesus of Nazareth did was basically two things: he universalized and radicalized the community of Israel, by breaking the geographical boundaries around the chosen people to include everyone, and by stretching the prescriptions of the Torah from the letter and spirit to his own person. He became the new Torah, in his own flesh. Without this process of universalization and radicalization, the Christian Church is the same as Judaism! This is highly significant, especially when one begins to hear of calls to particularize or regionalize Christian teaching, in the name of pastoral exigencies. A Christian faith that is regionalized strikes at the very root of the coming into being, of the “new Israel,” in that geographic and political definitions become the determinants of the faith. In a few words, that is why the meeting between Solomon and the Queen of Ethiopia should have such ecclesial significance.

Briefly, other significant historical moments could be the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt; the presence of Simon of Cyrene at the scene of the Crucifixion and the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8). The outstanding contributions to the universal Church made by Augustine of Hippo, Cyprian of Carthage, Tertullian, amongst others – the North African Fathers of the Church, cannot be overemphasized. The demise of Catholicism in North Africa remains a pain whose consequences are still with us today. That this collapse of the Christian faith in a once-flourishing part of Africa, owed in large part to a weakened Christianity thorn apart by internal controversies over doctrine before the onslaught of Islam, should constitute a warning sign against the repeat of such today. A Christianity that uses up its energies in internal debates is one heading for a weakened position against external threats to the faith. North Africa is a standing example.

The Church in Africa cannot forget the August 1969 historic visit of Blessed Paul VI to Kampala, Uganda, in which the Great Pope of Evangelii Nuntiandi, Popolurum Progresso, and Humanae Vitae, declared Africa as Christ’s new homeland, and called on the African Church to be missionaries to themselves. To show that a Church has taken roots, we can see indigenous vocations to the priesthood, religious life and the sacrament of marriage. To show that a Church has matured, we can see indigenous bishops. Paul VI saw both in Africa when he launched the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM). The beatification of the Martyrs of Uganda showed the global Church that Africa was already bearing heroic testimony to the name of Jesus.

The most proximate preparation of the Church in Africa toward synod 2015 was certainly the Consultative Meeting of SECAM on the Family held at Accra, Ghana, June 8th to 11th, 2015: The theme of this Consultative Meeting: “The Family in Africa: What Experiences and What Contributions to the XIV Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops?” In response to this question, the African Church decided to base its contributions to Synod 2015 on this platform: God, by forming the first man and woman and commanding them to be fruitful and to multiply (Gen. 1:28) definitively established marriage to be a permanent union between one man and one woman.  Consequently, the family becomes the sanctuary where life is born, nurtured and welcomed as a gift of God. Three things stand out from this decision by the African Church: Firstly, the family is a gift from God. It is not a human invention based on passing whims and caprices. Secondly, this creation of God cannot become obsolete at any point in history. God’s plan for the family, the union between one man and one woman is in need of no aggiornamento. Finally, it is within this gift of family, founded on the complimentary union of man and woman, that another most precious gift, the gift of life, is welcomed and nourished.

To non-African Catholics, it is helpful to note that the Church in Africa is a Church that has matured through much suffering. It is a Church that has been persecuted, with Catholics schools seized by post-colonial governments; church property confiscated; bishops, priests and religious imprisoned or killed, et cetera. Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book, God or Nothing bears eloquent testimony to this fact. The period of independence and the political upheavals that followed many African nations placed the Church often in very challenging situations, especially as missionaries were expelled overnight by new dictators that led many African nations in the post-colonial period. Catholicism in Africa has never been a “State Religion,” favored by any parliament or government. Catholicism in Africa tends to be on the side of the opposition. Its hope lies in Catholics themselves. Opinion pools have never been a priority to the African Church. Cardinal Dolan of New York recently made a very telling distinction between the Suffering Church and the Comfortable Church. It is obvious that a Church that has grown from harsh conditions develops an internal stamina of resistance that is capable of going against the grain.

When the African Church confronted the global Church at Synod 2015, she was conscious that many sectors of the Old Church are facing a crisis of faith in which God has become the Great Absent One; a crisis of pastoral practice; a crisis of education, in which many Catholic colleges have rejected the moral teachings of the Church; a crisis of anthropology and sociology, in which, at a time when there is much talk about conservation and preservation of the natural environment, the human environment is being subjected to all kinds of gender theory and scientific manipulation; the crisis of pastoral practice that is retarded by a culture which Ratzinger once described as an ecclesiastical occupational therapy, in which bureaucracies are set up that become self-serving, with little or no evangelical value; the challenge of the media and language, especially when the great expectation remains: when will Catholicism give in to the editorials of certain sectors of the Western media? These challenges are not unknown to the African Church. She too is conscious of her own challenges: of polygamy, and of divorce, caused by infertility, adultery, domestic violence, in-laws, poverty, HIV-AIDS and religious differences. But she is courageous enough to stand for God’s plan for marriage as recorded in Scripture. She is growing as a Church because she is open to the gift of children. She is courageous about the future of the African Church because she is open to God, and does not presume that the historical-critical method is the normative norm in understanding Scripture. She brings to the global Church the beauty of marriage as between two families, transcending the sense of individualism and particularism that could exclude the valuable support that comes from other family members, especially during moments of crises.

Much has already been written about the Final Report of Synod 2015, which has been handed over to Pope Francis for an eventual post-synodal exhortation. From close observation, it is a far richer document than the Instrumentum Laboris, which was heavily criticized by the Synod Fathers. Regarding the two most-talked about issues by the Western media, that is, the Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried and the Church’s position on gay unions, even critics of the Church have accepted that there was no change in Church doctrine. Vincent of Lerins famously articulated the formula for the interpretation of doctrine: that which has always been believed everywhere, always, and by all. Certainly, the paragraph dealing with the internal forum and conscience for the cases of the civilly divorced, though clear, is insufficient. Cardinal George Pell of Australia has said as much. More precision could have been helpful.

However, it is important to recall that the talk about Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried gives a magical understanding of Communion. Paul of Tarsus is very clear about the examination of conscience before the reception. No one has a “right” to the Eucharist, and receiving Communion in a state of mortal sin does no good to the soul. Paul even told the Corinthians that many of them were sick because of unworthy reception of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:30). The habit, rampant in many Western churches, in which everyone goes to the Eucharist, as a “right” is certainly questionable. If in Germany, for example, sixty-five percent of Catholics do not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus as an objective fact, what is the point of the Eucharist without faith in the Resurrection, granted the intrinsic link between the Resurrected Lord and the Eucharist? If the Eucharist is the grain of wheat that falls to the grown and dies, and by dying bears fruit, (Jn. 12:24), what is the point of a Eucharistic reception that does not call recipients to the embrace of the letting go of the self in the embrace of the gift of children, since children are seen as a burden that must be rejected at all cost?

These questions, and more, are needed to appreciate the fact that Eucharist alone will not solve any problem. It was from the first Eucharistic table that Judas Iscariot left to go for the monies of the religious hierarchy to betray Jesus. The Gospel of the family has been a liberating experience for the Church in Africa. Perhaps as Africa did in the past by saving the Holy Family from the onslaught of Herod, Africa is once again called to saved the contemporary family from contemporary attempts that are so well organized and aimed at destroying the family as God created. This is the challenge for the African Church, for, in the final analysis, only what is true is ultimately pastoral. Only what is true is ultimately merciful.