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Issue Date:  March 10, 2006

Africa and Catholicism

Nigerian archbishop on continent's role in the global church


Probably the most significant force reshaping the contours of global Catholicism today is the population shift from North to South, from the developed to the developing world, amounting to the most sweeping demographic transformation of the Catholic church in its 2,000-year history.

In 1900, at the dawn of the 20th century, there were 459 million Catholics in the world, with 392 million in Europe and North America, and just 67 million scattered across the rest of the planet, principally in Latin America. In 2000, by way of contrast, there were 1.1 billion Catholics in the world, with just 380 million in Europe and North America, and the strong majority, almost 800 million, in the global South.

By 2025, only one Catholic in five in the world will be a non-Hispanic Caucasian.

Africa has witnessed the most explosive growth. In the 20th century, Africa went from a Catholic population of 1.9 million in 1900 to 130 million in 2000, a staggering growth rate of 6,708 percent. Half of all adult baptisms in the world, the surest sign of missionary expansion, are in Africa. Inexorably, pastoral and intellectual energy in the church will follow population, and this means that African leaders are destined to play an increasingly important role in the global church.

No one gives voice to African Catholicism better than Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, the elected president of both the Nigerian bishops’ conference and the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar. In Rome for meetings, Onaiyekan, 62, sat down with NCR Jan. 28 at the headquarters of the Society for African Missions for a wide-ranging conversation about the challenges and opportunities facing African Catholicism. Following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

NCR: In his encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI warns against the involvement of the church in partisan politics. How does that affect the African context, where bishops are often moral authorities called upon to intervene in political debates? For example, you recently spoke bluntly about the need for Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to step down, rather than trying to amend the constitution to seek a third term.
I have only had time to skim the encyclical, and I look forward to reading it closely. In general, however, I would say the question of political involvement depends on how you define “politics.”

If you mean the competition and confrontation between ideologies, the strategies for taking power by people who want to be in political leadership, the question of partisan agendas, and so on, then the church should generally not be involved at that level. These are areas where Catholics should be left free to make up their own minds, because it’s a question simply of differing options, each one valid and legitimate. That’s not to say, however, that as a citizen of my country I ought not to have my own ideas, or to express my own ideas. In the African context, an archbishop is one of the important leaders of thought. I have the right to make my position known, but not to insist that Catholics must follow it.

There are some things, however, that are not a matter of options. Principles of good governance, of democracy, of accountability, of observing the rules of the game, are basic moral concepts which we must defend. If you say you are running a democratic system, we expect you to follow the rules. On these matters, the church is bound to make its voice heard. Luckily, we in the Catholic church draw this broad conception of politics from the social doctrine of the church, which recent popes have been pushing.

In practice, this can be a hard distinction to make. When you stress a matter of principle and you ruffle somebody’s feathers, they accuse you of playing politics. As long as you support them, of course, you’re a great archbishop. In the case of Obasanjo, he was sitting right in front of me as I made these statements. I simply pointed out that our president has insistently said that “I am a democrat, I will not overstay my term by one day.” He’s even quoted his experience of 20 years ago, when he was a military head of state. He said that back then he could have stayed as long as he wanted, but he handed power over to the civilians. Today, he’s not saying anything, but there are rumors that some people want to find a way for him to continue. I simply reminded him of his own statements.

If it comes down to it, and Obasanjo does stand again, I would throw it to the Nigerian people. Let them express themselves in a free and fair election. Do they want this thing to go on? Many of us doubt whether this is the right direction.

You’ve been outspoken on issues of social justice, often critical, for example, of the “structural adjustment programs” imposed by international financial institutions. From what you’ve had time to read, are you troubled by the distinction Benedict makes between charity and justice, suggesting that charity is the direct competence of the church, while justice is largely a matter for the state?
I’m sure the Holy Father would not put it quite like you have. Promoting justice is a fundamental role of the church. The Old Testament, for example, is full of examples. I cannot see any room for doubt about the importance of justice as a major concern of the church.

In fact, I would say, “Before charity, justice first.” If you have not given me what I deserve, and then you give me alms and expect me to say thank you, that’s a form of injustice.

We can’t make such water-tight distinctions in real life. One of the greatest expressions of charity for the laity, in fact, is to go into the struggle for justice. I have been preaching this to our people, trying to help them understand that working for the common good is the apostolate of the laity.

In the context of Africa, this discussion is very important, because many of our people go into politics for the wrong reasons. They seek financial gain, or pride, or vengeance on their enemies. Sometimes they’re looking to settle scores with people they feel have done them injustice. Politicians with the right motives, on the other hand, will not be looting or setting up dictatorial structures to silence everybody. They will be anxious about justice.

Any attempt to separate these two things -- charity and justice -- as if one is for the state and other is for the church is unrealistic. Concern for justice opens up a wide range of channels for positive interaction between church and state.

In the first 20 pages of Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict quotes Western thinkers such as Nietzsche, Descartes, and Plato. Do you ever find yourself thinking, “This is wonderful, but it doesn’t speak to my culture”?
Some authors, such as Kant, Aquinas, even Marx, articulated general truths about human nature, and it’s just a matter of acknowledging that. It doesn’t matter if they’re Western. We can say, “Yes, that’s true” or “No, that’s rubbish.”

In our seminary formation, we expose our seminarians to a wide range of philosophical thought. Originally it was just Thomism, but we have also begun to bring in some traditional African wisdom. The presumption is that human wisdom is human wisdom, wherever it comes from.

In the world of today, ideas move around. European philosophers don’t write just for Europe, but for humanity as a whole. We would hope, however, that the Europeans can recognize that they don’t have a monopoly on wisdom.

Do you look forward to a day when a papal encyclical will begin by citing an African proverb rather than a line from Nietzsche?
This has mostly to do with the mechanisms of such situations. I don’t see anything stopping the pope from citing African proverbs. This will come as we have some good Africans among the drafters of the encyclicals who are familiar with our traditional wisdom.

One of the difficulties with our wisdom is that it’s largely oral rather than written.

See, up until very recently you basically had to be with an old man who would say it to you. There are now more efforts to preserve it.

When Benedict quotes Nietzsche and Descartes, these are the people with whom he’s familiar, and I don’t believe that’s an accident. We must start with the faith position that, apart from anything else, it’s the Holy Spirit who is behind who emerges as pope. As soon as this pope was elected, the first thing that came to my mind was that the greatest challenge facing the Catholic church today is how to restore the spirit of the church to this technological, advanced, powerful Western world that is Europe and America. It’s as if the Holy Spirit chose somebody who can address the culture in its own language, drawing on its own philosophers, both good and bad. He’s someone who can command curious attention, if not acceptance, from Western culture -- a culture that has taken certain terrible decisions which, at the end of the day, affect us all.

To be blunt, when Ratzinger critiques German theological currents or the European Union and its philosophical positions, it has an impact. If an African pope were to say the same things, people would say, “He’s an African, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” No one can doubt this pope’s intellectual and cultural credentials.

Even with John Paul II, there was sometimes an undercurrent of dismissal. People said he’s been in Poland all this time, he’s trying to force the church into a kind of Polish model. I don’t think that was true, but it was said. No one will be able to make such a case for Benedict XVI.

If this pope can find a way to help the Western world recover a sense of God, and to try to reflect it in public life, it would be a great blessing for Europe and for the rest of us.

What impressions do you believe Africans have of the role of the United States in global affairs?
There isn’t just one judgment, in one direction. Even the policies of your President Bush are wonderful in some areas and, at least according to me, horrible in others. I believe that most Africans have a basically positive feeling toward the United States. They admire Americans not just for their power, but also because Americans have done very good things in Africa through their various programs of assistance.

On the other hand, when we begin to look at some decisions that seem to reflect a sense of responsibility for the entire world, perhaps made with every good intention, they don’t go down well with many people. There’s a feeling of a sense of arrogance behind American policy. Put simplistically, some people wonder, “Is it because you have the atomic bomb that you think we must agree with you? What gives you the right to decide that the elected government in a particular country must change?”

We in Africa are used to regime changes, and in our experience most of it has been due to external influences rather than popular desire. The difference, however, is that in the past the “regime change” was carried out by the CIA on the ground, and you didn’t hear anything about it from the White House or the Pentagon. If anything, they would deny that Americans were involved. What worries us today is that now “regime change” is said out loud, as a clear instrument of policy. Nobody’s hiding the fact that America simply decided, “Saddam must go.”

Many Africans ask, “What gives you the right to decide that Saddam Hussein was not legitimately elected?” The funnier ones would add, “And how did the 2000 elections go in America?”

It’s not that we like dictatorships, or that we support a head of state gassing his own people. The question is who decides? America has got to realize that not everybody may share its view. Of course, America is very big, very diverse, and there are many people there who have these same concerns. We are watching this debate carefully.

All of this raises the very delicate issue of global governance. Technologically, we are living in a totally globalized world, so no matter where you are you receive the same e-mails and so on. Politically, however, we are still operating on the basis of nation-states. There is no system for the whole world to act together.

The United Nations seems to be the best solution to this dilemma, along with related bodies such as the International Court of Justice -- which the United States, by the way, has still not joined. The problem cannot be solved on the basis of one strong power dictating to everybody else.

I don’t see a new system emerging quickly, but it’s still a dream that should be upheld.

Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. You’ve criticized American imperialism. Skeptics, however, might say that the United States could vanish from the world stage tomorrow, and until Africans can generate a better class of leaders -- people who aren’t corrupt, with a sense of the common good -- your problems will continue.
Those who speak like this clearly don’t understand the situation on the ground in these so-called “corrupt countries.” The kind of corruption we have now was never possible when everything depended upon the tribe. It simply couldn’t happen that a king could steal the money of his tribe and send it thousands of miles away to keep it for his family. African corruption would not have been possible without the cooperation of the very people who are now complaining about it.

Further, the West could help stop the corruption if it was a real concern. It’s not possible that a young man from Nigeria can transfer a half-million dollars to deposit in a bank in any European country, and the regulatory authorities in that country aren’t aware of it. They must know where this money came from. They track suspect transactions all the time, so why do they make an exception for stolen money from Africa? In the past the United States would tell us that banks are free, but with the War on Terror, they now track every cent coming into the country.

If the West stops doing business with corrupt governments, they will fall. Africans try to bring these governments down, but often they fail because the governments are sustained and upheld by foreign businesses who believe they can better do business with the corrupt leaders. Very often, those leaders are not interested in doing hard bargaining for the good of their people, but simply in lining their own pockets.

It’s a myth to say that a poor, weak country is completely free to do whatever it likes. There are potentates who do whatever they like to their own people, and who follow instructions from the rich forces who sustain them. These powers from the outside world could have been deployed to help us get better governments, but it’s not happening.

I’ll give you an example. In 2003, we had elections in Nigeria. It was well done in some places, and a sham in others. We have 36 states, and in some there was clearly no election at all, and the so-called winners were imposed. People were so discouraged that in the elections for parliament the next week, many didn’t even bother to go to the polls. The Catholic church raised its voice in a public statement, based in part on our work of organizing election monitors. Misereor [a charitable fund of the German bishops] gave us funds to organize the observations, and two days after the election we offered our conclusions. In some places it wasn’t difficult to do, because the monitors sat by the polling place all day and no ballot box ever arrived, and then that night on TV the winners were proclaimed. An EU monitoring team reached exactly the same conclusion we did.

Yet less then a week later, the EU sent letters of congratulation to the people who had won these fraudulent elections. That was very disappointing. If the EU or the United States had insisted we can’t accept this election, we probably would have gotten something better. But the outside powers calculated that they were doing good business with these people. Often this sort of thing doesn’t depend just on the ambassador. The major corporations, such as the oil companies, play a big role.

Will the astounding growth in the African Catholic church continue?
It can’t continue at 6,000 percent forever. At some point, you’re saturated. But some growth will no doubt continue.

I don’t believe there’s any natural way of explaining this phenomenon. What we’ve seen is an explosion of God’s grace on our continent. God doesn’t work such miracles for no reason, so the question is, what is God’s challenge to us?

The reality is that the great majority of our people live day-in, day-out in poverty. In that context, we can’t just fold our arms and pray our rosaries, although we pray our rosaries very well. I believe it’s God’s purpose that the church will be a factor for making sure that God’s will is done, that our people achieve a better future and enjoy at least a minimum degree of human dignity. I say this not just for the Catholics, but all people.

Of course, I’m not a prophet, I’m just an archbishop. I concentrate on what I can do in the here and now, while doing my best to project a little bit into the future. One problem is that our resources and structures are not keeping pace with the growth in numbers. We have far more priests than we did 100 years ago, for example, but due to the growth in the faithful, the priests-to-people ratio is actually worse than it was 100 years ago.

Does that mean the idea of a “reverse mission,” with African priests compensating for the shortages in Europe and North America, is unlikely?
You should not count on it. For one thing, we don’t have a surplus of priests. They’re needed for normal pastoral care. More deeply, however, it must be the primary duty of the European and North American church to renew its own inner church life, and to decide what God is asking them to do regarding vocations to the priesthood and religious life. I believe that God never leaves his church without pastors.

Anyway, African priests cannot do the kind of work that Ratzinger has to do, engaging Western culture on its own terms.

Do you have other reservations about the “reverse mission”?
We’re not against sending missionaries, in fact we are prepared to do that. But we have to be careful. Paul and Barnabas went to preach to the pagans, which is not quite the same thing as sending priests to Dublin.

What we don’t want is to get into a Gastarbeiter situation, where a European priest feels overwhelmed having to say three Masses on Sunday and wants a black man to say one of them. Surely this is not where the church wants to go, getting poor people to do jobs that the rich don’t want to do, as today happens in other walks of life.

African Christianity has a reputation for a strongly traditional sexual morality, as we see in current tensions within the Anglican Communion over the ordination of an openly gay bishop. Is that an accurate perception?
I would put it differently. The virulent and strong currents that have tried, and almost succeeded, in pushing a nontraditional view of sexuality -- on homosexuality, abortion, and so on -- are actually quite circumscribed, even if they’re in circles that are very powerful. It’s not only the Africans who are complaining, but it’s the Asians too, and the Latin Americans. It’s not as if the Africans are the only ones who hold these views. We are the mainstream, not them. So why are they doing this? The onus lies upon them to explain why they are doing something new. It’s a very heavy onus to explain how it is that for 2,000 years the church somehow did not understand what Jesus meant.

Some observers say that as Africa develops economically, secularism will take hold there too, and in the end you’ll think like the West.
That’s a very arrogant position to hold. It seems to say that if you’re not wealthy and powerful, you’re a fool. This is absolute rubbish.

In the church, where the Spirit guides, surely there can be a different scenario. It’s not predestined that there must be a change in morals, meaning that things must go along these lines. Many Africans look at the powerful, developed world, with all its money, and see the implications. We do not yet see the paradise to which we are supposed to aspire. It doesn’t seem that people are happier.

In fact, we’re beginning to see the repercussions of the denial of the natural law of God, of an exaggerated emphasis on the freedom to enjoy sex in whatever way without consequences. Some countries are very worried about declining fertility rates. It is affecting the whole system of pensions and social security, as you have an aging population being supported by fewer and fewer young workers. The triangle is upside down. Further, the elderly are aging and not dying, due to modern science. Since people no longer have any thought about Heaven and an eternal reward, they cling as long as they can to this world. We are witnessing all of this, and the more of it we see, the less we like it.

We don’t have to go the same route. Those Africans who immigrate to Europe and who enjoy its prosperity are still having children, for example. They want to have children. This is part of the situation with the Muslims in France, who have refused to accept this ideology. There are some French schools with 30 children in a class, 20 of whom are Muslims. This has some French frightened.

Speaking of Islam, in Nigeria you have had very direct experience of Christian/Muslim tensions, with bitter fights over the application of Shariah law in the northern states. What has that experience taught you about Christian-Islamic dialogue?
What has happened in Nigeria is that the conflict provoked by an Islamic agenda has brought out in very clear terms what the dynamics before us are. The single greatest factor in the conflict is Shariah, and we’re in the fifth year of its application. In the last five years, it’s become very clear to most Nigerians that most of these conflicts are politically manipulated. The promoters of Shariah are not motivated by the love of Allah, but because it’s one way of getting an edge over non-Muslims. In other words, it’s a selfish political agenda.

Our conflicts are not over theology, but issues often cloaked in theology that have social, economic, and political implications. If you control the law, you control the people. Non-Muslims have nothing against Islam, but they’re not willing to accept that one must be a Muslim in order to have full rights under the law.

It’s interesting that for the most part, it’s not the religious leaders pushing for Shariah, but the Muslim politicians. Christians have seen this very clearly, and have learned not to allow the politicians to manipulate things in this direction.

In the meantime, Christian leaders are seeking genuine Islamic partners with whom to talk.

Are you finding them?
It’s not so easy to do. There are no bishops in Islam. I can find a theologian who may have brilliant ideas, but he has no pastoral authority. We can meet with the emirs and sultans, but often they have very little theological preparation.

The politicians often get their fuel not from the emirs and sultans, but the imams, who are sometimes young, hotheaded Islamic fanatics. Many have studied in Iran, Afghanistan, at Al-Azhar in Egypt. These imams have a power base among the poor people.

The emirs originally didn’t like the Shariah, and they claim to be the legitimate leaders of the Muslims, pointing to the caliphate that existed for 200 years. They’re often skeptical of what they call the “little preachers” in the squares. The imams, meanwhile, say there’s no room for emirs and sultans, that the Quran makes no provision for these offices. The governors who are elected in Muslim-majority regions need popular support and generally line up with the imams. The emirs thus end up going along with the currents. One told me personally that he was opposed to Shariah, but if he said so publicly, they would burn down his palace tomorrow.

By the way, the Christians don’t have a common position either. There’s a wide gulf between the relatively positive view of Islam of Catholics, and those Pentecostals and evangelicals who say that Allah is nothing more than an idol in the Arabian desert. That complicates things.

Why do the radical imams have a popular following?
Extreme ideas are generally popular, especially among the poor. These imams give straightforward answers to every problem. The poor Muslims in northern Nigeria were told that Nigeria is in trouble because we have abandoned God’s law, and that after the Shariah was adopted, there would be no more corruption and no more poverty in the land. The poor are now asking, when will this paradise come?

For just that reason, I don’t think the politicians will be able to use the Shariah in the next election.

Do you believe there is such as thing as “moderate Islam”?
Certainly. In Nigeria, we are divided practically 50-50 between Christians and Muslims, and I would say that 80 percent on each side are simply struggling for their daily bread. They’re not thinking about Christian-Muslim difficulties. What we have to deal with are small groups on both sides. With time, we should be able to liberate religion from political manipulation. It won’t be easy, but I’m looking forward to it.

On average, we have a Christian/Muslim clash maybe two days out of the year, but it will certainly get the attention of CNN and the BBC. It’s too bad they don’t bother to find out what we do the other 363 days of the year. We suffer together, and face the same political issues. The dividing line between oppressors and oppressed cuts through both groups. Religion is not the problem; it’s people with another agenda.

John L. Allen is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2006

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