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Issue Date:  March 10, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

Africa's emerging church

It is with great pleasure that we highlight Africa this week in a way that is perhaps too seldom the case: as a growing force that will, in the near future, by sheer dint of numbers if nothing else, help reshape Catholicism as we know it.

In his introduction to an engaging and far-reaching conversation with Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Nigeria, John Allen does the numbers:

“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.”

Bishop Onaiyekan is an appealing spokesman for the emerging church in Africa. He doesn’t shrink from questions about difficult areas of politics and interfaith issues that constitute Africa’s complex reality.

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Though it is a much smaller piece, I think it is worthy of note that 19 priests in Quebec have signed a public letter objecting to the latest Vatican document on the admission of gays to the priesthood. It is a timely challenge, given Archbishop William Levada’s emphasis of and expansion on the theme with the assertion about priests who reveal they are gay. “I think we must ask,” Levada said in a recent talk ( see story), “ ‘Does such a priest recognize how this act places an obstacle to his ability to represent Christ the bridegroom to his bride, the people of God? Does he not see how his declaration places him at odds with the spousal character of love as revealed by God and imaged in humanity?’ ”

I am by no stretch a theologian, so one might reasonably accuse me of impertinence at raising an issue with the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. However, while recognizing that the bridegroom image is hardly new, doesn’t such use of it raise biblical metaphor to an excessively literal level?

I find the points raised by the Quebec priests noteworthy, particularly the observation that not one phrase in the Vatican document “takes into account the historical discrimination suffered by homosexual persons and the tragedy of the exclusion deeply felt by many of them from both society and the church.”

The priests also note that the search for understanding of the human person is never finished. While the letter writers are, in my view, extreme in the contention that there is “nothing given” about the human condition, certainly we don’t know all there is to know about human sexuality, and perhaps our language could reflect some caution when consigning entire groups of people to an absolute proscription.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2006

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