The African factor and consensus-building at the synod

The African factor and consensus-building at the synod

As this session of the Synod of Bishops moves toward its conclusion, the heated discussion inside the hall has highlighted a fault line that runs through Africa.

Two interviews over the last 24 hours outline the issue.

(UPDATE below, Pope names South African Cardinal Napier to commission preparing final synod relatio.)

(SECOND UPDATE: Cardinal Kasper has now denied making the remarks reported below, and says he is "shocked" that they are being attributed to him. The link to the news agency Zenit's article now gives an error message; apparently they've removed the article. This raises serious issues about manipulation of information at this synod, especially considering that Cardinal Mueller issued a similar denial today about calling the midterm relatio "shameful," which had also been reported. If these are invented interviews, accreditation needs to be pulled.)

(THIRD UPDATE: Tape shows +Kasper did talk to reporter about Africa. I can only assume he was "shocked" to see his rather fragmentary phrases turned into a cardinal-disses-Africa meme.)

German Cardinal Walter Kasper spoke to the news agency Zenit about the synod’s effort to reach out to gay people in a new and more open fashion, and said that bishops in Africa and Muslim countries have a very different point of view.

“The problem, as well, is that there are different problems of different continents and different cultures. Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo. For us, we say we ought not to discriminate, we don’t want to discriminate in certain respects,” Kasper said.

Kasper went on to suggest that while African bishops may have their qualms, they “mustn’t tell us too much what to do.” In other words, their view should not hold the rest of the synod back, and a more welcoming language to gay people should not be blocked simply because it wouldn't play well in Africa.

His remarks have caught the attention of conservative critics, who have suggested a tone of condescension and even racism in the German cardinal’s remarks. The interview was obviously conducted on the fly, and I won’t dissect it (that was done here by Grant Gallicho), but I think Kasper was simply stating a fact, not necessarily trying to muzzle the Africans.

This morning, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera carried an interview with Bishop Nicolas Djomo Lola of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who reacted to the midterm relatio’s call to find “positive elements” in irregular and gay unions as a step toward evangelization.

“No bishop and no church in the world is saying that homosexuality is a good thing,” Bishop Djomo said.

He laid out the argument often made by African bishops: that the continent is being re-colonized by Western aid and financial organizations, which “make aid to poor countries conditional on attitudes toward homosexuality. They even impose this line: if you want aid, they say, you have to accept gender ideology and gay marriage. And that’s no good.”

All this sounds very familiar to my ears. Similar points have been made in previous synods, when African opposition has been used to neutralize calls for a new pastoral perspective. In particular, at the 2009 special synod on Africa, many bishops warned that the African sense of family was threatened by Western ideas about divorce, homosexuality and gender identity.

The fault line in this synod goes beyond sexuality, I think. Africans may well feel that the midterm relatio gave short shrift to some big concerns on their continent, including war, poverty and economic exploitation. I would guess that African participants are also miffed that the commission named to consider revisions for the final relatio did not include an African.

UPDATE: The Vatican announced today that the pope has named an African, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, who had distanced himself from much of the midterm relatio, to the preparation commission of the final document. Also named was an Australian, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne.

This synod is clearly a test of Pope Francis’ new pastoral directions, but it’s also a test of his consensus-building skills, and the African question is not going to be an easy one to resolve.

2 comments (Add your own)

Thank you John for your continued coverage of the Synod and the updates. As an African writing from Kenya, I can give my 5 cent worth of insight. It is not as if the Catholic Church in Africa is worlds apart from the one in the Western world, though there are some differences. My view here is that we are constantly fighting to protect the image of the Catholic Church in the eyes of evangelicals, pentecostals and many others. It is not about taboos as such, but about keeping the remaining Catholics, in Church. These other churches are always on the lookout for any form of 'apostasy' from the Roman Catholic Church. They will jump at 'it' and declare: 'We told you, your Church is being led by a false prophet, and that is why we left the Catholic Church blah blah blah..' Now tell me, what will happen when news comes out that the Catholic Church, supported by Pope Francis, has declared that homosexual relationships have some positive values. The evangelicals and others will immediately open their bibles and quote dozens of verses condemning homosexual relationships. They will then move on to try and prove that the pope is none other than the prophesied false prophet, meant to deceive the world. How then do weak Catholics, and even strong ones, survive such an onslaught?

Therefore, in my opinion, the African bishops are aware of the constant accusations against the Catholic Church, based on the arguments of Reformation. They are not ready to lose any other members to the protestant denominations. Of course it is common knowledge that a good number of members in those churches are former Catholics. Remember also that the world is currently facing many crises, from conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East, to Ebola. We also know that most members of various protestant denominations are preoccupied with end time prophecies. This is so even in the Western world. Just read the comments on various posts on Yahoo, and you will see how they conclude that indeed we are in the end times. And they are very good in reaching these conclusions when something is mentioned about the Catholic Church/the Pope. This means that any signs of 'false teachings/prophesies' from this Synod, especially on homosexuality, will send a good number of Catholics out of the Church, into protestantism, and this won't just be in Africa. Just read comments from mostly Americans, on various blogs, and you see some people saying that they do not see themselves living under false teachings; that they would rather become Atheists or leave the Church. Now, such people are saying that, even before evangelicals have 'alerted' them about Pope Francis being the prophesied 'false prophet' etc. That is not different from Africa. Currently, Africa has vibrant evangelical/pentecostal churches, who are not willing to take any prisoners. They will give verse after verse, explaining how the Roman Catholic Church is nothing but a false church and they will go away with some followers, just as it happens in America, Europe and Latin America. That is why African bishops, and indeed others like Cardinal Raymond, Muller and the head of the Polish Episcopal Conference, do not want fuel to be added to fire. They want a document that illustrates clear understanding and respect for scriptures as well as known Church teaching. Anything insinuating acceptance and encouragement of sin, will give fodder to the belief that the Catholic Church is a false church, led by a false prophet, camouflaging himself as a sheep but is a wolf.

That is my opinion, as an African who knows the local 'spiritual' demography and dynamics.

Thank you and God bless.

Thu, October 16, 2014 @ 7:19 AM

2. Lowell Rinker wrote:
I'm encouraged and hopeful...while I think church doctrine should change, I know it won't. That being said, if we truly believe that God loves us all, in spite of our individual warts and wrinkles, then we should have a church demeanor and culture that reflects that. Even if the church doctrine doesn't change, there should be room for all of us in this big tent we call Catholicism.

Thu, October 16, 2014 @ 7:36 AM

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