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  • John Thavis

The African factor and consensus-building at the synod

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

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.

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