In the Catholic Church we held to the principle of inculturation of the Faith, particularly since Vatican II… but only so far! We are always caught in the uneasy balance between Unity (sometimes read as Uniformity) and Diversity (sometimes called heterodoxy or heresy). How far can we make accommodations in practices or beliefs? Not as much as some might want, or as some might need.
The Church may define the parameters of acceptability, but the Church of God in Africa will define their own parameters in practice, with or without the consent of the hierarchy (or indeed of the theologians!). This should not be read as a statement of rebellion or dissent, but as a statement of fact. The strategies that are used are known to us all, though maybe we prefer not to talk about it.
Behind this ambivalence I detect something different in Pope Benedict. He seems aware that he is treading on tricky ground (because after all its sacred ground) and, to me at least, to be suggesting that a new conversation be opened up between Catholicism and African traditional religion, beyond that which has already been opened. If my reading is right this can only be a hopeful sign.
I am a little less hopeful when it comes to the Pope’s understanding of family and gender in Africa. While making all the important points about the need for gender equality, for respect and piety within the family, my sense is that he operates out of a fairly western notion of the normativity of the nuclear family, though extended to include grandparents and elder relatives. Good, valuable and necessary though this is, I sense it no longer reflects the sociological reality of much of family life, even in Africa. My experience of parish life in South Africa tells me that we are seeing a range of different kinds of family today: nuclear and extended, but also single parent families, families ‘amalgamated’ by divorce and remarriage, and even child-led families.
Whatever one thinks of these new arrangements, they are here to stay. The Church can’t wish them away, nor should we. It would have been a major achievement if Pope Benedict had suggested how we might exercise pastoral ministry in this new circumstance which for many parts of Africa is a recent phenomenon.
On gender too, I would have liked to see a more rigorous analysis of the role of women in the new Africa. Given the change in family life, and the shifts in political and economic realities , women now play a far more diversified role in society. For all our progress we in the Church still think of women in, at base, ‘wife and mother’ categories. Our pastoral experience is telling us something else, however. In Africa this is further complicated by a residual patriarchy that African feminist theologians remind us is still there. Benedict seems to hint at this, but does not take it forward. Perhaps what the Church needs—all of us—is an African Woman’s Synod to address these challenges which will only grow as Africa’s place in the global economy increases.
The Second African Synod and now Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Exhortation are important contributions to the debate on the meaning of being Catholic in contemporary Africa. As critical theological reflections on the state of the continent and the Church on the continent, they have raised important issues and more than a few challenges. Already a group of theologians led by the Jesuit Provincial of East Africa, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, have published a series of reflections on the Synod — Reconciliation, Justice, and Peace: The Second African Synod (Maryknoll,N.Y./Nairobi: Orbis Books/Acton Publishers, 2011) — where they started to tease out some of the problems the Synod raised. This effort is just the beginning. It is also very much an academic exercise; however rooted in pastoral reality. As I have suggested in this rather hurried and provisional first response to Pope Benedict’s Exhortation, the Synod and the Exhortation raise as many questions as they offer answers. This should not be seen as a problem, least of all failure, but as an opportunity and an invitation to deeper and wider dialogue. We need to go deeper into the questions that are raised, and we need the dialogue over the questions to be widened to the whole Catholic community of Africa.
Read part 1 of this article here.