The Catholic Church in Africa is experiencing the fastest growth in the 2,000-year history of Christianity. In 1900 there were perhaps 1.9 million Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa. Now there are an estimated 160 million. Twenty percent of the world’s seminarians are studying in Africa. Since the First Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops in 1994, over 250 new bishops have been installed and 70 new dioceses created.
This numerical growth is spectacular and parish life in many places is robust, but any assessment of the quality of church life must also look at the impact Catholics are having on society. That is what the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops will be doing during its meeting in Rome from Oct. 4 to 25 under the theme “The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace.” As the synod’s preparatory document recommends, “[the church] ought not to retire into herself…. She is to venture forth…carrying out her mission ad gentes.”
The preparatory document for the synod points to political and social progress in a number of nations, like Ghana, Liberia, Rwanda and South Africa. The overall desire for democracy and better government remains strong, it notes, even if in many nations the reality remains far off. Instability and conflict, it reports, persist in Zimbabwe and Sudan, in the tribal conflicts in the eastern Congo, and in Somalia, where a fragile government still holds on. Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, suffers from unrelenting violence in the Niger Delta area and from ineffective national government everywhere. Economically the global recession has added to the burden of Africa’s poor. Their numbers increasingly include environmental refugees fleeing the desertification apparently caused by global warming. Finally, China is Africa’s new investment partner, but it operates according to an economic model that exploits natural resources and cheap, local labor.
One positive sign of the times is the Catholic involvement in peacemaking. Many African bishops have led local and national peacemaking initiatives. In addition, international agencies like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Internationalis have added peacebuilding to their historic work in relief and development. The Sant’Egidio Community, which helped bring a civil war to an end in Mozambique in 1992, is now at work in Darfur and eastern Congo. Successful peacemaking, however, requires that the church’s initiatives reach down to the grass roots. It needs effective justice and peace commissions in parishes and dioceses to address human rights problems— particularly those of women—to prepare for and oversee free and fair elections and to oppose corruption in government and business.
The conviction is growing worldwide that Africa must solve its own problems, and there is increasing resistance to outside intervention. The solutions to Africa’s problems, the bishops believe, must come from Africa. On the one hand, continued reliance on the international community, the United Nations and international nongovernmental organizations to solve Africa’s problems results in a crippling dependency. On the other, African governments have been increasingly suspicious that the Responsibility to Protect, a principle articulated by the United Nations and by Pope Benedict XVI, invites big-power meddling in African affairs. But, truth to tell, peacekeeping troops from the African Union have had only limited success in responding to crisis situations. These missions have been under-resourced in equipment and personnel, and narrow mandates and rules of engagement have hampered their effectiveness.
In addition, in a number of cases, notably Zimbabwe and Sudan, African leaders have shown an appalling lack of will to police trouble in their own neighborhood. In addressing the needs of peace in the region, it would be wise for the synod to remind African leaders of Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching in his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, that the Responsibility to Protect begins with governments’ responsibility to the common good in their own countries. It is only failure to fulfill that duty that invites outside intervention, whether regional or international. At the same time, the international community needs to be reminded of its duty to support humanitarian interventions with ample supplies and adequate legal authority to protect the innocent, curb violence and establish peace.
In the words of the synod’s working document “The mission to serve peace will consist in building peace in each member of the body of Christ, so that everyone might become new men and women, capable of being engaged in the peace process in Africa.” As the number of Catholics continues to grow sharply in Africa, so must the church at the same time intensify its efforts in service to reconciliation, justice and peace.