What African theologians will mean to the future of the Catholic Church
Upon the death of the Rev. Bénézet Bujo last week in Switzerland, the 83-year-old Congolese ethicist was lauded in Vatican News by Bishop Melchisédek Sikuli Paluku of the diocese of Butembo-Béni in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as “one of the pioneers of African theology.” The author of numerous books and countless articles in the field of theological ethics with a particular focus on African cultures, Bujo was a professor emeritus and the former vice-rector of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.
Bujo’s death comes just a year after the death of the Rev. Laurenti Magesa, a Tanzanian scholar who was equally prominent in the field of African theology. When Magesa died in 2022, the Rev. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J. (a Nigerian-born Jesuit who is now the dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, Calif.) called him one of the “towering personalities in fields of human endeavor” who can be “likened to a giant tree in the forest” that has fallen. Magesa wrote frequently and prolifically on the need for an African-centered Christianity that did not have to assume a European cultural background as a given.“Africans cannot come to the Christian faith in a cultural vacuum and should not be expected to,” he wrote in The Post-Conciliar Church in Africa: No Turning Back the Clock.
Laurenti Magesa: “Africans cannot come to the Christian faith in a cultural vacuum and should not be expected to."
Along with the Rev. Jean-Marc Ela (who died in 2008), Bujo and Magesa were what one prominent American ethicist called “the three senior moralists of Africa,” ethics scholars who brought a uniquely African perspective to a field long dominated by Europeans and, more recently, American scholars. Just four years ago, the scholar widely recognized as the exemplar of African theology, the Kenyan-born Rev. John Mbiti, died at the age of 87. The death of the Kenyan feminist ethicist Teresia Mbari Hinga earlier this year was another loss for a theological community that has emerged over the last few decades as a leading voice in ethics, liberation theology, ecological theology, ecclesiology and more.
In August 2014, I had the opportunity while working as an editor at Orbis Books to attend the second of three annual conferences in Nairobi, Kenya of the Theological Colloquium on Church, Religion and Society in Africa. After the first of those conferences, A. E. Orobator—one of the event’s organizers—noted in America that among those participating in the conference, “the majority received their doctorates in theology less than five years ago. This means that a new generation of African theologians has emerged, primed to receive the mantle from the more seasoned generation of theologians who negotiated the transition from a colonial church to a truly African church, but ready to steer this church in a new and exciting direction.”
The Catholic Church in Africa is also experiencing explosive growth: It has more than tripled in size since 1965, and religious practice is dramatically higher across the continent than in North America or Europe. And anyone looking at the backgrounds of those participating in the October meeting of the Synod on Synodality in Rome can see how much more prominent African voices have become in the life of the church than in its Eurocentric past.
African theologians have also offered powerful correctives to a Rome-centered theology over the years. In a 1986 America article responding to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s indictment of liberation theology in its “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation,” the theologian Alfred T. Hennelly, S.J., turned to Laurenti Magesa’s work in his lament of the document’s soft-pedaling of social and structural sin. Praising Magesa for “the best depiction I have found of the profound primary evil of social sin,” he quoted him at length:
The worst type of sin, in fact the only ‘mortal sin’ which has enslaved man for the greater part of his history, is the institutionalized sin. Under the institution, vice appears to be, or is actually turned into, virtue. Apathy toward evil is thus engendered; recognition of sin becomes totally effaced; sinful institutions become absolutized, almost idolized… recognition of sin, and therefore repentance for sin, is made practically impossible when sin is idolized as an institution.
Magesa’s insight—and its powerful indictment of exactly the kind of personalized morality that the C.D.F. document seemed to endorse—did not necessarily come from his study of Latin American liberation theologians, however. One might note that already by 1980, Bénézet Bujo was writing on the need to stress orthopraxy along with orthodoxy in Les exigences du message évangélique. Further, there are obvious parallels between Magesa’s indictment and the work of many other African theologians who emphasize the role of the community in religious and spiritual life, including the aforementioned Jean-Marc Ela.
Ela, noting the cultural and economic impoverishment that colonial structures brought to so many Africans, turned in books like My Faith as an African to the Gospels for scriptural support for liberative theologies in his advocacy for underprivileged and marginalized communities. Christianity would be credible in Africa, he argued, only when African Christians were free of the structures of exploitation that had accompanied the arrival and establishment of the colonial church. The same conclusion was reached by many liberation theologians, to be sure—but from a somewhat different cultural and historical milieu.
In 2020, Bénézet Bujo published Quelle Eglise pour un christianisme authentiquement africain? Universalité dans la diversité. (Roughly translated as “Which church for an authentically African Christianity? Universality in diversity,” it has not yet been translated into English.) In an interview with Vatican News the next year, he explained one of his motivations for writing it: the 1969 exhortation of Pope Paul VI to African Christians on his visit to Kampala, Uganda, in which the pope noted that “the church of Christ is well and truly planted in this blessed soil” and that Africans were now missionaries themselves. It is a reality to which not only the theological academy can attest, but many American and European Catholics in the pews as well, if for no other reason than the “blessed reflex,” the presence of so many African priests and men and women now evangelizing both continents.
It reminded me of something I wrote back in 2014, after visiting Nairobi and meeting so many young African theologians. I thought of Hilaire Belloc’s claim a century ago that “the church is Europe, and Europe is the church,” and wondered: “Might some future pundit turn Belloc’s now-quaint parochialism on its head, and note that ‘The faith is Africa, and Africa is the faith’?”
Might some future pundit turn Belloc’s now-quaint parochialism on its head, and note that ‘The faith is Africa, and Africa is the faith’?
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James T. Keane