Hasty conclusions

Ten African Cardinalsby Sally Ninham

Connor Court Publishing. 376p $29.95

The old maxim states that you should never judge a book by its cover. But in the case of Sally Ninham’s Ten African Cardinals, the cover lends ample insight into the book’s content. On the front are four miniature snapshots from Africa, mostly of children. On the back cover is a giant image of Sally Ninham herself. Likewise, Ten African Cardinals provides considerable insight into Dr. Ninham’s personal encounter with Africa but considerably less insight into the complex reality of today’s African Catholic Church or the men who lead it.

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In this regard, Ten African Cardinals reads best as a personal memoir and “insider/outsider” travel narrative. Dr. Ninham’s introduction describes her own “outsider” status in great detail. To summarize, she is a white, upper-middle class, highly educated wife and mother of five, a religious skeptic living in a secularized Australian context. She has undertaken the task of interviewing her polar opposites—10 African Catholic male church leaders serving deeply religious African societies. In the process of interviewing “her cardinals,” visiting Africa and writing the book, Ninham experiences something akin to a spiritual awakening. By the end of her journey, she has become increasingly critical of her own post-1960s Western cultural assumptions. As she writes, “discovering the limitations in my thinking has been a grand adventure and a privilege. I have travelled into my own heart of darkness and back out into the light of Africa, trying to prove my worth as a writer and as a woman, but learning that the only thing that really matters is love.”

Each of the main chapters of Ten African Cardinals adopts a similar structure. Dr. Ninham begins by offering a demographic and statistical profile of each cardinal’s country before delving into a brief history of the local Catholic church. Ninham then narrates her dogged efforts to track down each coveted interview subject and (where applicable) her experience in the African country. Each chapter ends with a transcript of her interview with the respective African cardinal.

To be sure, Ninham’s work includes many valuable insights. Drawing heavily from the late British Catholic historian Adrian Hastings, Ninham’s opening chapter offers an accessible synthesis of Catholic history in Africa, explaining the church’s remarkable 20th-century growth in terms of both Western modernization and African inculturation. Her conversations with Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala of Uganda and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana reveal the captivating personalities of two dynamic postcolonial Catholic leaders.

Interviews with Cardinal José Marion Dos Santos and Archbishop Jaime Pedro Gonçalves of Mozambique offer fascinating personal insight into the Catholic hierarchy’s mediating role in ending Mozambique’s brutal civil war in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (The image of a Catholic bishop riding a motorbike into the bush to negotiate with rebel leaders is a memorable one.) Even less conciliatory figures like Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria are drawn with full brushstrokes. As was true for many of Ninham’s interview subjects, international immersion served a critical role in shaping Arinze’s identity as a Catholic leader, even as these experiences produced a degree of cultural and geographic alienation from his own Nigerian roots.

Ninham’s interviews are uneven, however. Her chapter on Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa largely ignores the local Catholic Church’s engagement with apartheid in the late 20th-century, one of the more fascinating narratives in modern Catholic history. Her interview with Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea lacks depth, and the chapter on Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo of Congo should have been cut all together. Not only did Ninham fail to obtain an interview with Monsengwo, but her analysis of the Congolese war through the lens of Hutu power propaganda is dangerously misinformed. She spends much of her chapter on Cardinal Bernard Agré of Ivory Coast interviewing another local bishop, Raymond Ahoua. Ahoua is especially adept at putting Ninham on the defensive, helping to ensure that Ninham uncritically parrots Ahoua’s views to a broader audience.

“The truths I assumed were self-evident about Africa were quite fairly, and indeed brazenly, depicted by Ahoua as an expression of arrogance, a mask for personal insecurity, fear and ignorance that derived from my Western, feminist origins.” Again, one learns much here about Ninham’s own intellectual journey, and her self-critical awareness should be commended. But the lingering question is whether Ahoua’s own analysis is above reproach simply because he represents the “African other.”

In her conclusion, Ninham moves too quickly to synthesize the voices of the African cardinals. Instead of reflecting on the evident theological and pastoral differences between figures like Arinze and Wamala, Ninham forces all of them into one metanarrative, arguing that Africa’s Catholic cardinals have adopted “a single approach to human suffering and human struggle that derives from Catholic doctrine.” Rhetoric trumps reality as Ninham descends into hagiography: “they [the cardinals] alone understand the extent of their challenges at home”; “all have taken brave stands to keep their governments honest”; “indeed they are beloved” by their populations. A more balanced conclusion would humanize rather than canonize, diversify rather than simply harmonize. In this regard, I would recommend Ian Linden’s Global Catholicism: Towards a Networked Church (Hurst, 2012) for the reader looking for a more nuanced study of post-Vatican II Catholic leadership in Africa.

I should add in closing that I read Ten African Cardinals while journeying through Rwanda. Building on my own past research on Catholic history in Rwanda, I had returned to the Land of 1,000 Hills to interview dozens of local Catholic leaders involved in post-genocide reconciliation work. It may be that Rwanda is not the best place to read Ninham’s rosy portrait of Catholic leadership in Africa. There are remarkable Catholic leaders in Rwanda, but this country’s history reveals that the church has, to quote one late Rwandan bishop, “feet of clay.” It is tempting to uncritically accept glowing narratives like Ten African Cardinals, especially as a Catholic believer looking for good news beyond the beleaguered Western church. But the reality of African Christianity is far more complex and, dare I say it, more interesting.

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