Sep 7th 2019
A year ago President Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique went to the Vatican and announced triumphantly that he had persuaded the pope to visit his country. Pope Francis retorted that he would make the trip in 2019—if he was still alive. This week the 82-year-old pontiff is keeping that promise, making only his second trip to sub-Saharan Africa, which is by far the biggest area of expansion for Christianity. His tour also takes in Madagascar and Mauritius.
In some ways the itinerary is apt. In Mozambique alone he can see many of the woes that afflict his burgeoning flock across Africa: terrorism, interfaith conflict, environmental harm and the spectre of state failure. Madagascar, a fragile store of biodiversity, is similarly afflicted by poverty and rapid deforestation, which reduces nature’s resilience against disasters, such as the cyclones that swept the region last spring. Around 2m poor Mozambicans were hit by storms and floods.
With the locus of Christianity moving southward, this troubled continent represents the faith’s greatest hope. According to Pew, an American research institute, the share of the world’s Christians who live in sub-Saharan Africa will surge to 42% by 2060, up from 26% in 2015 (see chart). Without that demography-fuelled expansion in Africa, Christianity would be destined to fall rather swiftly behind Islam as the world’s most popular faith. Pew predicts that by 2060 Muslim numbers will be 70% above 2015 levels, whereas the Christian flock will have risen by just 34%. As a net result, Pew reckons, Christians will make up 32% of the world’s population and Muslims just one percentage point less.
But Africa also presents pastoral problems that seem at times beyond the reach of any religious leader, no matter how charismatic. Nor does Francis, despite his compassion for African migrants to the rich world, find the African church easy to navigate, given the doctrinal conservatism of its leaders.
In Mozambique’s northern tip, a radical Islamist movement has claimed hundreds of lives, prompting at least one Catholic bishop to excoriate the government for failing to provide protection. Elsewhere, too, the country looks fragile. Only last month the government signed a final peace accord with the guerrillas of Renamo, its enemy in a bloody civil war that supposedly ended in 1992. Some parts of Renamo have rejected the deal, which requires fighters to disarm and co-operate in elections in October. An independent Catholic peacemaking agency, the Sant’Egidio community, has been deeply involved in mediation in Mozambique, and Francis will add his weight to the cause of reconciliation with Renamo veterans.
Christian-Muslim conflict is also sputtering across West Africa and would now make any papal visit there a logistical and security challenge. In Nigeria Christians say they are at ever-increasing risk both from the Boko Haram terrorist group, part of which is aligned with the jihadists of Islamic State, and from Muslim Fulani herdsmen who have attacked crop-growing farmers. At least three Catholic priests have been killed this year.
Francis has always stressed the primacy of economic factors in fuelling conflict, and he has refused to engage in Christian-Muslim name-calling. That marks a contrast with his predecessor, Benedict, who provoked a storm in 2006 with a speech that unintentionally seemed to link Islam with a propensity for violence. As Jimmy Burns, a biographer of the current Pope, puts it: “Francis is convinced that environmental damage, inequality and competition for resources are the factors behind religious fundamentalism of any kind.” In recent days Francis seemed to confirm his doveish credentials in matters of Christian-Muslim relations by giving a cardinal’s hat to Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, a British expert on Islam who had been demoted by Benedict, apparently for being too emollient.
Arguments based on economics as a cause of interfaith conflict may resonate in academia but some Catholic leaders from Africa are pressing Francis to serve up stronger doctrinal medicine. Among the most powerful of African-born prelates is Cardinal Robert Sarah, who grew up in Guinea under a harsh Marxist dictatorship and developed a strong antipathy to left-wing authoritarianism.
Cardinal Sarah has endeared himself to conservative critics of Francis by describing Islamist terrorism and liberal ideas about reproduction and sexuality as co-equal threats to the integrity of the Catholic faith. “What Nazism [and] fascism and communism were to the 20th century, Western ideologies on homosexuality and abortion and Islamic fanaticism are today,” he declared in 2015. Cardinal Sarah, who is responsible for worship and liturgy at the Holy See, is more or less loyal to Francis, but many traditionalists hope he will be the next pontiff. An African candidate more in line with Francis’s thinking would be Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, the Vatican’s point-man on development.
Even leaving aside the sensitive ideological questions that divide conservatives from relative liberals like Francis, the sheer size of the African Catholic church makes it difficult for anyone to control. Take a recent clerical dispute in Nigeria. Francis tried in 2017 to use the might of his office to force priests in the diocese of Ahiara to submit to a bishop who was not a member of their cultural and linguistic group. The clerics were told to write personal letters of apology for their reluctance to accept the unpopular prelate. Some letters were penned, but the Vatican blinked first: the bishop stepped aside.
Elizabeth Foster of Tufts University, who has just written a book called “African Catholic”, says today’s lively, stubborn church is in some measure a by-product of French colonial policies. During the final decade or so of colonial rule, the French state overcame its secular principles and helped the church in a burst of missionary zeal, building schools and dispensaries which spread the faith. This produced a generation of well-educated and articulate Francophone clerics, but they did not always take the line that was expected by the church or state in Paris.
Little wonder that Francis finds Africa uncomfortable. But his successor, whoever he is, will at the very least have to focus more on it. He may even be African.■
Original Headline: Why Pope Francis struggles in Africa
Source: The Economist