Europe is the Faith—so Hilaire Belloc declared in 1920. Nearly a century later, the faith burns as bright as it did then, but it is Africa, not Europe, that is carrying the torch of orthodoxy.
Such is the unavoidable take-away from last month’s synod on the family. With prominent Western traditionalists like Cardinal Raymond Burke sidelined, the prelates from sub-Saharan Africa became the outspoken voices of orthodoxy.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, a Guinea native and the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, made headlines in a floor speech (fittingly, in this context, they are called “interventions”) likening gender ideology and ISIS to apocalyptic beasts. Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa accused liberal European bishops of betraying the “essence of the faith” their missionary ancestors had brought to Africa. Tanzanian Bishop Renatus Leonard Nkwande warned that normalizing same-sex unions would put society on a slippery slope to polygamy and bestiality.
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On the whole, the some 54 African bishops at the synod gained a reputation as a conservative voting bloc, wielding considerable influence in a synod of about 270 participants, as the Religion News Service reported. So unyielding were they, that Cardinal Walter Kasper bellyached in an interview—which he later tried to deny—that the Africans “should not tell us too much what we have to do.”
And the influence of the Africans might have been greater had not some of the smaller, ecclesiastically moribund countries been overrepresented, thanks to the papal appointments.
A striking contrast is between Belgium and Nigeria. Each got the same number of bishops—three—even though Nigeria has more than double as many Catholics as Belgium, a difference of 18.9 million to 8.5 million. And those figures actually understate the gulf between the two nations. In Belgium, just 5 percent of Catholics were showing up to Mass on any given Sunday in 2009 survey. In Nigeria, the rate is 92.2 percent.
Absent papal appointments, Belgium was due to have just one bishop representative. One of the appointed was Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, whose call for the Church to recognize same-sex unions arguably makes Kasper look like a stodgy conservative. Another appointee was Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who presided over much of the decline in the Church in Belgium. His successor, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, who has led a turnaround in vocations and a revival in faith since his appointment by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, was passed over.
Here’s the good news: African Catholics like those in Nigeria represent the future of the Church, not those in Belgium (with the exception of the new faithful inspired by Leonard!).
By almost every conceivable measure, Catholicism in Africa is experiencing an extraordinary spiritual renaissance—the very reverse of what is happening in the continent to its north.
With 171.9 million faithful, sub-Saharan Africa represents 16 percent of Catholics worldwide, a third the number in Europe and more than double that in the United States. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, at 31.2 million Catholics in 2010, has almost as many as Poland and France each, at 35.3 million and 37.9 million, respectively.
And African Catholics are on the rise. From 1910 to 2010, they went from constituting just one percent of the local population to 21 percent, making Africa the fastest growing region for the century. By comparison, Catholics in North America increased from 16 to 26 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Center.
From 2004 to 2050, African Catholics will continue their climb, increasing by 145.8 percent to 342 million, making Africa the most Catholic continent after Latin America. Europe, meanwhile, will slump from 270 million to 255 million Catholics, at a decline of -5.5 percent by 2050. The Congo Republic that year will become the most Catholic country, with double as many faithful as will be in Poland, according to the Population Research Bureau.
Such growth is mirrored in other measures of ecclesiastical health.
The number of parishes in Africa has more than doubled since 1980. So has the number of priests. Enrollment at Catholic schools, from kindergarten to college, has more than tripled, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. The largest seminary in the world is in Nigeria, boasting 1,225 candidates for the priesthood, about a fourth as many as the total number in the United States, according to one report.
It is tempting to chalk up the traditionalism of African Catholics to the underlying cultural conservatism of their broader societies, as Kasper seemed to want to do. But look closer and much more is at play. Reading through the various public statements of many African prelates one senses that unmistakable fierceness of conviction that comes with being a newly converted society.
That spiritual vigor is being matched by intellectual rigor. Perhaps nowhere is that more clear than in Sarah, a rising star in the Church who released his book God or Nothing right before the synod as a kind of opening salvo for orthodoxy.
God or Nothing reads as an articulate exposition of the fundamentals of Christian faith and as a thoughtful critique of the many ills that beset the modern world, particularly the West—secularism, postmodernism, individualism, among them.
The topic may not be fresh, but Sarah’s insights are. And he has the intellectual heft to back them up. He invokes Prometheus in explaining how Western secularism is attempting to appropriate God for themselves just as the ancient mythical figure stole fire from the gods. He is as conversant in Camus and Nietzsche as he is in Irenaeus and Augustine. And, in the autobiographical portions of the book, he speaks of his studies of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.
In a sense, what is happening is not as new as it may seem. In fact, it is very old. Indeed, in the early history of the Church, it was from the other side of the Mediterranean that some of the greatest defenders of orthodoxy hailed.
In the fourth century, when it seemed that the entire Catholic world was in the grips of Arianism and even the pope was imprisoned by the heretics, the fugitive Athanasius kept orthodoxy alive in the deserts of Egypt. Augustine stood athwart Manichaeism, Pelagianism, and Donatism, and transformed the Church’s understanding of grace. In the early fifth century, St. Cyril of Alexandria was the standard bearer of orthodoxy against the Nestorian heresy.
Of course, all this was happening in North Africa—in some ways, a world away from sub-Saharan Africa, but the point is that Christendom, understood as a spiritual civilization of love, can survive without Europe.
The comparison to the early Church is apt in more ways than one. Martyrdom—that fountain from which the Church always springs anew—seems particularly decisive in shaping the experience of Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa.
Some of the more notable deaths are well known to the Western public—it’s just that the Christian identity has not been stressed in media reports. Most of the more than 200 schoolgirls who were kidnapped last year and either killed or sold into slavery by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram were Christians. The Somali militants who stormed onto a Kenyan university campus earlier this year and slayed almost 150 people, were also targeting Christians. So prevalent is persecution that one Nigerian archbishop even compared Africa to the ancient Roman Colosseum “where we are thrown to the beasts.”
There is something about death that makes the truth urgent. When confronted with the sword or the gun, things seem a lot less gray. Black-and-white thinking tends to come hand in hand with life-or-death situations. Eternity matters more. This life matters more because eternity matters more.
It’s little wonder, then, that in the West—where death has been shooed away behind the hospital curtain and sequestered in the nursing home—that the truth has become such a thorny proposition. Contra Kasper, we should listen as much as possible to the Africans. They might just save us from ourselves.
Editor’s note: The image above pictures members of the Nigerian bishops’ conference in September 2014 processing to Sacred Heart Cathedral in Warri, Delta state.