The African Synod

Its time for another African Synod, meeting in the Vatican from Oct 4 – 25. As noted by John Allen writing for the National Catholic Reporter, this should be important, but probably won’t be.  Allen writes:

As I typically say when a synod rolls around, there are two views of their value, which we might call the “glass half full” and “glass half empty” perspectives.
The latter is far easier to state: That a synod is an expensive talk shop that typically accomplishes very little. …Given the expectation that any actual proposals should enjoy a broad consensus, synods typically end up affirming existing practice and then calling for further study about most everything else.
On the other hand, the “glass half full” view holds that a synod is of greatest value for the ideas and energy it unleashes. It’s a chance to start conversations and to put ideas on the table, not just in a local setting but for a cross-section of the universal church…… It’s also a month-long seminar in the diversity of global Catholicism. …Even those paying attention from afar can benefit.

My faulty memory recalls a lot of excitement in South Africa on the eve of the last synod, followed by a strong sense of disappointment that these expectations were not matched by results. But perhaps Allen’s analysis is right, that the expectations were misplaced in the first place, and we should not have been looking for clear, demonstrable outcomes. In that case, he is right to point us to the themes which made the rounds in pre-synod reflections circulating in Africa and among Africans. Some of these are uniquely African, some of general importance for all regions.

One workshop

“studied matters such as alternative models of economic development (trying to encourage Africans to take advantage of competitive local advantages to increase productivity and the market value of their products), as well as possibilities for conflict resolution and peace-building”. I found it alarming to read that statistical analysis of conflicts in Africa (by Fr Emmanuel Ntakarutimana) show that it is the most Catholic countries “which have seen the most appalling carnage in the last decade and a half, including the Rwandan genocide and the vast war in the Great Lakes region….. Put in its most shocking form, here’s his conclusion: The more Christian an African nation is, the higher the odds of being slaughtered there.”

If this finding alone gets the attention it deserves inside or outside the formal decision – making process, and leads to greater church attention to conflict resolution, that alone will be a substantial achievement. But the subject of smaller scale, local conflict resolution has also received attention:

Society of African Missions Fr. Patrick Devine, chair of the Religious Superiors Conference in Kenya, recently issued a statement on the synod, highlighting its theme of reconciliation. While not discounting the importance of large-scale regional wars, Devine also accented smaller inter-ethnic conflicts fueled by matters such as “scarcity of environmental resources, cultural variation, state neglect, contested use of territory and the proliferation of small arms.”
Those conflicts, Devine argued, often make the church’s catechetical programs, schools, hospitals and other ministries “inoperable.” An approach to evangelization in Africa that doesn’t include serious training in peace-making, he wrote, would represent “a fundamental flaw in the approach and vision of the church’s mission.”

These discussions on violent conflict may seem remote to people in more peaceful, developed nations, but one that will resonate around the world is that of the place of women:

Holy Child of Jesus Sr. Teresa Okure, a Nigerian who serves as academic dean of the Catholic Institute of West Africa, has expressed hope that the synod will address the role of women — both in African societies and in the church itself.
“The marginalization of religious and women generally, or giving them token acknowledgment here and there, is simply a sin, if our equality and oneness in Christ through baptism is anything to go by,” Okure wrote. “The practice distorts the image of God in woman, denies woman her baptismal right and new status in Christ, and greatly impoverishes not only the woman but the entire human community be belittling, killing and suppressing the God-given talents of women.”
Okure, among the synod experts appointed by the pope, counsels that church leaders must “teach by example rather than by precept.” Among other things, she recommends taking up a suggestion from the first African Synod in 1994 to set up a women’s commission “to critically study how to integrate women in the church’s mission.”
Okure also invited African religious to reflect on how they can better model reconciliation within their own communities.
“In some cases, superiors live a different life-style, have a different menu from other members of the community,” she wrote. “The initiative of young sisters is often crushed under the guise of enforcing the vow of obedience … At times, people running for office in the congregations bribe members with all kinds of promises, including sending them for further studies if elected.”

Observations on the disparity in lifestyle between religious superiors and those on the bottom, or on the high-handed enforcement of obedience and abuse of religious power, are not only applicable to women in religious orders, nor unique to the church in Africa. Some honest attention to these evils would benefit the whole church, everywhere.

Please join me in praying for a fruitful African Synod: inside or outside the formal proceedings.

Recommended Book:

Lindin, Ian: Global Catholicism

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2 Responses to “The African Synod”

  1. Jim McCrea Says:

    Let’s hope that this synod, as with most others, is simply not a case of throwing the sheep a bone (bad metaphor, that), letting them chew on it, and then expecting them to regurtiate back what was expected by their ‘betters” all along.

    These synods tend to be Catholic tokenism at its worst.

    • queeringthechurch Says:

      Sadly, that may well be so, Jim. But that is why the surrounding discussions are also important – they are less easily muzzled.


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