According to an old Vatican aphorism, “We think in centuries here.” Viewed through that long-distance lens, the most important Catholic event of 2014 was the dramatic moment when Africa’s bishops emerged as effective, powerful proponents of dynamic orthodoxy in the world Church.
The scene was the Extraordinary Synod of 2014, called by Pope Francis to prepare the Synod of 2015 on the theme, “Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” The dramatic tension was provided by northern European bishops (principally German) and the Synod secretariat, who worked hard to reframe Synod 2014 as an inquest on a question long thought settled by the rest of the Church: the question of admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to holy Communion. The subplot in the drama came from the fact that the Church in Africa—rich in evangelical energy, firmly committed to orthodoxy, but very poor—is funded in large part by German Catholic development agencies (themselves the beneficiaries of the “Church tax” collected by the German federal government).
So it took considerable courage for African bishops at Synod 2014 to challenge the Germans and their allies. It’s not a big secret that there’s a lot of racism left in Europe, where the best and the brightest often imagine themselves beyond the “taboos” that beset Africans (as one German cardinal inelegantly put it). Nor is it a secret that African prelates are too often regarded by some first world Catholics as second-class citizens: charming, you know, but not-quite the A-team. Thus it doubtless came as a surprise to those pressing to change-what-cannot-be-changed in the Church’s ancient sacramental discipline when the African bishops declined to defer to their former European masters and determinedly made two points.
The first was that the Catholic understanding of marriage as the permanent union of a man and a woman—which Catholicism takes from both revelation and reason—had come to certain traditional African cultures as a great liberator.
Here, the African bishops insisted, was a powerful demonstration of the Gospel’s power to free men and women from their attachment to culturally entrenched but dehumanizing ways of life. Here was real “liberation theology”: the liberation of men and women for the solidarity, joy, and fruitfulness in marriage that God had intended from the beginning, and that the grace of God now makes possible through the saving power of Christ, his cross and his resurrection.
Or, more simply (and I paraphrase): You Europeans, whose faith has grown anemic, may experience the Catholic idea of marriage as a burden; we Africans have lived it, in our ecclesial experience, as a great liberation. European Catholics might consider that, as you ponder Pope Francis’s summons to learn from the Church of the poor.
The second point the African bishops made was more subtle but no less unmistakable: Don’t impose Euro-decadence on us, in terms of marriage or in the pastoral care of those experiencing same-sex attraction.
When African bishops today look at Europe through the prism of a Gospel-centered, almost pentecostal experience that has seen African Catholicism grow exponentially in recent decades, they don’t see the center of world civilizational initiative, as their grandparents might have done in colonial days. Rather, they see a continent dying from the first self-induced population collapse in human history. And they ask some obvious, if challenging, questions: Does this willful infertility have something to do with selfishness? With spiritual boredom? With a loss of soul? With a loss of faith in the Lord Jesus and his life-transforming, culture-forming, power?
How could the African bishops summon up the courage to make this challenge? Because they trusted their own ecclesial experience: the New Testament-like experience of the power of evangelical Catholicism. Because they trusted what they had “seen and heard” (1 John 1:3), they could challenge those who thought of them as the untutored kids on the block (at best), or as culturally backward welfare clients who ought to defer to their betters (at worst).
U.S. Catholics who have embraced evangelical Catholicism and find themselves shaken these days might take a lesson from this.
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.