IN CHURCH DOCUMENTS
by Paul Bekye
The positive recognition of religious pluralism is a distinctive mark of the post-Vatican 11 Catholic Church. And African traditional religious experience and expression, having emerged from the limbo of negation and skepticism to eventual recognition, is gradually taking its rightful place among the religions of the world, and is considered the legitimate expression of a genuine religious experience of African peoples in their encounter with the divine. The following presentation examines those official pronouncements of the Catholic Church which have a bearing on African Traditional Religion. By official Church documents, we intend papal or conciliar documents, and documents of Sacred Roman Congregations; these, more than other magisterial pronouncements, represent formal Church directives of universal application.
The method followed is basically expository. The documents are largely left to speak for themselves, without too much hermeneutics. We are, no doubt, aware that deep theological, cultural and socio-political undercurrents, at the basis of each document, have tremendously influenced the general attitude of the Church in regard to non-Christian peoples and their religions. A detailed treatment of these, useful as it certainly would be, would however necessitate a much longer presentation which is beyond the scope of the present exercise.(1) Only brief references to these have therefore been made to enable us better situate within context a particular document.
The first thing to remark, as far as the
topic under discussion is concerned, is that there is general scarcity of references to
African Traditional Religion (ATR) in official Church pronouncements. Very few documents
of the Church mention African Traditional Religion as such. Secondly, those Church
documents which do mention ATR directly are quite recent; they are of post-Vatican 11 era.
The scarcity of and the lateness of reference to ATR in church documents is indicative of
a situation where African Traditional Religion hardly ever was a subject of direct
Pope Paul VI And African Traditional
The very first magisterial document to make mention of the religious traditions of African peoples, and in a positive light for that matter, is Africae Terrarum of Pope Paul V1, issued on October 29, 1967. In this document Paul V1 made the following unprecedented statement:
Many customs and rites, once considered to be strange are seen today, in the light of ethnological science, as integral parts of various social systems, worthy of study and commanding respect. In this regard, we think it profitable to dwell on some general ideas which typify ancient African religious cultures because we think their moral and religious values deserving of attentive consideration.(2)
Paul V1's optimistic view of African religious tradition in Africae Terrarum, (the encyclical he devotes entirely to Africa), is based on his positive recognition of the worth of ethnological science in broadening the horizons of knowledge on African peoples. Consequently, Paul V1 corrects, in a formal way, the hitherto misrepresentation of African Traditional Religion as "animism". As he says, "here we have more than the so-called 'animistic' concept, in the sense given to this term in the history of religions at the end of the last century".(3)
In the Pope's view, African traditional religious expression constitutes rather "a spiritual view of life...which considers all living beings and visible nature itself as linked with the world of the invisible and spirit".(4) And central to this, continues the Pope, is the "spiritual view of life, (this) spiritual concept is the most important element...the idea of God as the first or ultimate cause of all things. This concept, perceived rather than analysed, lived rather than reflected on, is expressed in very different ways from culture to culture, but the fact remains that the presence of God permeates African life as the presence of a higher being, personal and mysterious".(5) Consequently Paul V1 calls for an exchange of meaning between Christianity and African religious tradition.
The great significance of Paul V1's appraisal resides in the fact that it is the first time that such an official recognition by a Christian Church has ever been made of a typically African religious tradition, and this is quite unprecedented. Such a recognition that African peoples do have a religious expression that is properly and uniquely African, is much in the spirit of the changed climate of the Second Vatican Council 11 with its theological openness towards non-Christian peoples in general, and non- Christian religions in particular.
By his pronouncement Paul V1 went a great step forward in making explicit and solemn what the Council itself seemed to have refrained from pronouncing on. The Second Vatican Council, in spite of its positive appraisal of other religions besides Christianity, did not make any explicit statement on African traditional religious culture. It would seem that due to inadequate studies on ATR at the time of the Council, it was not considered opportune to say anything on the religion. Instead, the Council limited itself to making explicit comment only on the traditionally so-called five great religions of the world. The following received a special mention: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. For the others, the Council made a generic statement: "Other religions which are found throughout the world, attempt in their own ways to calm the hearts of men by outlining a program of life covering doctrine, moral precepts and sacred rites, thus the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions".(6)
In any case, even if African Traditional Religion was not the subject of direct and explicit mention by the Council, there was a general open attitude towards non- Christian religions. This recognition in itself was a significant turning point in the Church's general attitude towards non- Christian peoples and their religions. As the writer Paul Knitter has remarked, "for the first time in the history of official Church statements the religions of the world are singled out and praised for the way they have answered those profound mysteries of the human condition".(7) Undoubtedly, Vatican 11's "Declaration on the Church's Relationship to Non- Christians" (Nostra Aetate), backed up by a secretariat that handles questions of dialogue and ecumenical relations with non-Christian peoples has forever marked the Council out of other religions.
Paul V1's recognition of the reality of
the African religious heritage was therefore not only in the spirit of the Second Vatican
, but it indicated radically changed times. And as if to give a concrete demonstration of
his positive appraisal of African culture and religion, Paul V1, on African soil (the
first ever by a Roman Pontiff), challenged African Christians to "have an African
Christianity" based on African "human values and characteristic forms of
John Paul 11 And African Traditional
If a Pope has ever involved himself so personally and deeply in the African reality, it is John Paul 11. He has been loud in the praise of African cultural and religious heritage. The numerous pastoral visits John Paul has made to Africa provided him with unique opportunities to impress upon his African hearers the high regard and respect the church has for the African traditional cultural heritage, and how this should be brought into service of the gospel, and for the enrichment of the universal church.(9)
But it is in his most recent Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa, that a clear pronouncement on African Traditional Religion is made. "Africans", says John Paul 11, "have a profound religious sense, a sense of the sacred, of the existence of God the creator and of a spiritual world. The reality of sin in its individual and social forms is very much present in the consciousness of these peoples, as is also the need for rites of purification and expiation.(10) The Pope therefore calls for dialogue with African Traditional Religion:
"With regard to African Traditional
Religion, a serene and prudent dialogue will be able, on the one hand, to protect
Catholics from negative influences which condition the way of life of many of them and, on
the other, to foster the assimilation of positive values such as belief in a Supreme Being
who is Eternal, Creator, Provident and Just Judge, values which are readily harmonised
with the content of the faith"(11)
Pontifical Council For
Inter-Religious Dialogue And African Traditional Religion
In 1988, the secretariat for
Non-Christians, as it was then called, (incidentally headed by an African, the Nigerian
born Cardinal Francis Arinze), as part of its solicitude for African Traditional Religion,
addressed a letter to the Bishops of Africa and Madagascar, urging them to give a serious
pastoral attention to African traditional religion incorrectly called "animism",
the letter says.(12) The letter re-echoes the position of the Church with regard to
other religions in the world:
The Church respects the religions and the
cultures of peoples, and wishes that in her contact with them, to preserve all that is
noble, true and good in their religion and their cultures.
The letter envisages a fruitful
dialogical encounter between Christianity and African Traditional Religion, with promises
of a mutual enrichment for both:
In the measure where traditional religion will be
better understood by the messengers of the gospel, Christianity will also be presented to
Africans in a more appropriate fashion. A study of traditional religion will identify the
underlying felt needs of Africans, and clarify the manner in which Christianity can
respond to them. This way, the Church will be at home in Africa, and Africans will feel
more and more at home in the Church.
The letter thus recommends dialogue with traditional religion to take place at two levels, first, "with the people who adhere to traditional religion and who do not yet desire to become Christians". With such persons, "dialogue has to be understand in the ordinary sense of encounter, of mutual understanding, of respect and a mutual search of the will of God". Second, with those who desire to become Christians, and with Christians converted from traditional religion, the dialogue has to be understood in a wider sense of a pastoral approach to traditional religion, in view to present the Gospel of our Savour Jesus Christ in an appropriate manner, so that the Church takes deeper roots on African soil."
As part of the pastoral attention to traditional religion the letter calls for appropriate research centres to be established for research purposes into traditional religion, to discern the "principal tenets of its beliefs: particularly God the Creator, the place of the spirits of the ancestors, the fundamental rites in this religion, sacrifice, priesthood, prayer, marriage, the human soul, life after death, religion and the moral life". The letter strongly recommends that ATR be part of the curriculum and study programmes of seminaries and religious houses of formation.
This letter of the president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue is the first (sic) (13) of its kind to come from very high ecclesiastical circles, a Vatican central office, to pronounce directly and elaborately on the need for the Church, particularly in Africa and Madagascar, to take ATR seriously, to give it urgent pastoral attention, to study it, and to enter into dialogue with it. Undoubtedly, too, it gave birth and greater impetus to efforts already contemplated or initiated in research work on ATR by theological faculties and ecclesiastical institutes of higher learning such as at Kinshasa, Nairobi, Abidjan and Port Harcourt, as well as the teaching of ATR in major Seminaries. The letter is a main inspiration for the various dialogue commissions on the diocesan, provincial, national, inter-regional and inter-national levels.
The Pontifical Council for
Inter-Religious Dialogue has since its establishment religiously promoted dialogue with
traditional religions, with ATR receiving great attention because of the relatively large
area of its influence. For instance, at the November 1995 plenary Assembly of the
Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, ATR received some attention. The idea of
holiness in African Traditional religion was examined, as well as the motivations within
traditional religions (with focus on ATR) for dialogue with Christianity.(14) The
same Pontifical Council organised recently in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a colloquium on the
theme "The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Encounter with Traditional Religions".
This was from July 29th to August 3rd, 1996. African Traditional Religion received
prominent attention at this Colloquium as theologians, including several Bishops mostly
from French speaking West Africa, reflected attentively on traditional religions and their
place in God's plan of salvation. Recommendations made at the Colloquium include the
intensification of dialogue with traditional religion, teaching traditional religion in
seminaries and religious houses of formation, and promoting research into traditional
religion in ecclesiastical institutes of higher learning.
A Break With The Past
What we have done so far is to present those documents of the Church which have made a direct and an explicit pronouncement on African Traditional Religion. These statements, as we have pointed out, are few and also very recent, as they date back to the Second Vatican Council, the Church had a generally negative attitude towards non-Christian peoples and their religions. Until the Second Vatican Council, non-Christian religions, for theological reasons, were hardly ever the subject of positive appraisal by the Church; if there was a reference to non-Christian religions, it was either to contrast them with Christianity, the only true religion, because it is revealed, or to condemn them.
On the other hand it has to be admitted that the Church has, in many magisterial pronouncements, both before and after Vatican 11, made some fine statements on the respect for the cultures particularly of people in mission lands. Magisterial directives are also abundant on the comportment of missionaries, for the most part, these documents speak generally of respect for culture and do not usually make explicit mention of religion, but as an indispensable component of culture regard for religion is sometimes implied. This is particularly the case in the Vatican 11 and Post-Vatican 11 documents. Besides, the documents form a necessary background to understanding the place of Africans and their religious traditions in these documents of the Church. We shall make a brief presentation of them, dividing them into two categories, namely, Vatican11 and post-Vatican 11 documents, and pre-Vatican 11 documents respectively. Following our methodology, we shall highlight first some Vatican 11 and post-Vatican 11 documents on culture, and then the pre-Vatican 11 ones.
Just before the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XX111, in Princeps Pastorum of 28th November, 1959, directs that missiology be instituted in the curriculum of local seminaries in mission lands. One of the aims of this instruction was, in the words of the Pope, to sharpen "the students' minds, so as to enable them to form a true estimate of the cultural traditions of their own homelands, especially in matters of philosophy and theology, and to discern the special points of contact which exist between these systems and the Christian religion".(15) This directive was in line with the teaching of earlier Popes, such as Benedict XV, Pius X1 and Pius X11; but it more perfectly forms a bridge between these earlier teachings and that of the Second Vatican Council.
In Lumen Gentium 13, and Ad Gentes 22, the Second Vatican Council, in appreciating the customs and ways of life of each people, insist on the need for the missionary effort to assimilate these into the patrimony of the Church. In Evangelii Nuntiandi 20 Paul V1 makes mandatory the incorporation of human cultures into the building up of the kingdom of God as a necessary requisite of Evangelization in today's world. And John Paul 11 in such documents as Catechesi Tradendae 53, Redemptoris Missio 52-54, and Ecclesia in Africa 42-43, makes dialogue with cultures as an essential component of Evangelization and gospel proclamation.
Several pre-Vatican II papal documents, particularly those on the missions, contain fine expressions of the Church's appraisal of local culture. These documents however exhibit the following characteristics. First, they manifest an overt disparity between the theoretical affirmation in the mission field. Second, the theoretical affirmation of cultures of peoples did not include an affirmation of their traditional religious traditions; in fact the documents pessimistically portray the ultimate fate of the so-called "heathen peoples". And third, with regards to Africa, in practice both African culture and traditional religion were largely negated. Coupled with this was an apparent downgrading of the African personality itself.
Already in the 7th century, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), in a letter to Abbot Mellitus,(16) the missionary companion of St. Augustine of Canterbury, indicated what principles were to be observed in their missionary apostolate among the English. The letter explicitly requested Augustine not to "destroy the temples of the gods, but rather the idols within those temples". The temples themselves were to be purified with holy water, and have altars and relics of saints placed in them, thus converting them, as the letter says, "from the worship of demons to the service of the true God".
The psychology here is quite sound. In the words of Gregory the Great, the people "seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed... will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God". This way, the Pope envisaged a continuity and newness between the ancient religion of the English people and their new faith. In the thinking of Gregory the Great, the English people, being allowed to retain their places of worship, more readily would accept the mystery of Christ celebrated in them.
In 1659, the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide, gave the following instruction to Vicars Apostolic of foreign missions:
Do not in any way attempt, and do not on any pretext persuade these people to change their rites, habits and customs, unless they are openly opposed to religion and good morals. For what could be more absurd than to bring France, Spain, Italy or any other European country to China? (17)
Clearly, the Sacred Congregation was anxious for the respect of the local traditions and customary practices of the people in the missions. The problem, however, is that theory and practice did not always tally in the application of official church directives. A case in point was the question of the so-called Chinese rites concerning the veneration of the ancestors. These were to ironically and effectively challenge the Sacred Congregation's very principles of cultural tolerance. In the case of these rites of ancestral veneration, the Italian Jesuit priest and missionary to China, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) had authorised the cult of Confucius and other rites to the dead as non-superstitious and hence compatible with Christian faith and morals. But the polemics that ensued after his death among missionaries led to the final condemnation of these rites by Pope Benedict XIV in his decree Ex Quo Singulari in 1742. These rites were however to be re-approved by Pius XI in 1939. In his Instructio Circa Quasdam Caeremoniae Super Ritibus Sinensibus, did not only reinstate the traditional Chinese funeral rites and the cult of the familial dead, but abrogated the censures imposed against them by Benedict XIV.(18) This noteworthy event on the part of Pius XII, put an end to the long drawn out controversy over the Chinese and Japanese rites of veneration of the ancestors and other rites linked with patriotic festivities which had, for three centuries, occasioned bitter quarrels between missionaries and the people of the area.
Pius XII himself, in his first
encyclical letter, Summi Pontificatus, demonstrates his own positive approach to local
culture. Outlining the principle of adaptation which, according to him, must pervade the
entire activity of the Church in mission countries, the Pope considers it right for all
nations to preserve and develop their cultural patrimony. He based his doctrine on the
unity of the human race, and the equality of all men. It was thus the duty of the Church
to assume such cultural patrimony into the new churches. As he says:
The Church of Christ...cannot and does not think
of depreciating or disdaining the peculiar characteristics which each people, with jealous
and understandable pride, cherishes and retains as a precious heritage. (Therefore) all
that, in such usages and customs, is not inseparably bound up with religious errors will
always be the object of sympathetic consideration, and whenever possible, will be
preserved and developed...(19)
And in the address to the Directors of
Pontifical Mission Works in 1944, he again emphasises that:
The specific character, the traditions, the customs of each nation must be preserved intact, so long as they are not in contradiction with the divine law. The missionary is an apostle of Jesus Christ. His task is not to propagate European civilisation in mission lands. Rather, it is his function so to train and guide other peoples, some of whom glory in their ancient and refined civilisation, as to prepare them for the willing and hearty acceptance of the principles of Christian life and behaviour. (20)
It is in his encyclical Evangelii Praecones that his thought on the need to promote the local culture as a principle of missionary acculturation is most explicitly expressed. Quoting extensively from his two earlier documents, the Summi Pontificatus and the Address to the Directors of Pontifical Mission Works, Pius XII lays down, as a matter of principle, the church's attitude toward local culture in her missionary activity:
Another end remains to be achieved, and we desire
that all should fully understand it. The Church from the beginning down to our time has
always followed this wise practice: let not the Gospel, in being introduced into any new
land, destroy or extinguish whatever its people posses that is naturally good, just or
beautiful. For the church, when she calls people to a higher culture and a better way of
life under the inspiration of the Christian religion, does not act like one who recklessly
cuts down and uproots a thriving forest. No, she grafts a good scion upon the wild stock
that it may bear a crop of more delicious fruit.(21)
Pius XII based himself on a fairly optimistic assessment of human nature, which "has in itself something that is naturally Christian... (thus) the Catholic Church", he says "has neither scorned nor rejected the pagan philosophies".(22) In this, Pius XII, to some extent, anticipated the teaching of Vatican 11 in declaring that: "Whatever there is in the native customs that is not inseparably bound up with superstition and error will always be received kindly consideration, and, when possible, will be preserved intact". (23)
This statement of Pius XII however underscores, also, the predominantly pre-Vatican attitude towards traditional religion, particularly in the African context. Unfortunately, traditional religion, as is well known, was collectively and negatively branded as "superstition", and was considered erroneous. It never therefore received kindly consideration, neither was it thought worthy of preservation. Unfortunately, also, it was not only traditional religion that was negatively appraised, the ultimate fate of non-Christian peoples themselves was pessimistically viewed.
Pope Benedict XV, in his Pontificate, had approved an extensive missionary policy for the preaching of the gospel. His encyclical letter, Maximum Illud, of November 30th, 1919, is considered "The Magna Carta of modern Catholic Missiology", as subsequent missionary documents of Popes have taken inspiration from it. But the expansive missionary policy of Benedict XV was however motivated by what Raymond Hickey considers "his pessimistic appraisal of the ultimate fate of non-Christian peoples". "A much more rigid interpretation of the axiom extra ecclesiam nulla salus was commonly taken at this time", (24)he says. Thus, Benedict XV, in Maximum Illud, speaks pessimistically of "the numberless heathen who are still sitting in the shadows of death. According to recent statistics their number accounts to a thousand million..."(25) He laments the "sad fate of this multitude of souls", to whom has to be extended the "benefits of divine redemption".(26) Addressing the bishops, "in whose hands are placed the salvation of the world", he speaks of a divine task...to light the torch of those sitting in the shadows of death, and open the gate of heaven to those who rush to their destruction".(27) And again, addressing religious superiors, and heads of religious congregations devoted to the missions, he requests that missionaries, after having "successfully accomplished their task and converted some nations from unhallowed superstition to Christian faith and have founded there a church with sufficient prospects, they should transfer them, as Christ's forlorn hope, to some other nation to snatch it from Satan's grasp..."(28) It is a sacred obligation for the faithful to support the mission among the "infidels", for no one stands in greater need of "our brotherly assistance than the gentile races which, in ignorance of God, are enslaved to blind and unbridled instincts and live under the awful servitude of the evil one".(29)
Pius XI's Rerum Ecclesiae makes similar statements: the apostolic preachers make "smooth the way to salvation for heathen nations", (30) that is, those still "deprived of the Christian religion",(31) and are "white for harvest"(32). It is his God-given duty that "as long as divine providence shall continue us in life, this duty of our apostolic office shall keep us always solicitous because after pondering on the fact that the pagans still number almost a billion, we have no peace in our spirit...".(33) There is no charity, he says, so great as "having them withdrawn from the darkness of superstition and instructed in the true faith of Christ".(34) He recommends that a prayer be said every day by Christians that the "divine mercy may descend upon so many unhappy beings and upon such populous pagan nations".(35) Thus, the missionary, ambassador of Christ, was to "bravely face all hardships and difficulties, as long as he can snatch a soul from the mouth of hell".
Besides the pessimism, in the papal documents it is also noticed a marked tendency to contrast a civilised and a superior Christian or Western culture, from where the missionaries came, with the "backward" and inferior cultures of non Western peoples to be evangelised. Evangelization itself had taken on the added dimension of cultural advancement and the civilisation of the so-called uncivilised peoples. Africans, no doubt, fell into this category. Hence the papal documents generally identify as "backward" those people who are as yet unopened to European civilisation. Mission therefore among African peoples, besides "snatching souls", and liberating the multitude of "unhappy beings" from "unbridled instincts" and "dark superstitions", had the added dimension of civilising the accursed descendants of Ham.(37) The very nature of mission was thought to be determined by this additional exigency of imparting "the light of the gospel and the benefits of Christian culture and civilisation to the peoples sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death".(38)
Hence we find the frequent use of such ethnocentric terms as "savages", "uncivilised", "barbarous peoples", alongside the more religious ones such as "heathens", "infidels", "pagans", and "pagan nations" in the two papal pronouncements, that is, and Benedict XV's Maximum Illud, and Pius XI's Rerum Ecclesiae. These encyclicals incidentally coincided with the hey-days of the intense European imperialist activity in Africa. They therefore reinforce the cultural dimension of Western Christian expansion with its tendency to look down on, or downgrade all non-western cultures as backward. "Pagan territories" were identified as those "vast territories which are still unopened to Christian civilisation...the immense number...still deprived of the fruits of redemption".(39) To be civilised was to be Christians. and vice versa. Pius XI exhorts bishops in Christian countries not to put any obstacles in the way of young men, ecclesiastic students or priests who wished to offer their lives in the service of "the heathens particularly those who are still savages and barbarians".(40)
Even when, concerning the equality among European and native missionaries, Pius XI stresses that "he errs grievously who considers such natives as of an inferior race, and of obtuse intelligence", he nonetheless concedes: "But if you find extreme slowness of mind in the case of men who live in the very heart of barbarous regions, this is due to the conditions of their lives, for, since the exigencies of their lives are limited, they are not compelled to make great use of their intelligence..."(41) It was common of the period to readily stigmatise Africans with intellectual morbidness.
The additional motivating force behind the missionary enterprise, as appears in these papal documents, was therefore that the "barbarous peoples", by being evangelised would reap the benefits of "Christian Civilisation". Benedict XV, for instance, speaks of "countries where the catholic faith has been preached for several centuries, nations who have fully seen the light of the gospel (and) have reached such a degree of civilisation as to posses men distinguished in every department of secular knowledge..."(42) Attending to a high degree of civilisation was apparently the same as "seeing the light of the gospel". And in this the missionary Bishop, Joseph Blomjous, is in perfect agreement:
This was because the Europeans at that time saw
their own culture and their own religion in so bright a light that anything else seemed
like night in comparison. This explains why the missionaries of old did not acknowledge
African culture as they should have done, nor did they build their message upon it.(43)
As pointed out earlier on, we find here
amply portrayed the paradoxical tension between, on the one hand, the positive theoretical
affirmation of, and respect for local culture, so well pronounced in church statements,
and, on the other, the negative practical application in the missionary situation,
particularly in Africa. On the level of official Church pronouncements, the Catholic
Church has always manifested her great solicitude for a genuine regard for, and respect of
the ways of life of the people in the missions. This attitude is quite in line with the
early tradition of the Church to assume into Christianity whatever was good in the ways of
life of a good people and gradually to eradicate what was not compatible with it.
Unfortunately, says Raymond Hickey, this "attitude was not always accepted by those
in the field".(44) In the case of Africa, Bishop Blomjous explains why:
The missionaries of old were not unintelligent fools without any foresight who wanted to destroy ruthlessly all the cultural values and customs of the Africans. On the contrary, many of them had an extraordinary good appreciation of the realities of life and serious attempts were made to bring about a mutual penetration and cross-fertilisation between Christianity and the African heritage. In spite of this, however, when it came to concrete questions of adaptation, the majority of missionaries had a negative attitude. Why was this? It was perhaps precisely because they were too much aware of the realities of life. The Africa of that time was perhaps not quite as idyllic as the ethnologists and Africa of today describe it. One has only to think of the slavery among the African tribes, of the poisonings, of the misuse of power by sorcerers, of the abuse of polygamy and child-marriage and of the cruelties practised against people of other tribes. The missionaries became simply disillusioned and alarmed. They compared all this with the relationships in the families in which they had grown up and they began to condemn what they saw in Africa.(45)
Bishop Blomjous blames this on the ethnocenticism of human weakness: "Is it not a general human weakness to regard one's own people as the best? Wasn't there, and isn't there still, even in Africa, a tribal selfishness which judges disapprovingly of other tribes?"(46)
But the issue definitely goes much deeper than a simple freak in human nature, even if the charge of ethnocentricism is subsequently correct. The Church's Evangelization, as has already been pointed out, often took on the dimension of cultural domination. Having carried with it the same ethnocentric attitude that was so typical of the 19th century European imperialist expansion, it had found its justification in a faith in a universal superior culture. The papal documents considered above have lent credence to the classicist mentality which greatly determined the Church's attitude toward Africans and their religions. It is an attitude characterised by the presuppositions of what David Westerlund calls "a theology of discontinuity".(47) This involved a total disruption or break to "a higher culture and a better way of life under the inspiration of the Christian religion".(48)
What we find at play here is both the classicist monocultural outlook, and the predominantly underdeveloped pre-Vatican 11 theology of salvation in which missionaries were trained. In addition to official Church directives were the strict instructions of the founders of Congregations to missionaries to learn local languages, respect local customs, study and diligently record them. It was, for instance, the conviction of Cardinal Lavigerie, Founder of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers), that "(these) could be of very great interest, even for theology"(49). In the case of Africa, it is thanks to the missionaries that the African oral languages were developed into written languages, and the recordings of local customs by the missionaries have become sources for the historical and cultural study of these peoples. This they did long before the field-work anthropologists took interest in research among African peoples.
This, notwithstanding, missionaries who
were to implement official Church directives in practice never involved themselves in any
real dialogue particularly with African religious culture. The early missionary endeavour
represented, as it were, a meeting of two outlooks - two world views - which not only
remained mutually closed to one another but were, in fact, mutually opposed to each other.
Alyward Shorter is quite right when he says that Christianity's "first contact with
Africa tended to be uncompromising, intolerant - even violent" (50). It is a
tragedy, he says, that the "early missionary endeavour in Africa never produced a
confrontation or a meeting of meanings between African religious thought, systems and the
thinking of 19th century European Christianity" (51), but a violent
confrontation in which, to be Christian the African religious past had to cede to the
civilising influence that Christianity presented itself to be. Shorter blames the
inability of missionaries to promote an integration between the Christian message and
local cultures, that is, to practice Inculturation, on the "contemporary classicists
theology" in which the missionaries themselves were trained. In his view:
Missionaries were equipped to study languages and
respect cultures. They were exhorted to do so by their founders, but they were hindered
from real dialogue by their theology; not merely by an under-developed theology of
contemporary classicist theology itself....Before long they became experts in the social
institutions and practices of the people they served, but the theology they imbibed during
their training prevented them from making any positive use of their newly acquired
knowledge. It is as if they were newly studying non-Christian cultures only to condemn
them, or at least to bypass them.(52)
For the most part, the monocultural
outlook which obtained largely between the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican
Council, and which underlay the contemporary classicist theology hindered any integration
between Christianity and African traditional culture, so that "even when ethnographic
researches of Christian missionaries revealed the new riches of African religious thought
to the world, the Church was resigned to condemning the very object of her interest".
and even when the papal call was clear that "the herald of the gospel and message of
Christ is an apostle...his office does not demand that he transplant European civilisation
and culture, and no other, to foreign soil, there to take root and propagate itself".(53)
Vatican 11 And The New Perspectives
It certainly is in this regard that
Vatican 11 is a watershed in its theological openness to, and appreciation of the
religious traditions and religious values of non-Christian peoples. By contrast, the great
solicitude of the pre-Vatican 11 Church for the respect of local culture and native
customs, positive as it was, (even if theory and practice often remained in disparity),
nonetheless stopped short of according any legitimate to other religious traditions
besides Christianity. The prevailing theological and cultural climate had no room for
overtures of this kind. In carrying the issue to unprecedented levels, Vatican 11 read
well the signs of the times, and ceasing upon the Kairos, the "right moment",
opened wide the windows, allowing in fresh air to invigorate a new atmosphere of greater
understanding and closer Cupertino and dialogue between Christian and non-Christian
peoples and their religions in the search for, and response to "that truth which
enlightens all men" (cf. NA 2).
1. See, for instance, Paul K. Bekye, Divine Revelation and Traditional Religions (Rome: 1991), pp. 46-88.
2. Paul V1,Africae Terrarum, October 29, AAS (1967) pp. 1076-7. See Raymond Hickey, Modern Missionary Documents and African, (Dublin: 1982), p. 179. Italics ours.
3. Paul V1, ibid., R. Hichey, ibid., p. 179.
5. Paul V1, ibid., Hickey, ibid., p. 180.
6. Abbot, W., (ed.), The Documents of Vatican 11 (New York: 1966), p. 662, footnote 9.
7. See Austin Flannery, "Nostra Aetate" # 2, in Vatican 11 (New York: 1987), p. 739.
8. Knitter, P.K., No other Name: A Critical Survey of Christian Attitude Toward the World Religions (New York: 1986), p. 124. See Nostra Aetate 2.
9. Paul V1, Kampala Address, AAS 61 (1969) p. 557; Hickey, ibid., p. 204.
10. See a collection of these addresses in John Paul, African Addresses (Bologna: 1981).
11. John Paul 11, The Church in Africa: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation "Ecclesia in Africa", (Nairobi: 1995), p. 33.
12. John Paul 11, Ecclesia in Africa, p.51.
13. The same Vatican office had earlier in 1968 published a booklet, Meeting African Religion, in which various aspects of ATR were presented with recommendation on how to promote the atmosphere of dialogue among adherents of the religion.
14. See Bulletin, 1996/2, , 2 Pro Dialogo, Plenary Assembly 20-24 November 1995 Cittą del Vaticano.
15. See, Hickey, R., Modern Missionary Documents and Africa, p. 142.143.
16. See Epistola 76, PL, 77, 1215-1216; and, also, J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, (eds.), The Christian Faith (London: 1986), p. 304.
17. See Collectanea Sacrae Congregationis de Propaganda Fide (Rome: 1907), 1, 42-43. See, also, J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, (eds.), The Christian Faith, p. 309.
18. See Shorter, Toward a Theology of Inculturation, pp. 158-159.
19. Pius X11, Summi Pontificatus, ASS 31 (1939) pp. 413ff. See J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, (eds.), The Christian Faith, p. 315.
20. Pius XII, Address to the Directors of Pontifical Mission Works, AAS 36 (1944) p. 210. See J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, (eds.), The Christian Faith, p. 317.
21. Pius XII, Evangelli Praecones: On Promoting Catholic Mission, June 2, AAS 18 (1951) p. 521-2, Hickey, Modern Missionary Documents and Africa, P. 97.
22. Pius XII, ibid., AAS (1951) p. 522; Hickey, ibid., p. 73.
23. Pius XII, ibid., ASS (1951) p. 523; Hickey, ibid., p. 99. See, for instance, Nostra Aetate 2.
24. Hickey, ibid., p. 27.
25. Benedict XV, Maximum Illud: On the Propagation of the Faith Throughout the world, November 30, 1919; AAS 11 (1919) p. 442; Hickey, Modern Missionary Documents and Africa, p. 42.
26. Benedict XV, ibid., p. 442; Hickey, ibid., p.42.
27. Benedict XV, ibid., p. 446; Hickey., p. 37.
28. Benedict XV, ibid., AAS (1919) p. 453; Hickey, ibid., p. 44.
29. Benedict XV, ibid., ASS (1919) p. 451, ibid., p. 42.
30. Pius XI, Rerum Ecclesiae: On Promoting the Sacred Missions, February 28, 1926; AAS 18 (1926), p.66; Hickey, Modern Missionary Documents and Africa, p. 51.
31. Pius XI, ibid., AAS (1926) p.66; Hickey, ibid., p.51.
32. Pius XI, ibid., AAS (1926) p. 67; Hickey, ibid., p. 52.
33. Pius XI, ibid., AAS (1926) p. 67; Hickey, ibid., p. 52.
34. Pius XI, ibid., AAS (1926) p. 67; Hickey, ibid., p. 53.
35. Pius XI, ibid., AAS (1926) p. 71; Hickey, Modern Missionary Documents and Africa, p. 55.
36. Benedict XV, Maximum Illud, AAS (1919) p. 450. Hickey, ibid., p. 11.
37. Walbert Buhlmann reports that "from the 18th century there was a 'doctrine', now known to be completely nonsense both ethnologically and exegetically, that they (Africans) were the accursed sons of Ham, (and that even) at Vatican 1, a group of missionary Bishops proposed to compose prayers for black Africa, beseeching God to free that continent at last from the curse of Ham". The cursed children of Canaan (cf. Gen. 9: 18-27), descendants of Ham were thus identified with black Africans. See The coming of the Third Church (New York: 1978), p. 151.
38. Pius XI, Rerum Ecclesiae, ASS (1926) p. 65; Hickey, ibid., p. 51.
39. Pius XI, Rerum Ecclesiae, AAS (1926) p. 70; Hickey, ibid., p.55.
40. Pius XI, ibid., AAS (1926).
41. Pius XI, ibid., AAS (1926) p. 77; Hickey. ibid., p.64
42. Benedict XV, Maximum Illud, AAS (1919) p. 446; Hickey, ibid., p. 36.
43. See Buhlmann, The Missions on Trial (Maryknoll, New York: 1979), p. 74.
44. Hickey, Modern Missionary Documents and Africa
45. Blomjous cited by Buhlmann, The missions on Trial, p. 75.
46. See Buhlmann, ibid. p. 75.
47. Westerlund, African Religion in African Scholarship (Stockholm: 1985), p. 50.
48. Pius XII, Evangelii Praecones, AAS (1951) pp. 521-522.
49. See Shorter, A., Toward a Theology of Inculturation.
50. Shorter, A., ibid., p.6.
51. Shorter, African Christian Theology (New York: Orbis, 1977), p. 9.
52. Shorter, Toward a Theology of Inculturation (London), p. 172 and 165.
53. Pius XII, Evangelii Praecones, AAS
(1951) p. 523; Hickey,
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY FOR FURTHER
ABBOT, W., (ed.)., The Document of
Vatican 11, New York: 1966.
AUSTIN, F., Vatican 11, New York: 1987.
BEKEY, K. P., Divine Religion and
Traditional Religions: With Particular Reference to the Dagaaba of West African, Rome:
BENEDICT XV, Maximum Illud: On the
Propagation of the Faith Throughout the World, AAS 11 (1919).
BUHLMANN, W., The Coming of the Third
Church, New York: 1978.
HICKEY, R., Modern Missionary Documents
and Africa, Dublin: 1982.
JOHN PAUL 11., Catechesi Tradendae:
Apostolic Exhortation on Catechesis in Our Time, Vatican: 1979.
___________ Redemptoris Missio, Rome:
___________The Church in Africa:
Post-Synodal apostolic Exhortation "Ecclesia in Africa", Nairobi: 1995.
___________African Addresses, Bologna:
Knitter, P. K., No Other Name: A
Critical Survey of Christian Attitude Toward the World Religions, New York: 1986.
Neuner, J., and Dupuis, J., (eds.), The
Christian Faith, Glasgow: 1986.
PAUL VI, Africae Terrarum, ASS (1967).
___________Kampala Address, ASS 61,
PIUS XI, Rerum Ecclesiae: On Promoting
the Sacred Missions, AAS 18 (1926).
PIUS XII, Summi Pontificatus, ASS 31
Promoting Catholic Missions, AAS June 18 (1951).
PONTIFICIUM CONSILIUM PRO DIALOGO INTER
RELIGIONES, Bulletin, 1996/2: Pro Dialogo, Plenary Assembly, 20-24 Nov. 1995, Rome, 1996.
Shorter, A., African Culture and the Christian Church, London: 1973.
__________Toward a Theology of
Inculturation, London: 1988.