African bishops & theologians ask why sexuality is a pressing moral question but many Africans’ lack of water, food and shelter is not

August 12, 2015

African bishops, theologians, and ethicists gathered for the a third “Colloquium on Church, Religion, and Society in Africa” held since 2013.  The group’s motto is “Sustaining theological reflection and study at the service of the African and World Church.”

This year discussions were to focus on questions of ecological destruction and religious fundamentalism, and how Pope Francis is impacting the shape of Africa’s church structures; however, much time for exchange was built into the program and considerable dialogue addressed the meetings called by Pope Francis to address family life issues.

The participants agreed that issues of African families, the poor, and the sexual issues/agenda of North American and European bishops must come to the fore.  As reported by Josh McElwee for the National Catholic Reporter, one theologian-participant emphasized that the global church must entirely refocus itself to speak for voiceless Africans who are suffering in many ways.

Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa, co-president of the international Catholic peace group Pax Christi, said: more time at the synod should be spent on “all the systemic issues which threaten relationships between people in societies and make it so hard for parents today to nourish their relationship with their own children and so bring them up in wholesome and life-giving ways.”  He also called for a a new theology of marriage from an African context.  “If we want to have respect to our African Christian families, we need to work seriously on an African Christian theology of marriage,” he said. “It’s not enough to apply other models that have been there for centuries.”  Living the Catholic faith while respecting their traditional cultures is also an important issue.

Ugandan theologian, Emmanuel Katongole criticized what he called tyranny of pressing moral questions” that immediately reduces problems the church needs to face down to issues of sexuality or authority.  “The overall effect of starting with the ‘pressing moral questions’ is to make a parody of the African voice,” said Katongole. “It is to obscure what might be more broad, urgent but perhaps less sexy issues affecting millions of Africans.  

One wonders why sexuality is a pressing moral question but the fact that millions of Africans lack basic necessities like water, food and shelter is not,” said Katongole, bluntly elevating the issues of concern in Laudato Si’.

Attendees noted a range of unique family topics they said are facing the church on their continent but had not been adequately discussed at the 2014 synod, including:

  • Large-scale, crippling poverty;
  • Lack of “principled, ethical leadership” in both governmental and church spheres.

  • Gender-based violence in households, overwhelmingly against women;

  • Missing presence of fathers in family life, and poor relationships with fathers;

  • Identity struggles for Africans who feel separated from their traditional cultures after Christian conversion;

Kenyan bishop Emanuel Barbara said traditional African marriages normally involved much more than the simple “Yes, I do” that provides for consent between married couples in Christian marriages. In the past, he said, consent between couples was even made over years — as the couples lived with one another, and their families came to be gradually meshed together.

“Can we still today speak of a universal form of marriage where the only consent — ‘Yes, I do,’ coming from a Latin, German culture — will be sufficient to sanction a marriage? In the African context, it used to take stages,” he said. “There used to be involved both families before the marriage will come to be something. Is it enough today still to insist in our own culture, in our environment in Africa, that it is enough that you go in front of the priest or the minister and say, ‘Yes, I do?’ “

The Kenyan bishop also said that church teaching on contraception and fertility focuses too specifically on defining sinful behavior. “It is too simplistic to speak that our African Christian couples can only be taught about the good or negative effects of contraception, infertility, or fertility under just the category of what is sinful or not,” said Barbara.


Speaking specifically of the kidnapping of some 300 schoolgirls by the Boko Haram terrorist group in Nigeria in 2014, Nontando Hadebe, who teaches at Johannesburg’s St. Augustine College and is known as one of 36 of the continent’s most prominent Catholic ethicists, asked:  “How outraged are we? Who is keeping a tab?  There just needs to be an institution that says no — no more!” she continued, calling on the church to reorient to become the “guardian, sustainer, protector” of African and black lives.  “We need an institution that is outraged and that sustains that outrage as a prophetic teaching,” said the South African, a rising theologian who has focused her work on the struggles of African women.

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