Pope‘s UK visit provokes debate on Catholicism in Africa

Pope‘s UK visit provokes debate on Catholicism in Africa

by / Comments Off / 52 View / 13th September 2010

Recent controversy in the Catholic Church has reignited debate about the role of Catholicism in modern society. Commentators have noted that the Church thus finds itself at a definitive moment in its history.

New Africa Analysis spoke to Sister Janet Fearns who worked in Nigeria and Zambia as a nurse and midwife for over twelve years, while also contributing to communities in the region in a range of ways. ‘To be an African is to believe in God’ she said. ‘God is a part of life in Africa in a way that does not seem to happen in secular society’. Sister Fearns also explained that while the Church does not have different teachings in Africa, it does take on a different form culturally and in the expression and vitality of faith.  [protected]

The number of Catholic followers in Africa continues to rise. During his African voyage in March ‘09, Pope Benedict VIX appealed for ‘international solidarity’ for Africa in the face of the global economic crisis.  The continent has an estimated 158 million Catholics, one of the world’s largest populations. In ‘07, the Vatican reported that the continent was producing priests at a higher rate than any other part of the world, with ordinations rising by 27.6%. Some organisations have predicted that by 2025, one sixth of the world’s population (estimated 230 million people) are expected to be situated in Africa. But as the rising numbers of followers indicate, the weight and responsibility of the Church to deliver to the African masses has increased tenfold. 

Some observers maintain that Christianity and Catholicism are under attack from the mass media; with allegations and stories of abuse in the Catholic Church, and schism within the Church of England given unprecedented coverage. Critics argue that the main focus of churches over the past few years has been on dulling the rise of aggressive forms of secularism in the West. Organisers consequently hope that the Papal trip to the United Kingdom (16th -19th September) will present an opportunity to revitalize the image of the Catholic Church following recent media controversy.

The Vatican has subsequently been battling against this uprising, attempting to dampen arguments that religion should not play a role in public life. However, while Pope Benedict has appeared to be somewhat preoccupied by the diminishing status of the Church in Europe, it is becoming clear that the Africa demands as much attention as Europe.  

The Church’s uncompromising view on preventing the spread of HIV/AIDs is a clear illustration of this. More than two thirds (an estimated 22 million) of the 32.9 million people infected with HIV live in Sub Saharan Africa. The Catholic Church encourages abstinence as a form of prevention, but this ideology continues to divide commentators, especially with regards to the HIV/AIDs epidemic.

The Pontiff drew a substantial amount of controversy by remarking that condoms were not the answer to the continent’s fight against HIV/AIDs, arguing that they could in fact exacerbate the problem.   In Cameroon last year, he said that the spread and longevity of the endemic was ‘a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems’. The Pope’s remarks sparked outrage amongst aid agencies that have been battling the spread of HIV and AIDs in Sub Saharan Africa. He also added that ‘the traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids’.

Critics argue that abstinence measures have proven to be inadequate in preventing the spread of the disease. Some health agencies subsequently promote wider access to condoms and educating individuals on how to protect themselves.

‘The Catholic Church supports life’ Sister Fearns explained. A health practitioner herself, she told NAA that throughout her time in Africa she had worked with HIV patients. She consequently maintained that a lot can be done by educating men and raising the status of women. She went on to highlight the on-going plight and significance of small Christian African communities across the continent that continuously cares for people with AIDs.

In many respects, the Church’s teachings have translated into a cohesive manifestation. While describing her time on the continent, Sister Fearns spoke about numerous outreach programmes that the Church carried out.  Projects like community radio stations, agricultural schemes and health clinics all have all helped to ensure that the Church’s teachings  have been sustained in a way that gave back to communities.

The Catholic Church has often found itself between the growing pressures of new information flows and its traditional teachings. It has subsequently been caught between two paths in Africa. On the one hand, it has played a significant role in terms of sustaining and increasing its numbers and devotional vitality. While on the other, it has found its work challenging by prolonged poverty and destitution amongst Africa’s people, striking chords of disillusionment.

Members of the clergy are now often finding that while spiritual provisions are appeasing, that this also needs to be balanced by a physical presence. The work of missionaries like Sister Janet Fearns demonstrates that action is taking place in some communities. Ensuring that strong foundations are upheld both within and beyond the realms of the Church may prove to be the only way to ensure that fragile populations are safeguarded and that Catholicism will continue to thrive in Africa. [/protected]