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What Africa Wants From the Catholic Synod on the Family in Rome

As the leaders of the Catholic Church gather in Rome for the second phase of the Synod on the future of the family, many African Catholics are insisting that the world should listen to what Africans are saying.
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As the leaders of the Catholic Church gather in Rome for the second phase of the Synod on the future of the family, many African Catholics are insisting that the world should listen to what Africans are saying about the future of the family. This is particularly with regard to the polarizing debates on same-sex marriage today. Africa's position on marriage and family may offer the Catholic Church and global Christianity a fresh understanding of the importance and place of the family in contemporary society. Above all, the narrowing of the discussion on family life to the preoccupation with the push for same-sex marriages, especially by delegates from predominantly Western culture, is worrisome to many African bishops and church leaders. This is because it is making it nearly impossible for non-Western countries from the Global South to share their experiences and wisdom on the family and numerous other challenges facing contemporary families with the rest of the world.

More than 100 years ago, Edward Blyden predicted that Africa will be "the spiritual reservoir of the world," providing a spiritual third way to bridge the increasing gulf between the East and the West. In his last major papal document on Africa, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI called Africa "the spiritual lungs" of the world. Beyond the romantic idealization of African spirituality or the triumphalism which may sometimes characterize the narrative of the exponential Christian expansion in Africa, there lies a deeper treasure in Africa which could provide "a third way" in the discussion today on the future of the family. African positions on moral issues with regard to marriage have often been dismissed without any deep counter-arguments as irrelevant, dated, conservative, unscientific or simply a-historical. The most egregious of such dismissive attitude was that of Cardinal Walter Kasper at the Synod last year when he was quoted in an interview as saying with regard to African positions on marriage, divorce, same-sex relations, etc., that "Africans should not tell us too much of what we have to do."

But why should the African positions on these issues be taken seriously? The first is that the issues of marriage and family are so universal in nature and affect entire humanity. Therefore, it is important for religious groups and nations to draw from multiple perspectives and experiences to enrich whatever laws and provisions are made for the good of families and humanity at large. Second, Africa represents the new face of global Catholicism and Christianity. Indeed, to understand the main features of Christianity today and the challenges and opportunities which open themselves to Christianity, one must look beyond the West to Africa and the Global South in general. While we speak of the graying of the church in the West, in Africa it is all about the power and magic of youth and the vibrant churches which are emerging in large numbers every day. The cultural and historical contours of the West which defined the old map of Christendom and the epistemological compass which the West provided for reading that map no longer represent the new face of global Christianity. What this means then is that Western problems and Western solutions to these new situations can no longer be presumed to have a universal appeal within the cultural pluralism of global Catholicism.

In this new era of a world church, there is the need for Catholicism to embody fully its identity as being a universal religious system which has something for everyone. This is an identity which is grounded in the very notion of God embraced in Christianity as a Trinity of persons, that is, a diversity of action in a unity of being; a rich tapestry of activities in a symphony of diversity which are held together in a bond of love, respect and intimate relationship. The Catholicism of tomorrow will have a universal appeal not because it has a mono-cultural tradition which it inherited from her Roman-Greco-Judeo traditions, but because it embodies the multiple narratives of all cultural and historical groups and peoples who all make up the one Catholic family.

Traditionally, the church's teaching and tradition have been presented, enforced and lived as a mono-cultural, homogenous and distinctive Christian life. However, these teaching and traditions are often presented and defended as if they came down from heaven as neatly packaged sets of beliefs and practices. However, there is always cultural mediation in the process of receiving and living any spiritual reality. This is because we are all historical beings and anything that is divine or spiritual must be touched by what is cultural and historical in order to be truly human. And this is the heart of the matter because most of the teachings and traditions of the church have come down to us through Western cultural traditions and convergence of many historical factors too numerous to mention here. However, in the world church of today the new answers to these emerging questions will require a more expanded cultural field view beyond the West. As the African Catholic bishops declared in their recent document for this Synod, there is need to explore "cultural alternatives whose values can have positive impacts on certain theories and alienating practices of contemporary cultures." What are these cultural alternatives especially coming from Africa?

There are three of the most important cultural values from Africa to be noted here: The first is the value of a traditional family of male, female and children as representing the complete image of the human family. This has to be distinguished from a relationship between two same-sex persons. Most African languages will only refer to marriage as family. Thus family life is conceived and lived in Africa as a subset of, and a linkage to the larger community and a mirror into the whole picture of humanity. It is not a relationship between two persons, but a communal life of members of the family representing the community. Thus there is a primacy of family life and community over individual claims because "we are through other people" and "I exist because I belong to a community," and "I am nothing without others, human and cosmic realities" -- the individual cannot stand outside of the community. The second is the ethical requirements which flow from the first. I am referring to the ethics of community which grounds all claims of right. The individual's claims and choices are conceived as a life force through which the individual participates in the life of the community in order to contribute toward cosmic and human flourishing. The third is the belief that the actions of the individual are meant to give life to the community because they are linked in a spiritual chain between the living dead, the living and not-yet-born. The shaping of the future should be governed by life-sustaining, community-sustaining, community-regenerating and spiritually sound choices which bring abundant life to the individual and the community and the entire cosmos. These values will be taken up in my next essays during the Synod.

When placed in conversation with Western worldview, one will observe that Western worldview is always set in terms of binaries and opposites, a certain dualism of either/or, and conservative/liberal debates which are often polarizing especially in the complex cultural climate of today. African ethical reasoning adopts a duality of discourse that is, looking at causal links, relationships especially spiritual chains between the action, its origin and their consequences for the community. Seen in this light, the same-sex marriage debate is not about the moral equivalence of acts proper to marriage in heterosexual union with regard to the rights of homosexual persons to embrace such acts and other properties of marriage. It is about getting to the roots and origin of the moral challenge facing the homosexual person in his or her inclination or desires. In other words, in African ethical reasoning one is looking at both the origin and end of the desire because this person and his or her desires do not stand alone outside these factors through which the community preserves the common good.

Thus one seeks the causal links between the orientation so manifested by the same -- sex person, and the ordination of such acts to the proper good of the family and the community which he or she like every other member of the community is called to serve. Whereas same-sex union is unacceptable in most African cultures, Africans are open to exploiting the space provided at the Synod to make her case. Africa wants the world to pause and engage in broader and deeper dialogue about the origin and goal of sexuality and sexual acts. Africa is calling on the world to dig deeper into the causal link between the rise in advocacy for same-sex marriages and the restlessness of many 'nomadic souls' in the world today among other factors.

No one is to be rejected because of who they are but the community cannot rush into finding solutions without first of all understanding the causal-spiritual-teleological linkages in the desires and choices of her members whether they are homosexuals or heterosexuals. As the Igbo people say, "ife kwuru, ife akwudebeya" -- nothing stands alone; there is no effect without a cause.