Ecclesia in Africa

Cardinal Napier of South Africa Discusses 2015 Synod

During last fall’s synod on the family, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier served as one of the five co-presidents of the gathering, which was convened to consider how the Church can better assist Catholic families. And he has a simple yet powerful message for married Catholics wondering how they can follow the Church’s message on marriage in today’s challenging context: Live it!

In Part 1 of this wide-ranging interview on Feb. 19 with Register correspondent Sophia Feingold in Washington, the South-African cardinal touched on a number of hot-button current Church issues, including German Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to allow reception of Communion by some divorced-remarried couples.

The largest single focus of the interview, though, was about the vocation to marriage and the positive ways that the Church can accomplish its mission of strengthening sacramental marriage in contemporary culture.


Let me begin by asking: What can the Western Church learn from the Church in Africa and vice versa?

I could speak about what we have learned from you. But in terms of what the West could learn from Africa, I would say a few things. The first thing would be strong relationships between the priest and the laity. They are closer in Africa and much more real in Africa than it would be in some other parts of the world. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the priest very often has a number of outstations, communities that he has to visit, and in many cases, he only visits them once a month. So the priests of necessity have to have laypeople who are trained to run those communities in the meantime, and that means that there’s a good interflow of information and formation that takes place between the priest and those communities.

The second thing I think that the Church in Europe could look at — I look at the arguments going on in the West, and especially around the Church, around Pope Francis at the moment, the niggling things that people are looking at: Doctrinal expressions are not accurate; they’re not right. In Africa, we’d be saying, “Man, we’ve just got to try to survive, and we need God to guide us how to survive, how to become better persons.” So the urgency of engaging with God is much more closely felt in Africa than it would be in the West.


Racial tensions are still a problem in the United States — manifested most recently in the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the social and political discussions that has created. Especially given your experience in Africa in the 1990s, what would you say the Church in the U.S. can learn about reconciliation from the experience of the Church in South Africa?

I was going to say maybe the question could be put the other way around: “What can we in South Africa learn from the experience of the Church in the United States?” But I think it’s a process. What we have been able to do is to concentrate all of our efforts on the community-building aspect of the pastoral plan that I spoke about yesterday [at a talk at The Catholic University of America]: “Community Serving Humanity.” And that certainly is a virtue that we’ve developed: how to work at making people feel that they are members of the same community, even though they come from very different racial, cultural and even religious backgrounds. I think that’s one of the things we could certainly pass on here.

Ironically, when we were doing that in the archdiocese where I am now, my predecessor sent a team of people to Rhode Island, where they were running a program called Renew. Renew was a faith-sharing program where a parish would be broken up into small units, and those units would meet weekly to reflect on material that was supplied; and the whole thing was about making the faith real in people’s lives. Now, in order to implement the pastoral plan, Archbishop Denis Hurley sent this team of six or seven people to come here, learn about Renew, and then go back and implement it; and it spread from one diocese to another diocese. And the essence of Renew was a laity that is engaged with clergy in plotting the way forward to a much more active, much more engaged faith. It’s ironic that while we were trying to implement our own thing there, this Renew was imported. And it really did work wonders. Other programs then used the small Christian community model of church as a way of giving communities a sense of being built up. Because you mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that racial tensions are only between blacks and whites. It’s within the black community as well; there are certain tensions there. They might not be racial, they may be tribal or linguistic, but in all cases, we were trying to do the same thing: to get them to accept each other as brothers and sisters, and the equalizer would be our faith in Christ.


Pivoting to the synod, but keeping with the theme of Africa and the West: One of the things that some have suggested in the context of certain proposals, such as those by Cardinal Kasper, is that while doctrinally the Western Church and the Church in developing countries are the same, there need to be differences in praxis — for example, about Communion for the divorced and remarried. Is this possible; is this advisable, or no?

When that debate was going on, in fact when Cardinal Kasper made his initial proposal, it was at a meeting called by Pope Francis to feel the way forward, in a joint venture by the College of Cardinals, the College of Bishops, as a way of reforming and renewing the Church. And marriage was seen as the main thing, because marriage forms the family, and the family is the basis of society and the Church. So when Cardinal Kasper presented that first — made that first presentation —  it was very well argued about how marriage is indissoluble, it’s one, and it’s supposed to be fruitful, and so on and so forth. Those major qualities were quite well emphasized.

Then when it came to divorce and remarriage, the breakdown of the marriage relationship, he used an image that is very interesting: [A troubled] marriage is like a ship that has gone on the rocks, or in difficulty in stormy waters. What do you do when a marriage gets into difficulties? You launch lifeboats to rescue people from the peril that they are in. I thought it was a very good image: that what we’re looking for, therefore, is a lifeboat that’s going to rescue these people in this marriage that has been wrecked. And he didn’t go as far as to say that the lifeboat means allowing them to receive holy Communion. But he used that image, and I thought it was a very good image; and I’ve been reflecting on it myself.

When we get to the point of [marriage and Communion]: Well, if marriage is the same, and the same demands are there for marriage and for access to the Eucharist throughout the entire Church, then how can you say that a different praxis would suit us in a different situation here? Because [Africa’s] first question would then be, “Okay, you have a different situation: You have marriages in irregular situations in Europe; you want the Church to allow them to come to the sacraments in that irregular situation. Can you help us with how we are going to handle irregular situations in Africa? For instance, if a man marries a wife, he says he’s just taking the one wife; but the culture is there for a second and a third wife — now what happens if he’s a Catholic? He enters into an irregular situation, where he’s got two wives at the same time, whereas in the European Church, you have a successive [situation]. So how’s your praxis going to be different from ours when the situation is the same?” The essential meaning of marriage has been violated in both cases.

And I think that’s where the crux of the problem lies. What I would say is this: We do have our strong points, and in the West they have their strong points. They have a long philosophy and theology of marriage; we would have the strong culture and community that upholds marriages — so we do have those two [different] things. But I don’t see that as Christians, as Catholics, we can actually come up and have two different praxes that actually are contradicting the basics, as we have understood them up to now: And, that is, to be able to receive Communion, you have to be in the state of grace. If you’re in a second marriage relationship, it’s doubtful whether you are.


Turning to the synod itself, what did it accomplish, and what didn’t happen? What did it leave to be done?

I think the first thing it accomplished was laying the problems on the table quite openly and honestly. … There certainly was an openness and a frankness that one hasn’t heard very often before in the Vatican. So, for me, that was the first thing that the synod accomplished.

The second thing that the synod accomplished was — and that was the 2015 synod — to identify very clearly how marriage looks from Christ’s point of view and how we must try to see marriage through that perspective ourselves. You go right back to the basics, when Christ says, “This is not the way it was from the beginning.” That clear definition of marriage, bringing the Old Testament in, but also reinforcing it with Christ’s words, was one of the things [the synod emphasized]. And people needed to hear that. There was a lot of confusion [that arose] out of some of the things that came out in the second week of the first synod.

The third thing that I think came out of [the second synod] was that we need to define marriage as a vocation — not an institution or a contract or a covenant — we’ve got to see it as a vocation. And then, as with other vocations, you have to develop it; you have to form people into that vocation. Marriage preparation shouldn’t just be preparing for the wedding day; it should be a whole process of formation — how do you enter into a relationship? How do you keep that? How do you raise the level of that relationship? That was the third thing that I think the synod really did: [It emphasized] the necessity of good marriage preparation.

And the fourth one was that, while we’ve helped people enter the marriage state, we need to accompany them [afterward], especially in the first years of marriage — that’s when real and serious adjustments have to be made. First of all, living together with somebody you haven’t lived with before is quite an adjustment. And you get a child coming in the middle between you — well, how do you situate; what happens to the relationship then? And so accompanying couples is one of the key things that also came out of the synod.

A fifth one would be: how to deal with problem situations in families or in marriages — a child-headed household, a single-parent household, same-sex unions, kids who are mixed up, and so on — how do you deal with those? I think those are some of the things that got clarified at the synod. We were certainly not there to resolve them, because the topic of the second synod was the vocation and the mission of the family, not about how to resolve problems in the family.

So I saw a lot of positives that came out of the synod, and I’m looking forward to reading what Pope Francis is going to come up with [in his exhortation], because I think he’s going to emphasize many, if not all, of those points which I’ve identified.


So you expect that?

I do. I do expect that. Anyway, whether it comes or not, we are already trying to implement [these points] in our diocese.

Sophia Feingold writes

from Washington.