‘The Congo Flows into the Tiber’: The Catholic Church in Africa’s Influence Is Growing — But Is Vatican Leadership Ready for It?
ANALYSIS: The Same-Sex Blessings Controversy Sends Mixed Signals About Africa’s Importance
The future of the Catholic Church, it’s often said, is in Africa — where vocations are flourishing, parish life is vibrant, and the total number of Catholics is poised to soon surpass Europe.
But is the Catholic Church, and Vatican leadership in particular, ready for Africa to play a leading role in the universal Church?
To judge by the Vatican’s handling of its recent controversial guidance on same-sex blessings, the signals are decidedly mixed.
On the one hand, the African bishops’ forceful, united reaction to the possibility of blessing same-sex couples outlined in the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Dec. 18 declaration, Fiducia Supplicans (Supplicating Trust), got immediate and dramatic results: The dicastery quickly issued a rare clarification, after which a top African prelate sat with DDF prefect Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández in the Vatican to craft a carefully worded statement from the African episcopate, with input from Pope Francis himself, explaining their persisting reservations.
On the other hand, there is Fiducia Supplicans itself, which was prepared in secret while the Synod on Synodality was still underway last October without any formal consultation with the African bishops, or any apparent consideration of how the document would be received in Africa.
The episode highlights the challenges facing a Church still predominantly influenced by Western perspectives and priorities, even as its center of gravity shifts southward.
“For the Church in Africa, the future is now,” said Dominican Father Anthony Akinwale, a distinguished Nigerian theologian currently teaching at Augustine University near Lagos. “But how is the universal Church going to manage that?”
Africa’s ‘Growing Importance’
Africa has long been recognized as a pivotal part of Catholicism’s future, in large part due to the rapid growth and dynamism of the faith on the continent.
Home to fewer than 1 million Catholics in 1910, the Catholic population of Africa is now 265 million. Africa accounted for 19% of all Catholics in 2021, slightly behind Europe’s 21%, according to the Vatican.
But the two continents are headed in opposite directions: Europe’s Catholic population fell 244,000 that year, while Africa’s increased by more than 8 million. And by 2050, Africa’s share of the global Catholic population is expected to rise to 32%, according to the World Christian Database.
Mass attendance — a key indicator of religious commitment — also is considerably higher in African countries than the world average. For instance, a staggering 94% of Nigeria’s 30 million Catholics attend Mass every Sunday. By contrast, only 5% of Catholics regularly attend Mass in European countries such as Germany and France.
These demographic indicators are part of the story of African Catholicism’s importance, said Bishop Emmanuel Badejo of the Diocese of Oyo, Nigeria.
But the Nigerian bishop said that the African response to Fiducia Supplicans also shows the “growing importance” of the Catholic Church in Africa as a leading voice in the universal Church, particularly when it comes to “maintaining the deposit of faith that we have received.”
“Africa is more conscious of her role, is getting more involved in the life of the Church, and has Church leaders now who are also prepared to take on issues that concern the faith all over world vis-à-vis our culture,” Bishop Badejo told the Register.
African Church leaders aren’t necessarily new to this role, something U.S. Catholic commentators like George Weigel have frequently noted in recent years. For instance, at the 2014 Synod on the Family, African bishops spoke up against proposals from Western prelates to liberalize Church teaching on sexuality. And at this past October’s session of the Synod on Synodality in Rome, African bishops played an important role in blocking the inclusion of the controversial term “LGBTQ” from the synthesis report.
But the strong, widespread and public response to Fiducia Supplicans marks a significant shift in African engagement in universal Church controversies — and is likely a sign of things to come.
The Response From Africa
African bishops’ pushback to Fiducia Supplicans began to be made public almost immediately after the document’s release.
Malawi was the first to weigh in and largely set the tone for what followed. In their Dec. 19 statement, the bishops of the southeastern African nation affirmed that the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage had not changed with Fiducia Supplicans, but that the blessings proposed by the document would not be allowed in Malawi “to avoid creating confusion among the faithful.”
Since then, more than 20 African episcopal conferences have issued responses. Although the bishops’ conferences of North Africa, Kenya and South Africa issued more moderate takes, most responses followed Malawi’s lead.
The collective response to Fiducia Supplicans has had a significant impact — not only in Africa, but also in Rome.
Only two weeks after the declaration was published, Cardinal Fernández, the document’s architect, issued an unprecedented clarification of Fiducia Supplicans. The Jan. 4 press release acknowledged pushback from episcopal conferences as “understandable” and affirmed the right of local bishops to implement the guidance as they saw fit, including prohibiting the imparting of blessings of same-sex couples.
Even so, Africa’s Catholic leadership wasn’t done addressing the guidance.
On Jan. 11, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, the president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), issued a synthesis of the responses from the various local Churches of Africa.
While stressing that the bishops of Africa remained in communion with Pope Francis, the cardinal-archbishop of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who also belongs to the Pope’s nine-member advisory “council of cardinals,” stressed that the blessing of same-sex couples proposed by Fiducia Supplicans would not be allowed in Africa and that such unions are “contrary to the will of God.”
“Within the Church family of God in Africa, this Declaration has caused a shockwave, it has sown misconceptions and unrest in the minds of many lay faithful, consecrated persons and even pastors, and has aroused strong reactions,” wrote Cardinal Ambongo in the statement.
The statement was characterized by many in the media as a consequential rebuke of Fiducia Supplicans. But perhaps more remarkable was the way the text itself was drafted.
According to Cardinal Ambongo, he flew to Rome in early January to seek an audience with the Pope and was granted one on the day of his arrival. The Congolese cardinal said the Pope “was very sad” about the negative reactions to Fiducia Supplicans, not only from Africa but also in other parts of the world.
Cardinal Ambongo said he told the Pope that what the African people needed now was a communication that reassured them that the Church’s teaching was not changing.
Pope Francis agreed and put him in touch with Cardinal Fernández. The very next day, the two met at the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and worked on a document entitled “No to the Blessing of Homosexual Couples in the Catholic Church,” frequently checking in with the Pope to make sure he agreed with the formulation.
In an email exchange with the Register’s Edward Pentin, Cardinal Fernández said the experience allowed Cardinal Ambongo “to better understand the point of the Dicastery, and for me to understand African cultural sensitivity much better.”
Many have seen the episode as a dramatic indication of Africa’s increasing stature in Rome.
“It’s the Congo, not the Rhine, which from now on will flow into the Tiber,” said the Australian Catholic commentator Scott Smith on Twitter (now called X), reworking an old adage to suggest that Africa, rather than Germany, will be a major influence on the Vatican going forward.
A Near Disaster?
But while the impact of African Catholic leaders’ response to Fiducia Supplicans may highlight Africa’s maturation and growing influence, the fact that the document was published in the first place may be a sign that the African context is still not sufficiently appreciated in Rome.
In fact, while the African bishops’ response may be a sign of their growing leadership in the universal Church, a primary motive behind their reaction was to avoid a pastoral disaster back home.
In Africa, rejection of homosexual acts as contrary to the natural law and God’s plan is widespread, uniting Catholics, other Christians, Muslims and practitioners of traditional African religions.
Thus, when media coverage of Fiducia Supplicans began to spread the perception that the Catholic Church was shifting its teaching on homosexuality, Church leaders were less concerned that African Catholics would accept false beliefs about human sexuality and more that they might come to question the legitimacy of the Church.
Mojisola Ladipo, the former registrar of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, shared that she was “distraught” in the wake of Fiducia Supplicans and described the guidance as deeply imprudent.
A Catholic for 45 years since converting from Methodism, she acknowledged that she had trouble going to Mass after the document’s publication, even more difficulty in praying for the Pope, and was “embarrassed” to speak about it with her Muslim friends.
In Accra, Ghana, Father Emmanuel Salifu said that a woman in his parish who had long been resistant to her husband’s Catholicism used Fiducia Supplicans as a pretext for discouraging her children from coming to Mass, leading to a rift in their family.
Concerns about Fiducia Supplicans’ potential to cause scandal are exacerbated at a time when Pentecostalism is surging across the African continent, with pastors often attempting to convert people away from the Catholic Church.
“This would’ve been a great instrument of attack against the Church,” explained Paul Oyebiyi, the president of Catholic Action in the Nigerian Diocese of Osogbo.
The danger explains the swiftness of many African bishops’ response.
“There was a need to say something immediately,” explained Father Akinwale.
“If not, it would be a mismanagement of the growth of the Church in Africa.”
If Fiducia Supplicans’ publication failed to take Africa into account, it wouldn’t be the first time voices from the continent were discounted at the highest levels of Church governance.
At the 2014 Synod, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a former curial head who had been dubbed by some as “the Pope’s theologian” at the time, controversially said that Africans “should not tell us too much what we have to do” in terms of reforming the Church’s teaching on sexuality.
Father Akinwale said that Cardinal Kasper’s dismissal of Africa’s contribution to the universal Church “continues to echo” in the minds of Church leaders on the continent.
“I know a few people who think that that is still the agenda,” the Dominican theologian told the Register.
Furthermore, he said the text’s publication shortly after the October Synod on Synodality “doesn’t give the impression that Africa’s bishops have been listened to at the synod.”
Cardinal Ambongo has gone further, stating on Jan. 25 that Fiducia Supplicans has “brought discredit to the synod, to synodality.”
“The publication of this document, between the two sessions of the Synod, was seen by most people as if it was the fruit of the synod, when it had nothing to do with the synod,” said the president of SECAM.
‘Stabilizing the Boat of Peter’
Despite the apparent slight, African Catholics are ready to make their voices heard in the wider Church.
In fact, even before Fiducia Supplicans dropped, Cardinal Ambongo began a reform of SECAM. The aim of the reforms is to make the continental-wide body a more effective conduit of the voice of the Church in Africa, with an eye to having a greater impact on conversations at the level of the universal Church.
Bishop Badejo said that “keeping the Church going in the most difficult moments” is a natural role for Africa. After all, he said, it was Africa that sheltered the Holy Family when they fled from King Herod to Egypt.
And now, at a time when Western culture is increasingly dominated by secular ideologies in conflict with the Gospel, he believes Africa is poised to play a similar part for the sake of the wider Church.
“There is a sense in which many Africans, with Western education and otherwise, feel that the time has come for African Church leaders to take a role of leadership, stabilizing the boat of Peter,” said the Nigerian bishop, citing concerns that the Catholic Church in Europe “might lose focus.”
The Church in Africa has its own share of challenges, including tribal conflicts, religious syncretism, polygamy, the rise of Islamic militant groups such as Boko Haram and ideological colonization from the West. But African Catholics underscore that their culture’s commitment to community, family, religiosity and the complementarity of the sexes are needed antidotes to problems in the West.
“I think what the response reveals is that Africa can be a pastoral source for the whole Church,” said Father Salifu. But in order for Africa’s voice to be heard, he said the Church can’t privilege voices from Europe, just because they have more wealth and prestige.
“If we’re going to be synodal, then we must be equals,” said the Ghanaian. “No one should have an advantage.”
Oyebiyi said that the African response to Fiducia Supplicans is a “great sign of growth and maturation from Africa.” After all, he noted, Catholicism in Africa only 50 years ago was fledgling, and many local Church leaders were missionaries from the West.
But today, “the Church has incarnated in African culture and African people are running the Church,” he told the Register.
“The expression was so strong that even the Vatican could not ignore it.”