African bishops play a major role, for first time, at contentious Vatican summit

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Bishops gathered at the Vatican for the synod on the family. Photo courtesy Rosie Scammell

Bishops gathered at the Vatican for the synod on the family. Photo courtesy Rosie Scammell

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The morning prayer that starts each session of a major gathering of Catholic churchmen underway here is an important chance for the 270 cardinals and bishops from around the world to set a meditative tone for what are contentious debates about church teachings on sexuality and family life.

With Pope Francis leading the way, the prelates seated in a large Vatican lecture hall chant the traditional Latin prayers, pausing near the end for a brief reflection on the day’s Scripture by one of the bishops at the meeting, known as a synod.

Yet even that moment of spiritual peace is not always a sanctuary from the tensions roiling the three-week meeting that ends next Sunday (Oct. 25).

That was vividly demonstrated last Thursday (Oct. 15) when Tanzanian Bishop Renatus Leonard Nkwande used his homily to exhort the delegates to hold the line against pressures to be more welcoming to gay Catholics, or the divorced and remarried — two topics that will be the sharp focus of the synod’s final week.

The churchmen must avoid “turning vices into new human rights,” Nkwande said, speaking in English as the pope and others listened to his words rendered by a translator. “Who knows what will happen after approving same-sex relations. Are the same arguments for pastoral adaption in this issue, for example, not going to be valid on the other issues, like polygamy, polyandry, bestiality … and many others?”


READ: Pope Francis calls for changes to papacy and a more decentralized church


The Catholic Church must resist any temptation to “compromise the gospel and sacrifice the divine revelation” by seeming to approve of “strange views and new teachings,” he said.

The synod fathers continued with the prayer, and while a few later raised an eyebrow at Nkwande’s talk, it was evidence not only of the passion that many African church leaders are bringing to the proceedings, but also to the growing presence and profile of Africans in the hierarchy and in Vatican politics.

African Catholics overall account for 16 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholic population, and that figure is rising rapidly; the 54 bishops from across Africa who are at this landmark meeting represent 20 percent of the synod’s voting delegates.

But they have an outsized influence because they largely stand against reforms to welcome gays and the divorced and remarried. They are not afraid to voice their views —  in often memorable ways — and they have allies among conservative Eastern European and U.S. churchmen at the synod.

“I think that in the past we’ve looked at them” — the African bishops — “as newcomers,” New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan told the Catholic news site Crux.

“(W)e’ve said, ‘Oh, isn’t it nice that we have them here as a minority.’ They’re not a minority anymore, these are not rookies … They’re not rookies on the ball club. These are people who have immense pastoral experience, who have a sense of the Church that has been tried by suffering and cultural opposition, and who now have a wisdom and an experience that I find breathtaking.”

Others, however, find the views expressed by many African bishops less than helpful.

New cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea receives the red biretta, a four-cornered red hat, from Pope Benedict XVI during the Consistory ceremony in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican November 20, 2010. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Tony Gentile

New cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea receives the red biretta, a four-cornered red hat, from Pope Benedict XVI during the Consistory ceremony in Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican November 20, 2010. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-AFRICAN-SYNOD, originally transmitted on Oct. 19, 2015.

For example, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, a top official in the Roman Curia, made headlines in a speech equating gay rights and Islamic State terrorism, and comparing both to “apocalyptic beasts” that shared a “demonic origin.”

“What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today,” Sarah said.

Even if stated in less volatile terms, resentment at what is seen as undue Western influence and even pressure on Africa is a recurrent theme from the African prelates.

Not only are they pushing back against what they see as a form of neo-colonialism by European and American churchmen, but they also argue that the growth of their churches — compared to steady declines in Western Catholicism — are the result of their adherence to old-fashioned values and the traditional doctrines of the church.

It is the African church that Europeans should be following today, they say, not the other way around.

“When the missionaries came to us, they made us change, in the name of Christianity, so many of our customs,” including polygamy and witchcraft, South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, named by Francis as a top official of the synod, told the Wall Street Journal last week.

“We did it, we’ve converted and find great joy and freedom in our Catholic religion,” Napier said. “And now are they coming in saying all that their predecessors taught us as being the essence of the faith — that’s all wrong.”

Cardinal Wilfrid F. Napier of Durban, South Africa, arrives for the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 14. Photo courtesy CNS/Paul Haring

Cardinal Wilfrid F. Napier of Durban, South Africa, arrives for the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican on Oct. 14, 2015. Photo courtesy of CNS/Paul Haring

Yet Western churchmen say that while they welcome and respect the African growth and contributions, the African way is not the only path for Catholicism, nor is it necessarily the best one for secularized countries.

Evidence of the tensions emerged at a synod held last October in Rome — the pope is trying to make these global dialogues an integral part of church life — when a leading German prelate associated with the reform camp, Cardinal Walter Kasper, was recorded by a conservative journalist making off-handed remarks about his African colleagues.

Issues like homosexuality are “taboo” for the Africans, Kasper said, adding that while the West shouldn’t tell Africans how to best run their church, the Africans “should not tell us too much what we have to do.”

Catholic conservatives made hay of the remarks, accusing Kasper of cultural insensitivity, even racism, and setting the groundwork for a major political fault line running through this month’s synod.


READ: US archbishops Chaput and Cupich offer sharply different visions of Vatican synod


It is, in fact, this geographic and cultural — and doctrinal — fault line that runs through many churches.

Most notable is the worldwide Anglican Communion, whose leaders will meet in January to discuss loosening the Anglican Church’s global structure due to growing differences over homosexuality and female bishops. More than half of all Anglicans live in Africa, which gives the African church even more influence.

Here at the Vatican synod, Catholic leaders are committed to avoiding such a fate.

That’s why many bishops are trying to focus on the common ground between Western and African church leaders, especially over support for social justice issues, reform of the international financial system, the fight against global warming and the battle for human rights and on behalf of migrants.

Case in point: Ghanaian Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle, a delegate known for his moderating tone, insisted early on in the synod that the African delegation is not “blocking anything” at the synod and is “here to share what we have as a value to the greater good of the universal church.”

Yet Palmer-Buckle acknowledged the cultural gap, noting that it had “huge repercussions” in his West African country when Francis famously said of gay people, “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?”

But the archbishop told a media briefing that human rights and dignity of all people must be respected, and he asked for time and understanding for African Catholics on gay issues.

“It takes time for individual voices like that to be heard — when you are dealing especially with something that is culturally difficult for people to understand,” he said.

“And we are trying,” Palmer-Buckle continued. “I don’t want to say we have reached there. No, no, no — perfection is not yet something that we have obtained but we are working towards it.”

The question in the final week of the synod is whether the Africans and Western bishops — and the other camps — can meet somewhere in the middle on these and other issues, or even if there is a middle ground to reach.

YS/LEM END GIBSON

  • Bernardo

    And the major problem with this story? They are all GUYS!!

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  • Fran

    When one has truth and exercises love, there is no disunity, division, or conflicts.

  • Sister Geraldine Marie, OP, RN, PHN

    Hear, hear for the African churchmen! They are absolutely, positively correct!
    The problem in the West lies in the argument being changed by homosexuals into, “homophobia.” That is NOT true! It is homosexual ACTS that are wrong, living together being one of the worst.
    For the divorced and remarried, acceptance for the person, not the sin! The Church must not forget her divine mission, “To preach the word, whether in season or not.” 2Timothy4:2. This quotation is from one of the pastoral epistles of St. Paul.
    Giving into sin does not make one holy, but resisting and obedience to God’s commandments does. And people wonder why they are dreadfully unhappy?!

  • Cheryl

    Fran, I think you’d really appreciate truth in Crystals. Have you ever tried Amethyst or Dark Quartz to enhance your aura, or even Amber? If you post your email or phone num I can get you started.

  • Ed

    True, good point. Crossdressers, though, in pretty expensive dresses at that.

  • Bob

    It is your responsibility Pope Francis to help erase the Catholic Church’s shameful and immoral myths of gay people by making inclusiveness and dignity of all a major priority!! Too many gay people are being attacked and murdered in East Africa and your immoral dogma has a lot of blame for that!!!!! Please do it now!!!!

  • Pete

    Hi Bob,

    A wast majority – more than 99% of worlds population belive being gay is “shameful and immoral”

    Whereas you and a mere les than 1% minority of ur-like-minded people say what 99% believe is “shameful and immoral” – it is not democratic. Bring data points and convince 99% why they are wrong; Just by improportiante money/media power, dont try to cheat majority

  • Leaha

    Far more than “1%” of the world thinks bigotry and hatred is wrong and morally repugnant. Hell, more than 1% of the world is lgbt, never mind straight allies. And I think if you break it down by age the difference becomes even bigger. Sorry Pete but in a few decades this won’t even be an argument. The lgbt community will simply be seen as people. Your side is losing. Everything must evolve.

  • mary

    Thank God for the clarity and discernment of the African clergy.

    Bigotry and hatred have no bearing on homosexuality being disordered.
    You are right that in a few decades this will no longer be an argument because the “fad” will be over by then.

  • mary

    Everything must evolve? That’s a ridiculous remark.

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  • Sister Geraldine Marie, OP, RN, PHN

    Hear, hear for the African churchmen! They are absolutely, positively correct!
    The problem in the West lies in the argument being changed by homosexuals into, “homophobia.” That is NOT true! It is homosexual ACTS that are wrong, living together being one of the worst.
    For the divorced and remarried, acceptance for the person, not the sin! The Church must not forget her divine mission, “To preach the word, whether in season or not.” 2Timothy4:2. This quotation is from one of the pastoral epistles of St. Paul.
    Giving into sin does not make one holy, but resisting and obedience to God’s commandments does. And people wonder why they are so unhappy?!

  • Bernardo

    Sister,

    Might want to do some perusing of the authors of the epistles of Paul. Once you do, you will discover the the Timothy (and Titus) epistles were not written by Paul but were composed by want-to-be Pauls i.e. they have no “divine” guidance.

    Some background information:

    From Father Raymond Brown’s epic NT reference book.

    Excerpts: The First Letter to Timothy p. 654, 80-90% of the critical scholars believe the letter was written by a pseudo Paul toward the end of the first century, early second century.

    “Authenticity – Probably written by a disciple of Paul or a sympathetic commentator on the Pauline heritage several decades after the apostle’s death.

    p. 639 ditto for the Titus epistles.

    See also Professor JD Crossan’s conclusions in his book (with Professor Jonathan Reed), In Search of Paul, about the Timothy and Titus. (Same conclusions as Father Brown).

    See also Professor Bruce Chilton’s book, Rabbi Paul.

  • Richard Rush

    Pete, somewhere around 99% of the world’s population once believed that the earth was flat.

  • Richard Rush

    Mary,

    While it will take longer than a few decades, Christianity will finally take its rightful place alongside Greek Mythology and all the other defunct religions, but homosexuality will still exist, just as it existed long before anyone ever heard of Jesus Christ.

  • mary

    And that’s a problem for you because . . . ?

  • mary

    Richard, Richard, Richard,

    At sometime during your lifetime, you must’ve realized that Zeus and Hera were not historical figures, but Moses, Solomon, King David and Christ were. Perhaps I’m assuming too much on your behalf.
    Also, your belief that “around 99% of the world’s population once believed the earth was flat,” is the myth.

    Plato and Aristotle knew the earth was a sphere.

    “According to Professor Jeffrey Burton Russell, professor of history at the University of California in Santa Barbara, the flat-earth idea seems to be a relatively recent invention that reached its peak only after Darwinists tried to discredit the Bible.
    Professor Russell said in his book Inventing the Flat Earth, first released in the early 1990s, that up until the time of Columbus “nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical”. Professor Russell said he believes that the flat-earth myth can largely be traced back to a story by Washington Irving, which relates a mythical…

  • Desmond Daly

    Absolutely? Positively? There are a lot of false absolutes and positives floating around these days.

  • mary

    ” . . . epistles were not written by Paul but were composed by want-to-be Pauls i.e. they have no “divine” guidance.”

    Is your assumption that want-to-be Pauls had no divine guidance? Or are you saying that was Raymond E. Brown’s assumption?

    No one knows if Raymond E. Brown had any divine guidance. What we all do know is that Raymond E. Brown was not God. He was just a man trying to use his tools and understand scripture out of its context.

    So, when Sister Geraldine quotes:“To preach the word, whether in season or not.” 2Timothy4:2, one has to determine if that quote is a timeless truth.

    Obviously, to any rational, open-minded person, preaching the word of God in season or not is a timeless truth. I am sure, Raymond E. Brown, as a Roman Catholic priest, believed that as well as everything else regarding his faith when he read the Gospels, prepared his homily and knew that during the sacrifice of the mass transubstantiation was a reality he never denied.

  • Ted

    Homosexual lust is no worse than heterosexual, and many “churchmen” would do well to examine their own logs on this topic, and rant less about others’ specks.

    The real question is whether love can be expressed physically regardless of the intent to procreate. And, until the church stops marrying the aged and sterile, it’s hypocrisy in this will remain obvious.

    Matthew 19:12 makes clear Jesus had no issue with those who do not procreate. Now if only more Christians would follow Christ, rather than their own fears and bigotries.

  • mary

    Desmond says:

    “Absolutely? Positively? There are a lot of false absolutes and positives floating around these days.”

    How very astute of you. You must be referring to recent court rulings that declare words have no meaning and deny that oaths to God made on Bibles in courts have no connection to the laws of God upon which this country is founded.

    It is astonishing that puerile solipsistic propaganda and sophistic arguments so easily separate the fools from the wise.

  • Richard Rush

    Mary,

    Prior to the 6th Century BC, the historic record seems to show that virtually everyone believed the earth was flat. . . https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth

    If Moses, Solomon, King David and Christ were historical figures, it proves nothing insofar as the existence of a god.

  • mary

    Ted,

    I think the Church has examined its “logs” and removed them quite openly and admirably without any help or logical explanation for the complete and utter failure of psychiatric and psychological therapy programs recommended to the Church by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association to which all the offending homosexual priests who molested teenage boys were sent for clinical diagnosis, evaluation and treatment and to whom medical clearances were issued. Now it’s your turn to take the log at of your own eye.

    You state, Ted, that “Homosexual lust is no worse than heterosexual [lust] . . .” Are you saying that “lust,” “pornography,” “promiscuity,” and general “debauchery” is always unacceptable?

    You ask simply: “The real question is whether love can be expressed physically regardless of the intent to procreate.”

    If “love” is not pro-creation, in favor of all life, then it is a lie because Christ is the Way, the…

  • mary

    Poor Cheryl lives in the stone age.

  • mary

    To which “immoral myths of gay people” do you refer?

  • mary

    Richard replies:
    Mary,

    “Prior to the 6th Century BC, the historic record seems to show that virtually everyone believed the earth was flat. . . https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth

    Really? Moses wrote the first 5 books of the bible around 1400 BC, the 14th cen. B.C (Before Christ) and stated the earth was round.
    And:
    “If Moses, Solomon, King David and Christ were historical figures, it proves nothing insofar as the existence of a god.”

    If? Actually, reason, logic and science prove the existence of God.

  • mary

    The LGBTs have always be seen as people. Your point, Leaha?

  • mary

    Amen.

  • mary

    If?
    What it does prove is that you didn’t know what the difference was between Christianity, Judaism and mythology.

  • Richard Rush

    Mary, like all religions they are myths/fallacies/fantasies invented and passed down through the ages by humans.

  • Bernardo

    But there is no god so your whole point is moot. And since you have brought god into the discussion, please show your proof that one exists.

    Regarding transubstantiation:

    An update from a Catholic professor of Theology:

    “Transubstantiation is still a Catholic doctrine, but it never meant a
    literal transforming of bread and wine into the physical body and blood of Jesus. “Substance” in medieval philosophy referred to the essence of a thing and was not reducible to material appearance. Transubstantiation is a way of expressing belief that Jesus Christ is SOME HOW present in the consecrated bread and wine in a special way. Some theologians believe that “transignificantion” would be a better term today than transubstantiation.

    But then again the basis of all of this is the Last Supper which by rigorous historic testing was a non-event. e.g. See http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php/016_Supper_and_Eucharist

  • Bernardo

    And one more time some words of wisdom from 1.5 million Conservative Jews and their rabbis:

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob·a·bly
    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

    The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation. “

  • Ed

    None of the above, mary, but thanks for playing.

  • Ed

    Uh, no, mary.

    The bible has multiple different claims about the shape of the earth. All that is part of the proof that the bible should be discarded.

  • Ed

    Why don’t you hazard a guess, mary? Go on, give it a whirl.

  • Bernardo

    Oaths to god? What god? I like Zeus or the Egyptians’

    “Hail to thee, great God, Lord of the Two Truths. I have come unto thee, my Lord, that thou mayest bring me to see thy beauty. I know thee, I know thy name, I know the names of the 42 Gods who are with thee in this broad hall of the Two Truths . . . Behold, I am come unto thee. I have brought thee truth; I have done away with sin for thee. I have not sinned against anyone. I have not mistreated people. I have not done evil instead of righteousness . . .

    And said Egyptians beat the Torah et al by at least a few centuries.

  • Pasta Be Upon You

    Ramen.

    there, fixed that for you.

  • Richard Rush

    Mary,

    “Moses wrote the first 5 books of the bible around 1400 BC, the 14th cen. B.C (Before Christ) and stated the earth was round.” ‘Round’ or ‘circle’ does not mean ‘sphere,’ just as ‘square’ does not mean ‘cube.’ The predominant belief in those days was that the earth was round (or circular) and flat.

    “Actually, reason, logic and science prove the existence of God.” That would only be true in your fantasies.

  • mary

    Ed,

    Really. Let’s have the list you made of the multiple claims.

  • mary

    Dear Pasta Be Upon Uranus,

    I don’t believe I asked for your help. And, should I one day be in need of help, you’d certainly be the last person I’d ever seek out for anything that I thought needed to be fixed.

  • mary

    So, Ed, you’re a racist as well as a cynic? Isn’t your comment a microaggression against all Arabic men who also wear robes?

  • mary

    Proof? Conjugate To be.
    Next.
    Transubstantiation.
    Obviously a discussion on the distinction between substance and accidents would be lost on you.
    Suffice it to say: Corpus Christi.
    The Last Supper takes place at Passover. Jesus was a Jew.
    Pentecost takes place on Pentecost. I know that went over your head.
    You can argue all you want because you don’t know what you are talking about. I do know. If you want help, just ask so you don’t go through life making a complete fool out of yourself.

  • mary

    Ed,

    Did I ask you?

  • mary

    Bernardo,

    Hello? Is there anybody in there?

  • mary

    Done.

  • mary

    Yo–Eddie, Bernardio, Pasta Boy, Desmondo, Ricardo, Teddy, Bobo and the rest of your personas:

    Don’t let your hatred consume you.

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