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Crowds cheer as Pope Francis arrives at Kololo airstrip in Kampala, Uganda. Reuters/Giuseppe Cacace

Pope Francis in Africa: he came, he saw, now what?

Pope Francis was hailed around the world as a “messenger of hope” during his historic visit to Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. The visit to the three African countries was replete with gestures of reconciliation and peace.

He pushed all the right buttons on religious liberty, climate change and reforms to the annulment process of divorced Catholics. The visit came soon after he recently met Fidel Castro in Cuba and his visit to the US, where he celebrated mass.

Pope Francis took a stand against poaching in Africa as well as corruption. He even visited a mosque in Central Africa. This had particular significance given the ongoing inter-religious conflict and violence in the region.

The pope’s visit has been profiled as a “message to the world”. The explosive growth of the Catholic population in Africa despite religious, ethnic and political conflicts is a hint of the growing significance of Africa for the Catholic Church.

According to the Pew Research Centre, the Catholic population in sub-Saharan Africa grew from 1% in 1910 to 16% in 2010. Globally, 31.5% of people are Christians.

Given the phenomenal growth of Catholicism on the continent those of us who live in Africa need to be asking some important questions. These include:

  • What does Pope’s visit mean for Africa? Is it merely a goodwill visit or will it have any fundamental impact?

  • Will the Catholic Church lead us through a path of a greater socialistic view of society in Africa?

The Catholic church and socialism

Jesus of Nazareth could easily have been construed as a socialist in his approach to society.

But the church that became so powerful in the aftermath of the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312AD has not only been at the helm of holy wars – in the postindustrial revolution it became an ally of capitalism.

In more recent times, the modern church – including the Catholic denomination – has also been at the forefront of liberation movements in Latin America, notably Columbia and Peru.

In South Africa the Catholic Church participated along with other Christian denominations in the struggle against apartheid. In India, the Catholic Church has been at the forefront of the Dalit struggles against the caste system.

Given the current pope’s particular historical roots in Latin America, specifically Argentina, it is not surprising that his speeches are leaning toward social and political transformation with key words such as “solidarity” and “justice”.

Since 1961, with the papal encyclical (Mater et Magistra of Pope John Paul XXIII), which is a formal pronouncement from the pope’s office, the social teaching of the Catholic Church has become increasingly significant.

The Catholic Church’s gradual move towards socialistic thinking really began in 1849 with Pope Pius IX. But whether socialism is contrary to Catholic doctrine is an interesting question and has particular reference to the conflict- and poverty-ridden continent of Africa.

Scholars have pointed out that what the Catholic Church was against was not so much socialism, but Marxism as embedded in the critique of Pope Leo XIII.

In the context of South African politics and the need for social reform and the tendency of some South African politicians to emphasise a form of socialism, it must be remembered that what Leo XIII in the late 18th century rejected was “a theory of collective poverty” and “class struggle”.

While the former eliminates “economic stimuli”, the latter “assumes that the different classes of society are natural enemies”, with, for example, labour pitted against capital.

We now need to ask if Pope Francis has a clear socialist message for Africa that he can send to the West and to the rest of the continent. If the recent papal visit is hailed as a “message to the world”, we need to figure out what the content of that message really is and what structures can facilitate it to become a reality.

What Africa needs from the church

The pope spent a great deal of time visiting conflict and poverty stricken regions. This is obviously in line with his socialist leanings.

But socialism is not only about economic issues. It is also about fundamental equality in society in religious and cultural realms.

Given the conservative stand of the Catholic church on gay and lesbian communities, Pope Francis had a wonderful opportunity to extend his message of tolerance not just to the religious realm, but to the social realm as well. This would have meant addressing issues of persecution and intimidation of homosexual people in conservative societies of Africa.

Homosexuality is criminalised in the three countries he visited. While the issue of divorce featured in his comments, the issue of homosexuality was glaringly absent.

Obviously one cannot expect the leader of the Catholic Church to make radical departures from the past traditions at one go. But the pope could have at least hinted at some possibilities for reform within the Church in this area.

Talking truth to power

On a broader level, Pope Francis rightly sits squarely in the middle of an evolving socialist message of the Catholic Church. But it would remain a mirage if the Catholic Church does not engage governments – in Africa and in the West – to bring about urgently needed political and economic changes.

If the Catholic Church is growing faster in Africa than elsewhere in the world, it means that the people of Africa expect the Catholic Church to be with them in their struggle for daily existence.

The ongoing realities of African migration to the west forces the Catholic Church to deliver on its promise of economic and social liberation in the post liberation period.

Political liberation has done nothing more than change faces of political leadership in Africa. What needs to be achieved is for people to realise their simple dreams of a society where their children and women can be safe and fed.

The pope’s visit has perhaps unwittingly thrust the Church into solidarity with the people and committed itself to fight corruption and poverty as well as all forms of social inequality on the continent.

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