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Catholic synod: the voices of church leaders in Africa are not being heard – 3 reasons why

Man in white robe speaking into a microphone while seated at a round table with four other men, all with a computer screen in front of them
Pope Francis (in white) at the opening session of a major congress on the Catholic Church’s future on 4 October 2023. Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Catholic church today is deeply polarised. This has created doctrinal fissures that are seemingly unbridgeable.

There are many rumbling contestations on questions of identity, mission, faith and morality. Other questions touch on pastoral life, the nature of marriage and family life, denial of holy communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, clerical celibacy, authority in the church and reproductive rights.

There is also a serious erosion of religious authority. Many church leaders have lost their credibility because of what Pope Francis calls the “leprosy of clerical sexual abuse” and financial scandals.

The church in Africa hasn’t been spared these issues. In parts of the continent, the challenges of ethnocentrism, abuse of religious authority and internal division are hurting the church’s credibility and effectiveness. And some national churches seem silent on rising crises of democracy and leadership across Africa.

There have always been divisions in the church, but its effectiveness and credibility in Africa have been affected by clannish divisions and internal fights over money, power and position. This raises the question: how can the church be the conscience of the continent if it’s ravaged by the same internal problems found in political institutions?

Most of the controversies that faced the church in its first 500 years were resolved through basic synodal principles – the word synod means “walking together”. These principles were developed by African scholars and church leaders like Cyprian, Athanasius, Aurelius and Augustine.

In 2021, Pope Francis convened a worldwide consultation on the future of the Catholic church. This synod will conclude in 2024. Decisions made this year and next will define the future of modern Catholicism for many years to come.


Read more: Pope Francis: the first post-colonial papacy to deliver messages that resonate with Africans


Sadly, in the process so far, there seems to be no clear African agenda articulated through African Catholic church leaders.

I have observed the preparations of Africa for this synod. I’m afraid that the mistakes made by the continent’s church leaders in previous synods – including two held specially to address Africa’s challenges in 1994 and 2010 – are being repeated.

The African continental meeting that took place in Ethiopia in March 2023 didn’t come up with a clear agenda to address the challenges facing African Catholics.

African delegates are faced with three major challenges going into the current consultations. First, they are simply responding to what is tabled in the working document for the synod rather than setting their own agenda. Second, they are treating the continent like a homogeneous entity. Third, they’re failing to demonstrate the changes that African Catholic leaders wish to make in their leadership styles, and pastoral and social ministries in local dioceses and religious congregations, without constantly looking up to Rome for instructions and directions.

Drowned voices

The latest synodal process began in 2021 with grassroots consultations, and national and continental assemblies. It has now entered the most decisive moment.

This is why it is important that African voices are heard. As a theologian who has studied the development of the synodal process in Africa, I worry that African Catholic voices may instead be drowned.

First, African delegates at the synod are not formulating their own agenda. During the two consultations on the family in 2014 and 2015, Africans framed their responses to the synod’s working document as a rejection of a western agenda for change to the traditional family. They pushed back against a perceived attempt to impose on the rest of the church a new understanding of marriage that includes the blessing of same-sex relations.

African delegates have failed to present their position on how to deal with issues of marriage, polygamy, denial of communion to polygamists, childlessness, burial rites and widowhood practices.


Read more: Pope Francis' visit to Africa comes at a defining moment for the Catholic church


Second, the problems that face Africa are often localised. They require contextualised solutions. Yet, African delegates often treat the continent as homogeneous, with similar social, economic and political challenges. In the 2015 synod, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea appealed to the delegates from Africa to speak with one voice, as if Africa had one voice.

There is a need to present Africa in its diversity and richness. The churches of Europe, for instance, have always presented their issues in a more localised, national and specific sense – the German Catholic Church is implementing its own synodal path. African delegates must resist the continued colonial structure, racialised thinking and mentality that sees Africa as one country rather than a continent of diversity and dynamic pluralism.

Finally, African delegates must move away from constantly asking Rome and the pope to help solve the issues within the church in Africa. The delegates must focus attention on the current situation of the church and society in Africa, and how African Catholics can solve their own problems by courageously confronting the internal challenges facing the church in the continent.

The Catholic church is witnessing its fastest growth in Africa (2.1% between 2019 and 2020). Out of a global population of 1.36 billion Catholics, 236 million are African (20% of the total). This growth is happening alongside a rise in poverty, social unrest, coups, wars and illiberal democracy.

What next

African delegates must demonstrate a deeper understanding of the continent’s social and religious challenges. They must capture the hopes and dreams of their congregants, and articulate how the Catholic church can support social transformation through authentic and credible religious experiences and practices.

Pope Francis has said the future of the church and the world will be determined by how those who inhabit the peripheries of life are lifted up. African delegates need to speak up for the millions of Africans who are poor and marginalised.

The Catholic church in Africa must become a champion for human rights, good governance and women’s empowerment. It needs to model the image of an inclusive church in its structures and priorities. It needs to nurture a new generation of Africans who understand the diverse challenges facing the continent and seek African solutions.

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