New Book Explains How The Catholic Church Respond To Africa’s Decolonisation

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Head-scratching debates have been had and continue to happen on whether European missionaries in Africa prepared the way for colonial rule.

Many African thinkers and scholars have come to hold that as a fact.

In one of his public lectures at the University of the Witwatersrand, Cameroonian philosopher, political theorist and public intellectual Achille Mbembe uttered;

“The Devil, it must be remembered, is an import that came to Africa with missionaries and colonialism, before that he is a character that was totally unknown to us.”

But, a few discourses had examined what happened to missions at the end of the formal empire.

It’s a compelling subject because Christianity has expanded rapidly in Africa since the 1960s. Africa now exports clergy to Europe, a striking reversal from colonial times.

A new book “African Catholic: Decolonisation and the Transformation of the Church”, by Tufts University historian Elizabeth Foster looks to explain this.

Described as a ground-breaking history of how Africans in the French Empire embraced both African independence and their Catholic faith during the upheaval of decolonisation, leading to a fundamental reorientation of the Catholic Church, the book examines how French imperialists and the Africans they ruled imagined the religious future of French sub-Saharan Africa in the years just before and after decolonisation.

The story encompasses the political transition to independence, Catholic contributions to black intellectual currents, and efforts to alter the church hierarchy to create an authentically “African” church.

Foster recreates a Franco-African world forged by conquest, colonisation, missions, and conversions ― one that still exists today. We meet missionaries in Africa and their superiors in France, African Catholic students abroad destined to become leaders in their home countries, African Catholic intellectuals and young clergymen, along with French and African lay activists.

All of these men and women were preoccupied with the future of France’s colonies, the place of Catholicism in a postcolonial Africa, and the struggle over their personal loyalties to the Vatican, France, and the new African states.

Having served as the nuncio to France and the Vatican’s liaison to UNESCO in the 1950s, Pope John XXIII understood as few others did the central questions that arose in the postwar Franco-African Catholic world: Was the church truly universal? Was Catholicism a conservative pillar of order or a force to liberate subjugated and exploited peoples? Could the church change with the times?

He was thinking of Africa on the eve of Vatican II, declaring in a radio address shortly before the council opened,

“Vis-à-vis the underdeveloped countries, the church presents itself as it is and as it wants to be: the church of all.”

Foster(EF) recently had an interview with Laura Seay (LS) of the Washington Post where they spoke about her new book.

Here is an excerpt;

Laura Seay: “African Catholic” is in many ways groundbreaking. Why did you choose this topic?

Elizabeth Foster: Many scholars have explored whether European missionaries in Africa prepared the way for colonial rule ⁠ — but few examine what happened to missions at the end of formal empire. It’s a compelling subject because Christianity has expanded rapidly in Africa since the 1960s. Africa now exports clergy to Europe, a striking reversal from colonial times.

I wanted to know how the Catholic Church navigated the upheavals of African independence and made itself more hospitable to Africans. I discovered that devout Africans played key roles in forcing the church to live up to its own claim to be universal (rather than merely European). And I found that decolonization influenced the reorientation of Catholicism as a whole at Vatican II, the ecumenical council in the 1960s that reformed many of the Catholic Church’s practices.

LS: Throughout the book, it’s clear that different constituencies had different visions for what Catholicism’s purpose and role should be in Africa as colonization ended. Catholics in France and Africa couldn’t agree among themselves on a common vision or theology for the future. Why were there such diverse points of view?

EF: Mid-century was indeed a confusing time in what I call the Franco-African Catholic world. The Vichy regime in France during World War II espoused conservative Catholic values, but its policies, including the deportation of Jews, eventually alienated many believers. The war experience cemented a robust Catholic left in France, of which a significant faction subsequently endorsed colonized people’s calls for self-determination.

In the 1950s, radical African Catholics struggled with the fact that their faith, though it claimed to be universal, was closely wedded to European culture and colonialism, and they called on the church to repudiate those ties. Meanwhile, conservative French theologians, backed by Catholic settlers in Algeria and patriotic boosters of the embattled French Army, countered that church teachings supported colonization. In short, Catholic activists existed in all corners of a profoundly divided Franco-African public at mid-century, and they deployed their faith in support of their respective visions of France, Africa and Catholicism itself.

LS: The French often touted their “civilizing mission” in Africa, claiming that their rule uplifted their colonial subjects. How did racism, gender discrimination and other prejudices affect Catholic missionizing and public service provision on the continent?

EF: French missionaries propagated a particular Catholic version of a “civilizing mission,” at times with dramatic outcomes. For example, I describe how clergy mounted a mid-century campaign to “liberate” African women from what Catholic priests often described as slavery. Opposed to polygamy and arranged marriages that wed potential female converts to Muslim or animist men, missionaries steered young African women toward the convent or monogamous Catholic marriage.

Missionaries encouraged girls to flee their families and raised money in France for the church’s efforts by deploying racist tropes about the “savagery” of Africans. This kind of missionary “civilizing” impulse outraged many colonial officials, who would have preferred that missions stop interfering in African family life. Meanwhile, missionaries believed that most administrators did not understand Africa and were not serious about a civilizing mission.

LS: Catholicism wasn’t the only option for Africans interested in other faiths. How did the growth of Islam affect African Catholicism?

EF: During the colonial period, Islam and Catholicism were both expanding in French sub-Saharan Africa. To many Africans, Islam proved more attractive, not least because its evangelists were Africans themselves. Many older French missionaries saw Islam as the enemy in a battle for souls. In 1959, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the most important Catholic prelate in French Africa, publicly equated Islam with slavery and communism, igniting a firestorm of controversy on the eve of African independence.

But African Catholics and younger French clergy denounced Lefebvre’s stance, arguing that Muslims were their allies in faith. African Catholic prelates from Muslim regions, including Hyacinthe Thiandoum of Senegal and Luc Sangaré of Mali, promoted interfaith dialogue and mutual respect between Catholics and Muslims ⁠ — which proved an influential argument at Vatican II. Alioune Diop, himself a Catholic convert from Islam, echoed this message of tolerance and solidarity.

Read the full interview here

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ImChris Charamba

ImChris Charamba

Head Storyteller at Enthuse Afrika. Balances literary writing with pop culture experience. Captivates raw, authentic sights, moments, feelings and conversations. Follow me on Twitter @ImChrisCharamba

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