Identity and Dialogue

African bishops and the Family

African bishops and the Family Oct. 30, 2015

African bishops against “western” views in the Synod on the Family: fidelity to doctrine vs unorthodox opinions or hardness of heart vs merciful attitude?

On October 4th, 2015, bishops from around the world gathered in Rome for the second series of sessions of the Synod on the family. Many family issues were debated and a huge mediatisation took place. Even those Medias that care a little about religious matters were interested. Now, as the synod has ended, things seem to have cooled down. However, it revealed that the Church, which professes to be one, is not very much united. The media referred to fractions of conservative against liberal ones, or African bishops against prelates from the West. In my naturally over-optimistic attitude, I would rather say that the dialogue was between bishops coming from different countries and traditions.

All the bishops had a few minutes to share their experience of family life in their countries. One story touched most of the synod fathers. “One bishop spoke of a child who at his First Communion gave part of his host to his mother and father who were not allowed to go to Communion. [Did] this child understand something that the bishops [did] not?” While many Catholics might think that the Church’s doctrinal teaching has to be authentically and similarly taught everywhere, particular ways of living it have also to be taken into account. Especially when they come to make us wonder if the entire Church’s teaching is unmovable. Can the Holy Spirit still teach us something new or better than what we know today?

Stephanie Kirchgaessner writing for The Guardian, on October 3rd, 2015 said that “[f]or a church with a 12th-century mindset, the 21st century is a bewildering place”. Did she speak out of ignorance or did she make a point? While Kirchgaessner spoke of difference of eras, the most dividing, or to put it right, the most seemingly dividing elements of the synod are cultural differences. A good number of bishops who attended the synod were from Africa. Their group was known to hold on traditional ways of addressing family problems.


One of the well-known African cardinals, Francis Arinze, has been the leading voice in defence those traditional ways, although not one of the 44 bishops from Africa who attended the synod. He said that “Most people in continental Europe or even North America, when they hear of a synod they think immediately of divorce-remarriage and will they receive Holy Communion. And they even mention homosexual unions," Arinze said in an interview. "Africans say 'Lord help us! Is that what you understand by family? This synod is on the fa-mi-ly.'" In other words, he excludes the families that are not the traditional setting: father-mother-children. He has also been renowned for opposing any changes to the way the Church treats divorced and remarried couples. When he makes himself the spokesperson of the African continent, he seems to suggest that every Catholic on the continent agrees with him or that those who oppose his views are not fully African. Could an African Catholic understand things differently? Should our African make their points using an “African” identity as their starting point?

Personally, I would agree that the most significant changes that happened in the church teaching in the recent years might be the ones of the Second Vatican Council in the early sixties. That was just some decades after the evangelisation of most African nations. Did those African churches integrate Vatican II changes or at least its spirit, or did they just hold on pre-Vatican II ways which they were still digesting? One might argue that this is the cause of the repeatedly conservative statements in various synods.

The African bishops represented the group that could be described as conservative and one of the points where they remained intransigent was the case of the divorced and remarried couples. Thomas Reese wrote that “[T]he problem is that conservatives do not see divorce and remarriage as simply one sin, which can be confessed and forgiven. They see it as a continuing sin each time the couple has sex. Since they will not stop having sex, they cannot go to Communion. There is no willingness to accept the first marriage as irrevocably broken and destroyed, which would allow the parties to move on with their lives”. Reese added that “some bishops are obsessive in their opposition to homosexuality. Some still see it as a lifestyle choice. Dr. Anca-Maria Cernea, a lay auditor and head of the Association of Catholic Doctors in Romania, gave an impassioned speech at the synod linking homosexuality and Marxism while arguing that homosexuals can be cured”.

The other group was mainly led by German speaking bishops. That ‘German speaking group argues in their report that the church might be able to use what is called the “internal forum” to allow some remarried persons to take the Eucharist on a private, case-by-case basis after seeking guidance, advice, and then permission from priests or bishops’.

This German speaking “group explains how the church’s understanding of marriage has developed over time -- first emphasizing monogamy of marriage, then “the personal dignity of the spouses” before coming to understand the family as the “house church.”. Those ‘German cardinal also strongly articulated a vision for the development of church teaching, saying the "doctrine of the church is not a closed shop, but a living tradition." Giving as example differences between Pope Pius XI's 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii and Pope John Paul II's 1981 encyclical Familiaris Consortio, Marx said that between the two there "is a way; it's not the same"'.

Among the people who participated to the synod were also Protestant prelates. One of them was Tim Thornton, an Anglican bishop from Cornwall in the United Kingdom. Talking about him Rosie Scammel said that ‘[a]s some of the Catholic bishops at the synod resist proposed changes to church doctrine, Thornton said many have failed to recall that the Catholic Church has changed over the centuries: “The way the church has treated families, the way families have treated the church, has changed significantly, but that doesn’t seem to have featured much'.

My personal views would be that, while the debated issues are vital to the life of the church, the lack of trust in the capacity of Our Lord to protect his Church predominated among the conservative bishops. When they suggest that remarried couples should not receive Holy communion, what do they make of Our Lord gestures when he gave his body and his blood to disciples who were not yet fully believers and who had among them a certain Judas Iscariot who was going to betray their master? Jesus surely knew that Judas heart was not clean and that he would carry out the treason he had matured in himself.

As Stan Chu Ilo writes brilliantly, ‘Holy Communion is not a trophy which is given to those who have lived well or those who have run the race of life very well. Holy Communion is a remedy for sin; food for the journey of life. Before receiving communion all Catholics say this prayer: "Lord I am not worthy that you should enter my roof but only say the Word and my soul shall be healed"'. He strengthens his point saying that “the one who allowed the woman with the flow of blood to touch his garment, who allowed the public sinner to touch his body and wash his feet with her tears, will surely want the divorced and remarried, the prostitutes, the same-sex person who is looking for mercy, healing, grace and unconditional and unmerited divine love to come to his communion table".

So, we might think that this synod was a failure, especially for those who wanted to have a more merciful and understanding church. But, as David Gibson writes, “[t]his synod ended, but synodality — the ongoing process of dialogue, discernment, collaboration, and collegiality that leads to new approaches and possibly even doctrinal shifts — isn’t over’.

Cardinal Nichols representing one of the English speaking groups “said [that] Pope Francis had warned at end of the October 2014 synod against two temptations: of reducing everything to issues of doctrine, and of bandaging wounds without first treating them. He said this synod had clearly avoided the first, while the pathway for the divorced and remarried outlined in the final report had avoided the second”.

In the end, the synod fathers drafted a document that summarizes their decisions. The Jesuist priest, Father James Martin, tells us that “[o]verall, the document stressed two concepts: "accompaniment" and "discernment." The church must accompany families in the complexity of their lives and use discernment, a form of prayerful decision-making, to help people arrive at good decisions based on church teaching. The final document is not even the final word. Pope Francis will most likely issue his own document within a few months, summing up the synod's findings and perhaps moving the discussion farther. He concluded that “[f]ear of change holds the church back. And it does something worse. It removes love from the equation. In the past few weeks I have seen this fear lead to suspicion, mistrust and hate. And at the heart of this, I believe, is fear. As St. Paul said, perfect love drives out fear. But perfect fear drives out love".

As I always say: “dialogue is key to healthy relations in any kind of community”. Identities might make dialogue difficult but personal negative attitudes and predispositions are actually the real cause of the rejection of other people’s views based on their personal experiences. This synod allowed the bishops to express the joys and the pains of the families under their care. Pope Francis opened the first sessions of this synod, in 2014, inviting all the synod fathers to speak freely and to listen generously. That is the biggest achievement of this synod and if it remains the procedure for further gatherings of Church prelates, no doubt our Church will be a healthy community where the children of God will live their lives and their mission together in solidarity, peace and love.

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