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Nowhere has this week’s Vatican declaration on “the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples” generated less enthusiasm than in Africa.

Archbishop George Desmond Tambala, president of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi. Screenshot from @lilongwearchdiocese YouTube channel.

There have, of course, been negative responses to the document Fiducia supplicans in other continents. Bishops in Kazakhstan have rejected it, while prelates in Ukraine have made pointed criticisms of the text.

But these Church leaders seem, so far at least, to be outliers in their respective regions. The opposition that is starting to be expressed toward the declaration in Africa appears to be on a different scale — and a letter just sent to the heads of the bishops’ conferences of Africa suggests the resistance could unite the whole continent.

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In Malawi, nine of the country’s 12 active bishops and archbishops signed a Dec. 19 “clarification” stating that blessings of “same-sex unions of any kind, are not permitted in Malawi.”

That statement was presented dramatically in the next day’s edition of Malawi’s The Nation newspaper with the front-page headline “Bishops rebuff Pope Francis.”

In Zambia, 12 of the nation’s 17 bishops and archbishops endorsed a Dec. 20 “pastoral statement” saying that the declaration was “not for implementation in Zambia.”

So, the majority of two national episcopal conferences have already declared explicitly that the document is a dead letter. 

‘Totally different from the West’

Supporters of Fiducia supplicans in the Western world may dismiss this reaction simply as an expression of homophobia. 

This perspective was perhaps summed up by the German theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper during the 2014 family synod, where homosexuality was among the points of conflict.

“Africa is totally different from the West,” he told a journalist. “Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo.”

Kasper added the now famous comment, referring to African Catholics, that “they should not tell us too much what we have to do.”

Advocates of Fiducia supplicans might be tempted, like Kasper, to shrug off the unfolding opposition in Africa without further consideration of what the continent’s bishops are objecting to. 

But in a synodal Church that encourages a “climate of mutual listening and sincere dialogue,” it might be worth examining what African Catholics are saying in greater depth.

© Mazur/cbcew.org.uk.

Why Africa matters

While the Catholic Church is shrinking in Europe — the Vatican’s backyard — it is growing in Africa. 

According to the most recent available figures, the number of Catholics in Africa rose by more than 8 million in 2021, while Europe lost almost a quarter of a million faithful.

The total number of Catholics worldwide increased by just over 16 million that year, meaning that half of the growth came from Africa. Without Africa, the Church would likely soon be experiencing an overall decline.

While the total number of priests worldwide fell by more than 2,000 in 2021, Africa registered an increase of over 1,500 priests. It also saw a rise in male and female religious, in contrast to declines elsewhere.

The only continent to record growth in seminarians in 2021 was — you guessed it — Africa.

Africa also has the two countries with the world’s highest rates of Mass attendance: Kenya and Nigeria.

This African Catholic success story has not, however, translated into greater African representation in Rome. 

When Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson resigned as prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development in 2021, it was said to be the first time since 1977 that the Vatican had no African leaders among the heads of its ​dicasteries. 

When Pope Francis launched the global synodal process in 2021, Africa stood out. Of the reports produced by the seven continental assemblies, only Africa’s did not include the term “LGBT.” 

When the acronym also disappeared from a draft of the synod on synodality’s synthesis report in October, some participants said it was due to opposition from African delegates.

So, African Catholicism seems both marginalized at the Vatican and yet able to exert influence on the global Church by other means.

‘Pastoral confusion’

How did the majority of the bishops in Malawi and Zambia conclude that a document issued by the Vatican’s doctrinal office and approved by Pope Francis should not be applied in their countries?

In their “clarification,” Malawi’s bishops said they were responding to “erroneous interpretations” of the Vatican declaration that had caused “fears and worries amongst Catholics and people who look up to the Catholic Church for moral, spiritual, and doctrinal guidance.”

From their perspective, they were responding to a pastoral need to reassure their flocks, and the wider population, that the Church’s understanding of marriage remained the same as before the publication of Fiducia supplicans.

They noted emphatically that the document is “NOT about the blessing of same-sex unions.” 

After summarizing the distinctions that the Vatican drew between various types of blessings, the bishops said that “to avoid creating confusion among the faithful, we direct that for pastoral reasons, blessings of any kind and for same-sex unions of any kind are not permitted in Malawi.”

So, the bishops believe they are acting with pastoral prudence in forbidding the application of Fiducia supplicans in their country.

Zambia’s bishops also noted in their “pastoral statement” that the declaration had created “confusions and anxieties among the faithful and people of good will,” given that the document raised the “issue of allowing blessing of same-sex marriages.”

Again, they stressed that the text “should NOT be understood as an endorsement of same-sex unions.”

“In order to avoid any pastoral confusion and ambiguity as well as not to break the law of our country which forbids same-sex unions and activities, and while listening to our cultural heritage which does not accept same-sex relationships, the Conference guides that the Declaration from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith of December 18th 2023 concerning the blessing of same-sex couples be taken as for further reflection and not for implementation in Zambia,” they wrote.

The phrase “pastoral confusion” seems to sum up the Zambian bishops’ justification for refusing to enact the document.

Different emphases

But might Malawi and Zambia be exceptions in Africa? The countries are, after all, neighbors. Could there be some distinctive regional factor behind their responses?

Possibly. At the time of writing, they were the only two African bishops’ conferences that have rejected Fiducia supplicans outright.

But statements by other bishops’ conferences seem to be making similar points, albeit less directly.

The Dec. 20 statement by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria repeatedly stressed that the text addresses the “possibility” of blessing people in irregular unions — suggesting that the possibility might not be taken up in Africa’s most populous country.

“In conclusion,” it said, “the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria assures the entire People of God that the teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage remains the same.” 

“There is, therefore, no possibility in the Church of blessing same-sex unions and activities. That would go against God’s law, the teachings of the Church, the laws of our nation and the cultural sensibilities of our people.”

The references to local laws and cultural sensitivities echoed those of Zambia’s bishops.

A Dec. 21 statement from the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference followed the now familiar pattern: A reference to media distortions, an early declaration that the text does not permit the blessing of same-sex marriages, and a conclusion stressing that “priests cannot bless same-sex unions or marriages.”

The statement by the Kenyan Conference of Catholic Bishops has a similar structure.

There are, of course, also variations in the advice being offered by African Church leaders. That’s not surprising in a continent with 54 countries, six time zones, and around 2,000 languages.

Striking a different tone, a Dec. 21 statement by the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference — comprising the bishops of Botswana, South Africa, and Eswatini — advised clergy to follow “the suggestions offered by the declaration” until the conference offered further guidance on “how such a blessing may be requested and granted to avoid the confusion the document warns against.”

Africa’s spiritual ‘marketplace’

There may be an unspoken consideration in African Catholic perplexity at Fiducia supplicans

This is that the Church in some African countries is losing members to Pentecostal churches that offer a clear-cut condemnation of homosexual behavior and portray Catholicism as a corruption of the Gospel.

In Ghana, for instance, the Church appears to be witnessing an exodus of Catholics to other Christian communities. 

Catholic leaders may fear that the Vatican declaration will make it easier for Pentecostal apologists to portray the Church as an unreliable moral and spiritual guide, sacrificing biblical teaching in favor of Western secular mores. 

Islam is another dynamic rival for the Church in Africa’s religious “marketplace” that presents a similar challenge.  

The bishops’ responses may be driven partly by a concern that they are being put at a disadvantage in a highly competitive environment.

Priests’ responses

It’s not only African bishops who are grappling with Fiducia supplicans. So are the continent’s priests.

In an analysis published Dec. 19 by La Croix Africa, Fr. Joseph Loïc Mben, S.J., suggested that the declaration’s references to blessings for heterosexual couples in “irregular situations” was more pertinent to Africa than its guidance on same-sex couples.

“In Africa, the possibility of same-sex couples seeking a blessing will be rather rare,” wrote the Cameroonian teacher at the Jesuit Institute of Theology (ITCJ) in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast. 

“Irregular situations mainly concern heterosexual couples: cohabiting couples (transitional or permanent), divorced couples, couples who are only civilly married, and polygamous households.” 

“Given that no one should be excluded, does this mean that all situations should be blessed? It should be made clear that this does not include situations that are criminally reprehensible (incest, pedophilia) or humanly untenable (coercion).”

In an in-depth reflection published by the newspaper of Nigeria’s Archdiocese of Ibadan, Fr. Anthony Akinwale, O.P., said that as the document referred to the “possibility” of blessings of couples in irregular situations, there were inevitably conditions.

“By way of summary, those who ask for this blessing must be persons who ask for the grace of repentance from the sin of a morally illicit union,” wrote Akinwale, who received the academic title Magister in Sacra Theologia (STM) in June. 

“But this raises a number of difficult questions: What does a same-sex couple desire in asking for blessing? Do they desire that their objectively sinful relationship be recognized as legitimate? Or, are they asking that the grace of the Holy Spirit turn them away from and grow out of their sinful relationship?”

“Do they see this blessing as a right or as divine favor? Do they see their union as sinful or do they see it as rightful and legitimate? Do they see blessing as a right or as grace? What do they desire, a right or grace?”

“Can the conditions stipulated by Fiducia supplicans be met? Is it possible to impart this blessing without creating confusion and scandal?”

What happens next?

Inevitably, Catholics are wondering how the Vatican will respond to bishops’ conferences that refuse point-blank to implement the declaration.

We are at a very early stage in the document’s reception, so it’s unwise to make predictions. But we can be confident that African Catholics will continue to respond vigorously and critically to the document in the weeks to come. 

They may also respond concertedly. In a Dec. 20 letter to the heads of the bishops’ conferences of Africa and Madagascar, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo asked for opinions on the new document, “so that we can draw up a single synodal declaration, valid for the whole Church in Africa.”

Ambongo, the president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) and a member of the pope’s Council of Cardinal Advisers, said that once all the responses were received, SECAM would “issue a pastoral statement on the subject, which will serve as a general guideline for all the local Churches on our continent.”

This suggests that in its response to Fiducia supplicans, the Church in Africa could be forming a powerful united front.

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