Will Pope’s African Tour Change Attitudes on Divorce and LGBTQ Among African Catholics?

Pope Francis in Kenya on November 25, 2015

Today, Pope Francis arrives in Nairobi, Kenya. After two days in Kenya, he will travel to Uganda, and then to the Central African Republic. The Pope’s message of care for those on the margins and his consistent focus on poverty is of great significance to Africans, but they also hope he will continue the discussions of marriage and family issues that he recently began in Rome. As the African population surges, and Africans confront greater complexities of family life, deal with ongoing violence, and confront increasing social inequality, many African Catholics are looking to the Catholic Church and to the Pope to provide both spiritual guidance and material aid. But it will be a struggle for the Pope to marshal a church short on vocations and deeply divided on social issues to do both.

The number of Catholics in Africa has gone through a startling increase in recent decades. Since 1980, the number of African Catholics has grown by 238%, in contrast to Europe, where it has grown by only 6%. Some of this may be attributable to higher fertility rates in African countries, but it also reflects the church’s success in missionary efforts. And where there are a decreasing number of vocations to the priesthood in Europe, where vocations have declined by 23%, African vocations have increased by 131%. In African countries where birth rates are much higher than they are in Europe and North America, family issues often come to the forefront of Catholic lives.

The recent synod in Rome was convened by the Pope to take up issues relating to the family. With divorce becoming more common internationally, including in Africa, the Catholic teaching that divorced and remarried Catholics are barred from receiving communion unless they are granted an annulment by the Church has come under criticism from liberal members of the church, who had hoped the synod might speed up that process. Instead, it ended on a note of ambiguity, leaving the issue up to an “internal forum,” where a divorced individual should consult with a priest about receiving communion.

African church leaders emerged as highly opinionated about family issues during the synod, one of the first times in recent history that the African church has reached the international stage. According to Cardinal Dolan of New York, in the past, African bishops were looked on “as newcomers,” but now, with the African church growing so rapidly, they “have immense pastoral experience.” The African bishops called an intervention during the synod to change language that would have potentially been more welcoming to LGBTQ Catholics, and Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea delivered a speech putting same-sex marriage on a continuum with “quick and easy divorce,” abortion, and euthanasia. Many African church leaders made it clear during the synod that the Pope’s attempts to soften the church’s messages on divorce and LGBTQ individuals were culturally at odds with African life.

But the synod’s concluding suggestion that individual Catholics discuss divorce with a priest will prove difficult for Catholics in Africa. Even with the increase in vocations, given the ratio of Catholics to priests in Africa, finding a priest to counsel an individual about marriage and family issues is a struggle. Oscar Momanyi, a second-year Kenyan seminarian studying at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, has witnessed this problem first hand. His own mother was divorced, and because of cultural pressure, “she had to be silent about it.” She refrained from taking communion at church for twenty years, until “a young priest came and helped.” In Kenya, Momanyi says, “divorce puts all of the stigma on the woman,” and the church is contributing to that stigma by barring women from communion. The church, he adds, is “aware of the problem,” but the shortage of priests makes it difficult to resolve.

Momanyi says that in Kenya, priests can be responsible for anywhere between twenty and thirty different church stations, in some of which mass is only held once a month. Additionally, life in America can tempt many priests who come there for seminary training into staying. The “abundance of resources” in America means that African religious orders struggling to train their men want to take advantage of sending them to America, but that comes at a risk. “Diocesan priests in particular,” priests who work for a bishop and receive a salary, instead of a religious order where they take a vow of poverty, “can support their family on a priest’s salary and send money back.” Therefore, priests who come to America to train as part of a religious order may end up leaving their order and staying in America so they can support their families in Africa.

Father Russell Pollitt, director of the Jesuit Institute in South Africa, says that complexities of African family life affect how people participate in the church as well. He says African bishops may claim that divorce is not an issue, “but when I was working in a parish it was an issue.” In rural areas, however, “it is not so easy to get divorced, as marriage in rural places is often between two families and not two individuals. “ Pollitt adds that “this does not mean people don’t separate, but it is more complex,” than the cut and dried issue of a couple divorcing, since multiple generations of family members are involved.

Marriage equality became legal in South Africa in 2006, and it remains the only African country where same-sex couples can legally marry. While in Africa, the Pope will visit Uganda, where the president Yoweri Museveni signed a law in February of this year that outlaws homosexual acts and requires citizens to report gay Ugandans to the police. In light of the difficulty faced by LGBTQ Africans, some of the African Catholic bishops, according to Pollitt, can “come across and dogmatic and exclusive,” so he hopes that the Pope will at least hint at a message of “openness and inclusivity.”

Of far greater concern to both Pollitt and Momanyi and to the African church, however, are issues of war, violence and poverty. Momanyi taught for two years at a high school in South Sudan, which borders the Central African Republic, the location of the final leg of the Pope’s trip. Rumors that the Pope would cancel that leg due to threats of violence continue to circulate. South Sudan, Momanyi says, has been “suffering from ethnic strife,” but the country is 80% Catholic. The feast day of Saint Daniel Comboni, an Italian missionary who fought the slave trade in Sudan, is a holiday in South Sudan.

Momanyi says that the church holds South Sudan together. “If the Church withdraws,” he says, the whole country will crumble.” Catholic NGOs have remained in the country when other NGOs have left. The recently formed Catholic NGOs Solidarity with South Sudan and the Comboni Missionaries in particular, according to Momanyi, are training teachers and nurses, running schools and hospitals, and providing psychological counseling to refugees from the Central African Republic during the “vicious cycle of war” between the CAR and South Sudan. Catholic religious orders, Momanyi says, keep the country running. “The church stands with the people when things go wrong.”

Pollitt adds that there are some bishops and cardinals in the African church hierarchy “who live lavish lives when people around them are struggling.” In Kenya, the Pope will visit a slum in Nairobi. To get there, Momanyi says, he will pass through a wealthy neighborhood, because “the rich and poor are living back to back. That’s the reality in Kenya.”

Both Pollitt and Momanyi say that they hope the Pope’s visit will lead to the church making a greater financial investment in Africa. Catholic Charities and Caritas International, for example, are two large, church sponsored organizations that might possibly be able provide greater assistance in the three countries the Pope is visiting.

While he is in Africa, the Pope will visit a refugee camp in the Central African Republic, the House of Charity in Nalukolongo, Uganda, and dine with the poor at a small parish in Nairobi’s Kangemi neighborhood, in addition to several meetings with young Catholic laypeople, priests, and bishops, and the usual courtesy visits with politicians in each country.

Witnessing the experience of Kenyan, Ugandan, and Central Africans first hand, sitting with them, and hearing their stories, the Pope may well see the same issues he did as a parish priest in the slums of Argentina, including issues of the complexities of family life as experienced in countries with great social difficulties. That experience pushed him to seeing the mission of the Catholic church as one of mercy. That message of mercy is one that Africans would certainly welcome right now.