The Church in Africa has truly come into its own under Pope Francis, and his recent trip to the continent has only underscored its new found role as perhaps the strongest new voice of the faith. And while the Church in Africa is growing, and growing fast, it isn’t just a question of numbers.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier became a central voice during both sessions of the Synod on the Family, while Cardinal Sarah, one of the most senior appointments of Francis’s pontificate, has emerged as the intellectual heavyweight of the Curia and is an ever more prominent voice in Rome. While being a deeply enculturated reality, the African Church is increasingly known for its traditional family values, unblinking fidelity to the magisterium, and commitment to the role of the Church as a prophetic witness in the modern world.
Yet while Pope Francis speaks often of the authenticity of the faith to be found among the poor, as he flew to Africa last week, Björn Odendahl, the editor of the official website of the Catholic Church in Germany posted an article in which he effectively criticised the Pope for romanticising poverty and said that Africans, having embraced the faith because they had little else to turn to, were too uneducated to understand – and therefore disagree with – Church teachings. And disagree the Germans do. Led by Cardinals Kasper and Marx, the Germans have been strident in their support for what they see as a more inclusive and accommodating Church; finding theological or pastoral ways of rehabilitating the divorced and remarried, calling for more recognition of those in same-sex unions, and generally seeking to present the message of the Church as supportive of, rather than in conflict with, modern western values.
While Pope Francis has given the German cardinals every opportunity to articulate their vision, he has failed to give them the solid vote of support they seem to take for granted. He was unsparing in his criticism during the ad limina visit of the German bishops shortly before his trip to Africa. In that meeting, Pope Francis painted a stark picture of a Church that was obsessed with structures and organisation but neglected the sacraments and the evangelisation. Indeed the German churches are empty; with only 10 per cent of Catholics attending Mass, according to the German Bishops’ own statistics, and more than 200,000 are leaving the Church each year.
On the other hand, while the German churches are empty, the bank accounts are full, thanks to the kirchensteuer, the government enforced system of tithing which netted some €5.7 billion last year, with Catholics who refuse to pay the tax subjected to a host of canonically dubious sanctions, including denial of a Christian burial. While a large amount of this vast sum is spent in Germany (the Church is the second largest employer nationally and Cardinal Marx draws a personal stipend of €11,500 per month) a fair amount is sent overseas, either directly or through the Vatican. This gives the German Church an outsized, almost proprietary, voice in Church affairs out of all proportion to its size. It also gives the hierarchy a life or death incentive to make the Church reflect German society as much as possible.
But the African Church has, under Francis’s pontificate, become increasingly vocal in its defence of both its faith and its members in the face of what it sees as cultural imperialism, either from civil governments or from within the Church itself.
While the German Church has, through tithes and plummeting Mass attendance, become the Church of the 10 per cent; a rich minority concern with its own agenda, concerned with propping up structures and keeping revenues high, the African Church, which in Francis’s own words, “celebrates even on an empty stomach”, is easily identified as the poor Church of the poor so beloved of the Pope.
When Cardinal Sarah launched his book, God or Nothing, in Rome to a hugely positive reception last week, the Germans sniped from the corner, calling Cardinal Sarah and the African Church “simple answers for simple people”. After delivering his withering assessment of the German Church in Rome, Pope Francis voted with his feet and left for Africa. The Pope has spoken of the need for a cultural shift in the Church, away from old money, power, and presumptions. That shift is happening and, with the Pope in Africa and Cardinal Sarah in Rome, it is pretty clear where it is headed.