Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ideologies That Are Foreign to Africa Include Traditional Catholic Sexual Teachings

The African Bishops needs to hear more from these voices and less from their own--and they seem to know it.

Synod for Africa ponders how to tackle polygamy, meddling by foreign interests
Vatican City, Oct 9, 2009 / 10:21 pm (CNA).-

Yesterday and today at the ongoing Synod for Africa, bishops raised issues of concern that ranged from how to deal with polygamy to asking sister Churches in developed countries to persuade their governments to stop trying to impose “ideologies that are foreign to Africa.” (Catholic notions of monogamy and celibacy are also an imposition of ideologies that are foreign to Africa--especially African males.)

Bishop Evaristus Thatoho Bitsoane of Lesotho took the floor on Thursday afternoon to explain how his local Church can fulfill the synod's theme. “The Church in Lesotho, like many other local Churches of Africa is involved in the area of health, education and in the service of the poor. Lesotho is about fifty percent Catholic and the Church has the majority of schools in the country. From these numbers one would hope that Catholic principles would prevail in the running of the country,” he explained.

But this is not the case, Bishop Bitsoane continued, “On the contrary, people embrace anything that will enable them to have bread on the table even if it is opposed to the teaching of the Church.” (It's pretty hard to embrace any ideology when one is starving.)

Pointing out that Lesotho is just one of many countries of Africa who have signed the Maputo Protocol, he said that even though “the services of our Catholic hospitals are appreciated by many, we are afraid that many abortions will be performed in private hospitals.” (The Maputo protocol is an addition to the African Union statements on human rights. It deals specifically with the rights of women. The Catholic Church in Africa rejects this document principally because of article 14 which deals with reproductive rights and includes a right to abortion in certain circumstances.)

“What the Church of Lesotho needs urgently in order to continue her service to the poor,” Bishop Bitsoane stated, “is for the sister Churches of the developed world to influence their governments not to impose ideologies that are foreign to Africa.”

The Synod Fathers also reflected on how to bring the values of the Gospel to African cultures that are rooted in pagan practices.

Bishop Matthew Kwasi Gyamfi of Sunyani, Ghana said on Friday morning that, "In some parts of Africa because of the culture and tradition of the people before the Church was introduced, many African women find themselves in polygamous marriages through no fault of theirs.” (How is this no fault of theirs if it is an accepted cultural practice? These women must know they are likely to wind up in a polygamous marriage. Why punish the second and third wives? Where's the call to men to stop this practice?)

According to Bishop Gyamfi, this situation means that “many of the women attending church are denied the Sacraments of Initiation, Reconciliation and Marriage.”

The bishop pointed out that this treatment is unjust and has damaging effects for those women who were “first wives with children” of polygamous marriages. “The Church needs to address this painful and unpleasant situation in Africa by giving some special privileges to women, who have been the first wives with children and through no fault of their own have become victims of polygamous marriages, to receive the Sacraments of Initiation and others,” he said.
If these “sorely tried women” are allowed to receive the Sacraments, Bishop Gyamfi said that they will be able to “share in the peace and reconciliation offered by the compassion and peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ Who came to call sinners and not the self righteous.”


I realise this is a CNA article and is most certainly written with a bias, but this article is almost funny in it's blatant hypocrisy. I guess it's OK for Roman Catholicism to introduce foreign ideologies in African culture, but no one else--especially if those ideological intrusions involve the rights of women. It's no secret that priestly celibacy and monogamous marriage have not exactly been received by Africans as compatible with their prevailing culture and tradition--especially by male Africans. Maybe it's this failure to convince African men to give up their historical traditional sexual rights that necessitates the attempt to police and curtail the reproductive rights of women.

Bishop Gyamfi doesn't even try to address the issue of polygamy, but instead suggests special privileges for first wives. This is certainly an interesting theological proposition in that it further fractures the status of lay women while leaving men free to pursuit other wives--if outside the Church. It seems to me that according to the Catechism it's not which wife you are in the polygamous pecking order, it's that a polygamous pecking order even exists and you are participating in it. Sorry, I just can't get my head around this one.

What's even more fascinating is that the 'sister churches' of the West, (the churches that are supposed to be convincing their governments and NGO's to keep their secular sexual notions out of African culture) are also being asked to accept an accommodation with polygamy at the very same time those churches in the West are using the threat of legalized polygamy to block gay marriage. Oh, and these bishops are also reserving their right as Roman Catholic bishops to add their two cents to the gay marriage and abortion debates of the West. I think I'm having trouble accepting their two cents.

What we seem to have operating in Bishop Gyamfi is good old fashioned guilt and a de facto admission that the Church has been generally unsuccessful in convincing African males to rethink their traditional reproductive rights. Since the Church hasn't made much headway with men they are building the fort of Catholic sexual teaching on the backs of women. So the Official Church pushes no condoms in HIV marriages, no access to contraception much less therapeutic abortion, no sexual education for women, and tries to minimize their little problem with illicitly married clergy. Then in order to feel less guilty Gyamfi suggests some sort of bizarre special theological status for first wives and the bishops deplore the genital mutilation of women. Give me a break.

African women know what the issue really is. In a culture that has traditionally privileged male sexual expression, privileged male clerics are not going to threaten the male status quo. Excuses will be made and compromises invented which will skirt around this issue. It seems to me that it's past time to bring the voices of women fully into the discussion of where Catholicism is headed in Africa. (and everywhere else) It maybe that women would tell the hard truth about their family experiences, not just for themselves and their children, but also for the men they love.

In the weird world of Catholicism the women have nothing to lose and everything to gain. On the other hand, African Catholic bishops, some of whom have hidden wives and children, have everything to lose and nothing to gain. It's not hard to figure out where the truth will come from in that dynamic.


  1. There was also another issue that the bishops failed to address, and that is the scandals in which ostensibly Catholic African clergy raped Catholic African sisters and nuns. I think it's part of the same culture of male privilege.

  2. Sorry, I meant to say "ostensibly celibate" Catholic African clergy. National Catholic Reporter covered the issue, but few other secular or Catholic press outlets did. I think this says just as much negative about the Curia and the hierarchy as did the sexual abuse scandals.

  3. The African priest filling in last week told us that God was angry at the divorced people and the homosexuals because of their "stubbornness and hardness of heart". So they come to the U.S. to preach to us and maybe they need to clean up their own house. We left the Mass but the bad taste stayed with us.

  4. That's an awful comment coming from such ignorance from the priest from Africa. "God was angry at divorced people and the homosexuals." And he says it is because of "stubbornness and hardness of heart." Stupid man and a stupid thing to conjure up and make up from his own stupidity and anger issues because he really has no clue as to what he is talking about.

    What he says is really a lot about his own stubbornness and hardness of heart concerning his idea of divorced and homosexuals. He is projecting his own mentality and outlook of who he thinks God is all about. God is not all about anger. He is about love.

    Stupid comments from people who call themselves "priests" deserve condemnation.

  5. Colleen, wonderful analysis. I've been following the discussions of the church in Africa with interest, in part, because it's becoming clear to me that the African churches have become a kind of ideological playground of churches in the west.

    For some time now, churches of the west--but especially American evangelical churches--have been exploiting a political message to African Christians, disguised as the gospel.

    It centers on the bogeyman implication that liberal forces in Europe and North America want to change "traditional" African culture, particularly in areas of gender and sexuality. Read what many African Christian male leaders are saying about liberalism and conservatism, and it's like reading a neocon playbook from the second half of the 20th century--word for word.

    I suspect one primary reason this is happening is that global center of gravity of Christianity in the 21st century will soon be Africa, and the white men who control things in the West want to be certain they can keep controlling, as that shift occurs.

    And you are absolutely right: the politicizing rhetoric is fraught with irony. White Christian men in the developed world have been working very hard (and lots of money is behind this move) to work up fear among African Christians of women's rights and gay folks. But never a word about polygamy or other practices demeaning women, and the challenge they pose for those who want to apply their literalistic reading of the scriptures to condemn gays.

  6. The statistical truth is that divorce tends to go up when women get some economic fluidity. I read 'hardness of heart' as something totally different.

    khughes, the report you cite from the NCR really upset me because it's implications were chilling. This was subsequently forced home to me in another report I read from an NGO which stated that Catholic clergy were using virginal novice sisters for their sexual pleasure because their convents were an "Aids free zone."

    I bet no African bishop has the 'manly' fortitude to bring up this particular situation.