Monday, March 23, 2009

Benedict's Thoughts On African Witchcraft

As part of a longer homily, Benedict spoke to the issue of witchcraft in African society. This excerpt deals specifically with Benedict's thoughts. Translation is from Zenit.

Today it is up to you, brothers and sisters, following in the footsteps of those heroic and holy heralds of God, to offer the Risen Christ to your fellow citizens. So many of them are living in fear of spirits, of malign and threatening powers. In their bewilderment they end up even condemning street children and the elderly as alleged sorcerers. Who can go to them to proclaim that Christ has triumphed over death and all those occult powers (cf. Ephesians 1:19-23; 6:10-12)? (Benedict should have mentioned that these particular groups are targeted precisely because they are a burden on societies which are currently incapable of feeding themselves. Proclaiming that Christ has triumphed over death and all those occult powers does not provide any more food.)

Someone may object: "Why not leave them in peace? They have their truth, and we have ours. Let us all try to live in peace, leaving everyone as they are, so they can best be themselves." But if we are convinced and have come to experience that without Christ life lacks something, that something real -- indeed, the most real thing of all -- is missing, we must also be convinced that we do no injustice to anyone if we present Christ to them and thus grant them the opportunity of finding their truest and most authentic selves, the joy of finding life. Indeed, we must do this. It is our duty to offer everyone this possibility of attaining eternal life. (The facts are that it is precisely the lack of real food, real security, real shelter and too many real mouths to take care of that lead to increases in witch craft claims and persecutions.)

Dear brothers and sisters, let us say to them, in the words of the Israelite people: "Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn, that he may heal us." Let us enable human poverty to encounter divine mercy. The Lord makes us his friends, he entrusts himself to us, he gives us his Body in the Eucharist, he entrusts his Church to us. And so we ought truly to be his friends, to be one in mind with him, to desire what he desires and to reject what he does not desire. Jesus himself said: "You are my friends if you do what I command you" (John 15:14). Let this, then, be our common commitment: together to do his holy will: "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15). Let us embrace his will, like St. Paul: "Preaching the Gospel [...] is a necessity laid upon me; woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" (1 Corinthians 9:16).


Witchcraft and witchcraft persecutions are a very big deal in Africa, but Africa is not alone in dealing with the problem of witchcraft. In every country in which populations are fighting for survival, accusations of witchcraft against the elderly, most especially women, and children have increased in the last twenty years. Historically, accusations of witchcraft have been used to cull social groups of individuals who are perceived to be a drain on the collective good. What is happening in Africa is not a new problem, and it's not a cultural religious problem specific to Africa. History has shown that when witchcraft accusations become endemic, the answer is not found in evangelization, it's found in securing the future for people who are under a great deal of social and economic stress. Solving this issue is not going to be a case of whose juju is better than the other's juju. It will be solved when Africans have dealt with the social issues which breed the accusations.

Indigenous belief systems are not primarily rooted in Satanism or the occult. They are rooted in ancestral ritual and the spiritual systems which have helped indigenous cultures survive. Witchcraft practiced in it's negative expression is akin to Satanism as a ritual expression opposite that of Christianity. All spiritual systems have their negative counterparts. In John Allen's report on Benedict's sermon, he writes about a Kenyan symposium which specifically dealt with witchcraft. The quotes from Catholic clergy are especially pertinent:

In February 2007, the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, held a three-day symposium on witchcraft. Experts warned that witchcraft is “destroying” the Catholic Church in Africa, in part because skeptical, Western-educated clergy don’t take the beliefs behind it seriously.

“It is important for the Church to understand the fears of the people, and not to attribute them to superstition,” said Michael Katola, a lecturer in pastoral theology. “Witchcraft is a reality; it is not a superstition. Many communities know these powers exist.”

Katola warned that inadequate pastoral responses are driving some Africans into Pentecostalism.

“Many of our Christians seek deliverance, healing and exorcism from other denominations because priests do not realize they have redemptive powers,” he said. “If we don’t believe in the existence of witchcraft as Satanism, then we cannot deal with it.” (This sentence hits the nail on the head. Indigenous people do not see priests manifesting real spirituality in the sense of producing real effects. It's not a rejection of Christ, it's more an admission that the priesthood has no power in the spiritual realms that the Indigenous are used to seeing in their own spiritual leaders.)

Sr. Bibiana Munini Ngundo said that the Catholic Church has not paid sufficient attention to “integral healing,” leading people to put their trust in diviners and magicians. Fr. Clement Majawa of Malawi listed 14 categories of witchcraft practiced in Africa, and argued that the Church’s denial “only escalates the problem.”

“Since Christ in the gospels encountered the devil, it is proper for Christians to accept the reality of witchcraft,” Majawa said.

I see the witchcraft persecutions as a two fold problem, and Benedict really didn't address either problem. First and foremost this is a problem manifested in disjointed, stressed, poverty ridden areas of the world. Secondly it is a problem of spiritual manifestation. For Benedict to assume all indigenous healers and spiritual leaders are occultic or Satanic misses the boat by a large margin. They are not. The best are some of the most spiritual people on the face of the planet, quite capable of doing exactly what Jesus did, heal, comfort, cast out dark forces, and lead people to much better understanding of how spiritual forces work in and through humanity.

They fully recognize there are malevolent forces, but they are not made powerless nor intimidated by that knowledge. They also recognize that other traditions have their own connections, and that Christianity, especially Catholicism, has powerful connections for protection, healing, and unification. It would be unthinkable for them to disrespect our Communion of Saints and Angels. What they can't comprehend is why the vast majority of our ceremonial leaders are impotent in manifesting those connections. They see it as a disconnect between the talk and the walk. They are right, as Michael Katola stated in the above quote from John Allen when he said if Catholicism can not recognize the power, it can't deal with it.

Evangelicals and Pentecostals are making a killing stepping into this vacuum. They do it poorly, but it doesn't matter, because they at least are willing to go there. Until Catholicism is willing to seriously consider the fact that there actually is something to indigenous spirituality it will be hamstrung in it's evangelization.

This is not about superstition. This is about a reality which is bigger than the Western mind is willing to entertain. Catholicism has the tradition and the language, but it seems we've lost the vision and the connections. Angels are not mythical superstitions of childhood. Jesus and Mary are alive and real. They are as real as it gets and they have real ability to effect real change in our world. It drives me crazy that indigenous spiritual leaders can 'see' this as plain as day, and our leaders mouth platitudes about beings they don't really believe exist---at least in any meaningful sense.

Spirituality and scientific reason are not mutually exclusive paths. I've written before that quantum physics is the language of choice amongst the world's greatest spiritual practitioners. There's a reason for that. Quantum physics opens on a world in which science has potential answers for how the spiritual manifests in the material, and it's not wrapped up in religious dogma. It mandates respect for the power of human choice and the equal dignity of all.

Maybe it's time Benedict spent less time at big outdoor Masses and a little more time around kivas, and sweat lodges, and indigenous campfires talking with indigenous elders. He may get a whole new perspective on just how important Catholicism really is to the spiritual well being of humanity. In the meantime, poverty, dislocation, and powerlessness is leading to the eradication of another age of elder women and defenseless children. Thank God the Church is in the forefront in dealing with these issues. In the long run is this is the best method of ending the persecutions.
(This link is to a paper issued by the UN Refugee Agency on the issue of witch persecutions. It's long, but very informative reading, giving one a much better idea as to how large an issue witchcraft accusation has become through out the developing world.)


  1. Mmmmm...Saturday I went to a day of prayer and reflection with a friend. Those offering it were far more conservative than I...and I have no desire to return to those forms of worship...but I felt fed. I am still wondering why...I think it was the sense of connecting with a world beyond our ken and communication between us and perhaps because no one was mean, judgmental and holier than thou.

  2. Interesting scripture I found while reading this article:

    1 Cor 9:5 "Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?"

  3. just a limited perspective from living in Africa and knowing the Indigenous peoples. . .

    I think the likelihood of their being rampant cases of actual witchcraft is much lesser than the claims and accusations. . .

    The more likely culprits is systemic woundedness from hundreds of years of colonial exploitation. . .and indescribable greed of the tribalistic leaders that further rape and plunder the people. . .Much like in North Korea, China, and many countries in the Middle East people cannot speak out against their governments with out threat of life. . .There are leaders that even make accusations that Aids does not exist and prohibit care for the people . . . Along with very limited medical care for most of the regular folks. .The people in Africa are low priority to every known "archy" sytem created by man. . .

    What do they have left except to turn back to the old ways of healing and gathering community, to cut them off from that is to cut them off from the very roots that might sustain them. . .surrounded with such darkness and impotence, how else but through the unknown can their be a valve for release?. . .

    Most indigenous tribes follow a non-dualistic embrace of both light and dark in order to transcend the darkness with choice rather than denial. . .

    Having said that "Witchcraft". . . i would imagine the dynamics of fear, suspicion, and ignorance by the accussers may be the darkest component in the overall witchcraft cases. Much like Europe and America during our periods of "Witchcraft", their are demons. . .

    Poverty. . .deep entrenched political, and personal impotence. . .severe alcoholism. . cultural and social eradication leaving dependency on the oppressors. ..starvation. . .little prospect of work or an economy that can sustain the basic needs of a family. . .disease, droughts, cholera, tuberculosis, bilharzia, leprosy, little or no social networks to help with orphans, elderly, disabled, disasters, impure water, Aids, child brides with their consequences of babies birthing babies,and on and on. . .


    Because Africa was gutted by the biggest demons of all. . .greed lust for power, idolatry for gold, fine metals, diamonds and bounty of natural resources by men that wore the finest of regalia as they hide behind the robes of the royalty and religion. . .men that counted worthless the lives of the African people as they did hold the three prong staff and their will was the power. . .

    So now we have a lecture about casting out demons?????. . .

    God be with us all. . .there go i. . .

  4. Wonderful analysis sparrow and fully ascribed to by the UN Human refugee committee. It's about povery and removing dependent mouths, it's not about witchcraft. Every society in the world has a history which includes removing dependent mouths when food, is scarce, and disease is rampant.

    Ultimatley it's about nutrition, not Satan. Thank you very much for sharing your real world expertise.

  5. By the way Sparrow, you and I both know the following is true about a lot of reservations here in America:

    Poverty. . .deep entrenched political, and personal impotence. . .severe alcoholism. . cultural and social eradication leaving dependency on the oppressors. ..starvation. . .little prospect of work or an economy that can sustain the basic needs of a family. . .disease, droughts, cholera, tuberculosis, bilharzia, leprosy, little or no social networks to help with orphans, elderly, disabled, disasters, impure water, Aids, child brides with their consequences of babies birthing babies,and on and on. . .