Associated Press
Parishioners attend Mass at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Johannesburg, South Africa, in this 2013 photo. In the last century, Sub-Saharan Africans have grown from less than 1% of the world's Catholics to 16% today.

African bishops criticize Vatican's priorities as 'Eurocentric'

The Catholic Church's increasing diversity has deepened the rift between conservatives and progressives as Pope Francis pushes increasing acceptance for marginalized church members. 

As the Vatican's Bishops' Synod drew to a close on Sunday, after three weeks of debate over how to welcome nontraditional families into the church without abandoning Catholic doctrine, it remained unclear who had "won" the unusually rancorous arguments that pitted conservatives against Francis-style progressives. 

The final recommendation to Pope Francis, a 94-point document, passed by a single vote. It avoids reforms on contentious issues such as Communion for divorced Catholics, but leaves the door open to priests' individual "discernment" as to how best minister to individuals.

Francis is expected to issue his own document in coming months, perhaps a weightier encyclical, but the document, drafted by 270 bishops, nonetheless serves to take the temperature of a rapidly-changing global Catholicism.

To Italian journalist Sandro Magister, the Synod had a clear, if surprising, victor: “The winner is Africa, no doubt,” he told The New York Times. 

Over the last 100 years, Africans have grown from composing fewer than 1 percent of the world's Catholics to 16 percent, according to the Pew Research Center, just one piece of the church's radically changing demographic puzzle; only 32 percent of the church's members now come from Europe or North America, pushing the Vatican to take ever-more diverse views of family, faith, and politics into account in issuing guidelines for its more than 1.2 billion followers.

And the more socially conservative African bishops are often the leading line of defense against what Francis's critics see as radical overhauls, as the Pope seeks to make the Catholics often treated as "outliers," such as divorced or gay people, feel more welcome.

To the Pope, it seems, reform is slow in coming: On Sunday, at the Synod's final mass, he appeared to chastise listeners with the Biblical story of Bartimaeus, to whom Jesus ministered while his companions only looked on.

"If Bartimaeus was blind, they were deaf: his problem was not their problem. This can be a danger for us," Francis preached from St. Peter's Basilica. "A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts." 

Cardinal Francis Arinze, a retired but influential Vatican insider from Nigeria, insists that the Vatican's current priorities are out of touch with African parishioners' needs and views.

As the Synod debated divorce and homosexuality (unchanging in its staunch opposition to gay marriage, but upholding the dignity of gay people), "Africans say 'Lord help us! Is that what you understand by family?'" he told the Associated Press.

In preparation for the Synod, the Church's 44 African bishops met in Accra, where Cardinal Robert Sarah urged them to "speak with one voice" in Rome, according to "Christ's New Homeland: Africa," a collection of writings from the meeting published last month by Ignatius Press. 

Several seem to have heeded Cardinal Sarah's advice.

Speaking with The Washington Post about Pope Francis' priorities, Ugandan Bishop Joseph Anthony Zziwa asked, "You keep asking someone from Nigeria to tell me about homosexuality, to tell me about divorce, when five of his children have been abducted by Boko Haram? You think that person has time to talk about that?"

Pope Francis alluded to the clash of views in his concluding remarks to the Synod, saying,

we have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion.

African bishops have helped lead the charge that Western culture is carrying out "ideological colonization" – words used by Francis himself – against traditional families, a threat that they are uniquely poised to combat. 

"Africa saved the Holy Family (during the Flight to Egypt) and in these modern times Africa will also save the human family," Cardinal Sarah said in Benin in August. 

During the Synod itself, Sarah equated Islamic fundamentalism with "the idolatry of Western freedom," saying they both present a threat as great as Nazism and Communism. 

African Catholics may be poised to grow as a share of the Church, given the Vatican's ongoing struggle to retain Latin American Catholics in the face of quickly spreading Pentacostalism. 

In an interview with Pew, religion scholar Andrew Chestnut suggested that Protestant churches were winning South American converts because of their willingness to absorb local traditions into church services. "In only a century, Pentecostalism has become indigenous, or 'Latin Americanized,' to a greater extent than Roman Catholicism has in its four centuries in Latin America," he said. 

To keep worshippers in its pews, the Catholic Church may need to continue blending European and local traditions in its African churches, avoiding "Eurocentric" criticism – but either way, the impact will reach beyond Africa after the Synod's bishops have packed up for home.

The Pope will make his first visit to Africa in November, and plans to meet with slum residents and refugees, among others, in Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. 

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