Now that Papa is in town, here is a bad Catholic’s take on the Church


Pope Francis, “the people’s Pope”, and the most progressive — and popular — pontiff arrived in Kenya last night, on a trip that will also take him to Uganda and the troubled Central African Republic.

Ahead of the visit, a fellow journalist writing for a British newspaper cornered me to give my two cents about the man. After all, I am a Catholic, though not an exemplary one.

Q: From your perspective, what are the key messages the Pope will be wanting to make during his visit, and do you think Africans are on the same wavelength as him?

A: He could speak to four things, if he wants to track: (a) Peace. In East and Central Africa, with South Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic, and the related refugees crises they have spawned, that will go down well. And it is a safe non-partisan issue.

(b) Tolerance, of both religious and cultural/ethnic diversity, which in turn feed some of the conflicts.

(c) Inequality. The rising tide in Africa has not lifted all boats, and inequality — and corruption — have become burning issues.

(d). The Family, in very broad terms. In many African towns now most homes are single parent (mother)-led, hence even more burdens have fallen to women. The conventional view of the family no longer applies in Africa, but for very different reasons than in the West.

Q: The Catholic Church is growing very fast in Africa. What do you attribute this to? If the current trends continue, it will not be long before it is larger than the European and North American branches of the church. What impact will this have on the future direction of the church globally, and in Africa? Will African bishops start to use their “numbers” to try and determine the future direction of the church?

A: The Catholic Church has grown in Africa because, well, elements of it are very African.

While it is conservative, it has a permissive duality. Africans thrive in that dual space.

While the Catholic Church can sometimes look stuck in time, it has a very liberal view on social issues like drinking and provides its flock an easy path to redemption through confession.

Secondly, the Catholic Church in Africa was only partly about religion.

It was a social institution, which provided hospitals, schools, where national institutions were weak. That had a certain appeal.

But also, we need to recognise that perhaps the Catholic Church has, as much as any other institution, contributed a lot to the intellectual foundation in many of the Christian countries in Africa.

Many leftist and radical intellectuals in Africa are either expired Catholics or former seminarians, certainly in a country like Uganda.

The conservative view of the church both provided the lightning rod for some of this activist intellectualism, but also stifled it.

The impact of the African Catholic Church globally will never come from its bishops, who have developed a siege mentality in the face of the growth of independent and evangelical churches.

It will come from Catholic intellectuals and related institutions.

I sense that Catholic progressives have been energised by Pope Francis and that if he has achieved anything, it is that the church is less a caricature of an anachronistic institution.

Q: Related to both the above, the African bishops are among the more conservative in the Catholic Church. Their attitudes seem to go against some of the messages Pope Francis is seeking to make — more tolerance of divorcees and homosexuals, for example. Do you think Pope Francis will, on this visit, try and persuade them and African Catholics to be more tolerant? If he does, how receptive will they be?

A: In Africa the Church faces a demographic challenge and opportunity — the majority of the citizens are young people and the Church needs to speak to them.

I would be surprised if he spoke to gay rights, mostly for tactical reasons, but it would help if he addressed the matter of a greater role for women in church leadership, even if it be as lay preachers.

But this must move forward.

However, his thing has to be mostly about making the Church relevant to young people because, really, that cannot be done without addressing attitudes towards sexual diversity, marriage, and so on. Youth, in reality, are a proxy issue.