I won’t try to erratically apply the work of David Kilcullen — a warfare expert and adviser to General David Petreaus — but his assertion that kinetics is defensive and secondary, to what he calls the “offensive” strategy of securing populations towards reconciliation is playing out in the continent of Africa. As Pope Benedict XVI embarks on his trip to the continent, Christianity is surging and balancing itself with traditional African roots, attempting to balance the universality of its doctrine to what Kilcullen describes as the backlash that comes with spreading foreign and society changing ideology. The New York Times reports:
With one of the world’s largest Catholic populations, estimated at 158 million, Africa is the continent where the church is at once strong — in terms of sheer numbers and devotional vitality — and weak, inevitably touched by the poverty, corruption, conflict and disease afflicting the larger society.
Benedict is expected to touch on both those realities in his visit, which kicks off a period of attention to Africa, culminating in October, when the world’s bishops meet for their annual monthlong synod in Rome. This year it is devoted to “The Church in Africa at the Service of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace.”
On the first stop in his six-day trip, in French- and English-speaking Cameroon, Benedict is expected to present the working paper for the synod, which was called by Pope John Paul II before he died in 2005.
The synod is expected to touch on the church’s role in promoting democracy and social justice; “inculturation,” or finding a balance between Rome-mandated Catholic dogma and the varieties of local practice; health; and the tensions in Africa between Catholics, Muslims and the continent’s fast-growing Pentecostal population.
There is a lot at stake. By 2025, one-sixth of the world’s Catholics, or about 230 million, are expected to be African. The world’s largest seminary is in Nigeria, which borders on Cameroon in western Africa, and over all, Africa produces a large percentage of the world’s priests.
Africa is the continent “where the church appears most vital, appears in a phase of expansion,” said Sandro Magister, a veteran Italian Vatican journalist. “But this expansion is also very fragile.” He added that it “shows the typical characteristics of youth and adolescence: great waves of feeling and emotion with rather weak roots.”
Although the Vatican hierarchy is a deeply European institution, it too has changed over the years. Pope John XXIII appointed the first African cardinal in 1960. There are now 16 cardinals from Africa, out of 192.
“You sometimes hear the remark that the main problem with the Vatican is it’s 2,000 miles too far north,” said Philip Jenkins, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and the author of “The Lost History of Christianity,” about the early history of Christianity in Africa and Asia.
In his more than 25 years as pope, John Paul II made 16 trips to Africa, visiting 42 countries. In many ways, Africa would seem a lower priority for Benedict, who in his four years as pope has been deeply preoccupied with strengthening the church in Europe, where its status is increasingly diminished.
But Africa is important for Benedict’s vision. Compared with Europe and the United States, African churches tend to take a more traditional line on issues like homosexuality.
“Not just is Christianity booming in that part of the world, it seems to be a pretty conservative kind of Catholicism,” said Professor Jenkins, of Penn State. “I think he has high hopes of the global south churches,” and sees them “as a very serious counterbalance to liberal trends in the north.”
But the situation on the ground is rich and complex.
Many local African prelates must set their own guidelines for how to balance Catholicism with the faith healing and animal sacrifice practiced by many parishioners.
The Catholic Church is also concerned that tribalism could undermine its more universal authority, especially if clerics are seen as too closely tied to a particular ethnic or tribal group.
Similarly, preaching the gospel in the local language could tie it to one ethnic group, yet reading it only in a formerly colonial language poses other complications.
Benedict has tried to crack down on the tendency of many African priests to take wives. Addressing a meeting of African bishops in Rome in 2005, Benedict implored them “to select conscientiously candidates for the priesthood,” and to encourage them “to open themselves fully to serving others as Christ did by embracing the gift of celibacy.”