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Some Reflections of the Pan-African Congress on Theology, Society, and Pastoral life gathered in Enugu, Nigeria, (5-8 December, 2019)

  1. Introduction

I recently watched the movie, “The Two Popes.” I am not a movie critic but I will allow myself evoking a scene that moved me profoundly. The 1970s, the military dictatorship in Argentina, “los desaparecidos,” Bergoglio as Provincial of the Jesuits and his failure to act courageously in the face of the repression. In his conversation with Pope Benedict XVI, they take turns to distinguish change from compromise and vice versa. Change is the essence of everything. And we all need to grow in consciousness about our silences and compromises when the gospel message requires us to speak out on behalf of the weak members of our society.

From December 5-8, 2019, African theologians were convened for a Pan-African Congress on Theology, Society, and Pastoral life gathered in Enugu, Nigeria. The conference objective was “to reflect on the future of the Church in Africa and our roles as theologians and scholars in developing the prophetic role of the Gospel in our continent, following the Church’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM); the 25th anniversary of the First Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa (2004) and the 10th anniversary of the Second Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa (2009).” The following reflection focuses on the meaning of this event in continuation with other gatherings of African theologians to chew and digest what God really requires of us. As Micah (6:8) writes, “to act with justice, to love with mercy, and to walk humbly with God.”

The Enugu gathering was indeed a continuation of efforts initiated by the first generation of African theologians in the years ante- and post-Vatican II, as well as the two synods on Africa respectively in 2004 and 2009. The Congress also was an important moment for the Church in Africa to celebrate and share “in the joy-filled stories of our people’s faith in Christ…, the hopes and dreams of our youth, the anxieties of our people and the groans of the earth in Africa for many lives being lost through avoidable deaths; preventable wars; food insecurity; immigration; endemic diseases and poverty which still continue to take a huge toll on Africa and Africans. We identify with the cries of God’s people in our continent, the poor, the voiceless, the marginalized, the unloved and the forgotten.”[1]

  1. Where we come from

The Church in Africa had become more actively involved with issues of contextualization, inculturation, and the debates affecting the global world, following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). In Latin America, the post-conciliar effort to appropriate and creatively adapt the Second Vatican Council, the Episcopal Conference organized its second plenary gathering in 1968 in Medellin to define the continental context of ongoing transformations. CELAM took a radical option for the poor and the oppressed and, in subsequent years, a theology of liberation started to flourish. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, most of the intellectual attention and pastoral efforts were focused on denouncing the oppressive structures of power politics and a system of economic exploitation that skewed justice in favor of capitalist owners. Contrasting the approach of Bergoglio as provincial of the Jesuits back then and, say, the conversion of Archbishop Oscar Romero, one can fathom the kind of agony of conscience that Pope Francis describes in The Two Popes.

In the post-conciliar period, African theologians were also busy reclaiming a different kind of liberation. Though they shared with the rest of the Third World theologians the same experience of systemic distortions at the root of poverty and marginalization, Africans felt they needed to underscore even more strongly the specific conditions of the African continent. After the Dar-es-Salaam meeting (August 5-12, 1976), which led to the creation of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, they created the Ecumenical Association of African Theologians (EAAT) the following year, at a meeting they held in Accra (December 17-23, 1977). Yet, prior to that meeting, Cameroonian Jesuit priest Fabien Eboussi Boulaga had boldly proposed at the Abidjan Colloquium (September 12-17, 1977), the convening of a Council of the African Catholic Church. It would be unique, with neither a model nor a precursor to replicate or follow. “Our particular Church would grant itself for the first time the representation of itself.”[2]

In 1986, Fr. Engelbert Mveng SJ (1930-1995) published an important book, L’Afrique dans L’Église: Parole d’un Croyant,[3] shedding light on the kind of liberation theology the Church in Africa ought to preoccupy itself with. For Mveng liberation theology in Africa was to address the awful legacies of the slave trade and colonialism. These systems had imposed a radical negation of the African being in order to promote the capitalist system they were built to sustain. In Mveng’s words, “the Slave Trade represents our anthropological annihilation. It not only negates what we call today human rights but it embodies, instead, a pure negation of our humanity.”[4]

The Church in Africa stands on the shoulders of these pioneers so that our generation can see further and commit more deeply to proclamation of the gospel. Pioneers, like ancestors, deserve recognition. That is the reason why Meinrad Hebga SJ laments in the above-mentioned article the failure of the Osservatore Romano[5] to acknowledge the efforts of African theologians and their 1977 demand for a Council for the Catholic Church in Africa as prolegomena to the convening of the 1994 Synod. Instead, the journalist who authored the article bequeathed the inspiration of the synod wholly to the Second Vatican Council. Hebga also remembers ironical comments made by Mveng at a post-synodal gathering in Rottenburg, organized around Bishop Walter Kasper, where Mveng had said that SECAM is bereft of any power, even that of convening its own gathering (synod).

  1. Where we stand now

It is important to see the Enugu Pan-African Congress as a continuation of previous efforts by Africans to define their theological priorities, the language and context of their pastoral work, as well as the designing of the strategies and approaches needed to bring the Christian message to the men and women of today. In fact, Fr Stan Chu Ilo, the convener of the gathering, evoked the role of African intellectuals and theologians, like the gathering organised by Alioune Diop in Rome[6] to educate the world about African personhood, and the necessity to understand where the Church in Africa comes from, stands today, and will be going tomorrow. Without such efforts, the preaching of the gospel would not resonate with the needs of the peoples.

At the end, the Enugu Congress proposed a triple way forward, which can be summarizes as follows: First, a dialogical approach in doing theology with the imperative to immerse the Church in “the smell of the sheep;” to listen to the experiences of women and other marginalized groups; to dialogue with other religions present in Africa; and to use the social sciences and other disciplines to understand better this dialogue. Second, the development of a pastoral praxis that entails a shared vision of leadership. Third, a dialogical praxis between Church and Society that requires developing a greater historical consciousness and deepened understanding of the contemporary cultural, religious, socio-political, and economic realities of our people as well as of the traditions of our Church. Besides these three calls to theologize, lead the Church, and engage society, a couple of remarks deserve our attention:

  • “During the Congress, we noted that things continue to fall apart in the quality of life in Africa, even though the continent has the highest growth rate in the Catholic Church. Indeed, unless our theology, institutional structures, and pastoral practices are translated into tools of liberation and the flourishing of life for Africans, the growth of the Church will only be in number. The kingdom of God does not grow simply in number. Rather, it grows in love, faith, and hope. This growth transforms communities, cultures and traditions.
  • “We acknowledge that sometimes our theology has been far removed from our contexts, and has not helped to deepen the faith of our people and the transformation of society. Going forward, this theology must necessarily be inclusive of all voices in its formulation, presentation, and application.”
  1. Where we are going

I would like to make a few personal observations at this point based on the above remarks. The current sociopolitical realities in Africa remain a challenge to the gospel truth. Why? Because the anthropology and theology upon which we are building our social relations are still strongly dependent on the neoliberal paradigm, a mere transmutation of yesterday’s capitalist systems.

First, allow me to confess how much I abhor the use of certain concepts that have come to us embodied in and embedded with Western symbolic misrepresentations. More than ever, I feel the need for building a theology that translates into a tool of liberation. But liberation from what? Until Africans agree on defining for themselves the problems that need to be addressed, that is, the institutional and structural distortions that continue to rob our people of their divine rights and inviolable dignity upon which every society should be organized, we will perpetuate the system and remain irrelevant to the flourishing of life for Africans. Here, I would like to quote Aimé Césaire who warns us in his “Discourse on Colonialism”[7] against the naiveté of letting others decide on our priorities or define our problems on our behalf.

  • As he puts it, “the commonest curse is to be duped in good faith by a collective hypocrisy that cleverly misrepresents problems and thus, better legitimizes the hateful solutions provided for them. It is therefore crucial to see clearly, to think clearly so as to agree on what colonization is not: a Christian or philanthropic enterprise; a civilizing project that seeks to combat ignorance and to liberate peoples from tyrannies of all kinds, including slavery.” This perception of the early generation of Africans about Christianity needs boldness in thinking what the Christian message requires of us. The way Césaire (a committed intellectual) repudiates the colonial rationale or any other legitimizing rhetoric, by stigmatizing the colonial brutality and violence that contradict any philanthropic project (Vietnam, Algeria, Madagascar, Indochina, etc.), we ought to go the roots of the problems and acknowledge the ideological superstructure that sustains the evil.

Next, the Enugu Final Statement notes that “things continue to fall apart in the quality of life in Africa, even though the continent has the highest growth rate in the Catholic Church.” If indeed things continue to fall apart and if our theologies prove inadequate in addressing the systems that are strongly built to impoverish those already poor, it is because we are trained as agents of the system. Unknowingly, we work to uphold the very oppressive systems that strip our brothers and sisters of their agency, freedoms, and rights. A system that makes us believe we are working for the poor while the results prove the opposite.

Catholic Social Teaching, and more specifically, the works of theologians and the Magisterium in the years following the Second Vatican Council, has the merit of centering human flourishing as the core objective of the Church’s pastoral efforts. Charles Curran claims, for instance, that the Catholic tradition insists that “every human person is called upon to develop and fulfill oneself, for every life is a vocation… Endowed with intelligence and freedom, the human being is responsible for one’s fulfillment as for one’s salvation.” Populorum Progressio (1967) has the merit of having redefined the concept of development, removing it from the province of only economist, politician and academician experts. Instead, development should involve the people concerned in the process of their personal integral self-fulfillment. This idea resonates with the statement attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, saying that “everything done for me without me is against me.” In the same light, the liberation theology developed by African theologians in the African context – although not well rendered by the concept of inculturation – remains a powerful call to restore the African human being to their divine right. Actually, a fundamental teaching of the Christian tradition claims that every man and woman portrays the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and therefore, the right Christian message opts for the respect and protection of all with a special concern for the poor whose rights are more threatened and more vulnerable.

Until we agree on the unconditional respect for “human life” in the way we organize our social, economic, and political life in Africa, we will continue to extol ruthless leaders who kill their own people while they mistake for development the building of tall buildings and paving roads that help the exploiter to export raw materials from the continent to their metropolis. Also, I often encounter among Africans, even among the intellectually best endowed, a resistance to democracy as they seek to prioritize leaders that are called “benevolent dictators.” The fallacy of this thinking is the priority we have come to give to material prestige over spiritual and moral values. In fact, poverty is not to be defined merely as material deprivation. Engelbert Mveng is right to claim Africa’s poverty as hitting at the heart of the being, an “anthropological annihilation.” Unfortunately, the dominant neoliberal paradigm today that favors the arbitrariness of charity against the structural right and institutionalized justice for all perpetuates a definition of poverty using materialistic measures. The Church’s teaching has a more encompassing view, a spiritual understanding, when it considers the poor should become subjects of their own history, agents of their own liberation, and artisans of a new humanity.

Allow me to expound a bit more on this. The concept of “anthropological annihilation” as seen by Engelbert Mveng resonates with Amartya Sen’s argument in his famous book on development as freedom.[8] Sen conceptualizes poverty as deprivation of capabilities. A person’s capability, he argues, “refers to the alternative combinations of functionings that are feasible for her to achieve.” On the one hand, “capability is a kind of freedom: the substantive freedom to achieve alternative functioning combinations (or, less formally put, the freedom to achieve various lifestyle),” on the other hand, “functionings [which have distinctly Aristotelian roots], “reflect the various things a person may value doing or being.” They are the various living conditions we can or cannot achieve and the capabilities are our ability to achieve them.[9] Hence, a liberation theology we need implies achieving self-fulfillment of all and for all; it requires moving from “less human conditions to those which are more human: from material deprivation of life’s essentials, the moral deficiencies of selfishness, and the oppressive social structures to the possession of necessities, knowledge, culture, respect for the dignity of others, cooperation, desire for peace, and a supreme and spiritual values.”[10]

  1. By way of conclusion

By way of conclusion, I would like to remind ourselves that our voices ought to be prophetic enough or they will prove powerless in trying to challenge the prevailing status quo. African theologians today should humbly state the truth of the gospel without limiting themselves by the constraint to please the powers that be. As the universal Church is facing a huge challenge, with all the woundedness revealed in the sexual abuses of minors, the abuse of power toward women, the ordination of married men, and many other contradictory voices in what was formerly a monopoly of the magisterium, this time is also an amazing opportunity for us to rethink what kind of Church we want to be in Africa. Immersion in the context and the realities of our peoples is simply reminiscing of the mystery of God’s incarnation so God could use a language that empowers those he came to liberate. The idea of shared leadership consonant with the values of democracy that redistributes power to break with an infantilizing top-down model. And finally, and my favorite takeaway from the Enugu conference, the Church is and can only be Church in the world. Hence, the dialogical praxis between Church and Society that requires developing a greater historical consciousness, a deepened understanding of the contemporary cultural, religious, socio-political, and economic realities of our people, as well as of the traditions of our Church.


[1] Note from the final statement of the Conference.

[2] Meinrad P. Hebga, S.J., “Engelbert Mveng: un pionnier de la Théologie Africaine,” in Théologie Africaine au XXIe Siècle. Bénezet Bujo and J. Ilunga Muya, eds., Kinshasa : Éditions Paulines, 2004, p.41.

[3]  Paris: L’Harmattan.

[4] L’Afrique dans L’Église, p. 205. (I freely translate from French.)

[5]  April 10, 1994.

[6] Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists, in 1959.

[7] Paris: Éditions Réclame, 1950.

[8] New York: Anchor Books, 1999.

[9] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, 75; cf. Amiya Kumar Bagchi, “Capabilities, Freedom and Human Development: Amartya Sen’s Science of Development,” Part III, Frontline, Vol. 16, Issue 14 (India’s National Magazine, July 3-16, 1999), available at:

[10] cf. Fred Krammer, S.J., Doing Faithjustice: An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching (New York: Paulist Press, 2004) p. 99.