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The Synod on the Family and Africa

The Synod on the Family and Africa

By Laurenti Magesa

The third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops takes place in Rome in just a few months, between October 5 and 19, 2014. The preparatory document (Lineamenta) of the Synod explains that the task of this extraordinary session (to be followed by an ordinary one in 2015) is to ‘define the “status quaestionis” and to collect the bishops’ experiences and proposals in proclaiming and living the Gospel of the Family in a credible manner.’

Implied here, it seems, is the recognition that ‘family’ is experienced differently in different places, to which experiences the Gospel should be applied. Hence the need for local churches around the world to bring concrete ‘proposals’ from their own situations to this dialogical table of the universal church, confident that – as She has always consistently done – the Holy Spirit will show us the way through whatever human muddle we may be in at the moment.

The Lineamenta tries to list some of the striking features of the present situation, including – to mention only those most immediately urgent in the African churches – cohabitation, single-parent families, polygamy, and dowry or bride wealth. To say, as the Lineamenta does, that these are situations that ‘were unheard of until a few years ago’ does not reflect the African reality.  Polygamy and bride wealth as social institutions in Africa predate by far  Christian evangelization, and all indications show that they are not about to disappear.

The logic of Christian revelation, the incarnation, and faith in the on-going activity of the Holy Spirit leads to the need to take seriously the human experience in formulating doctrine and pastoral strategies. What African bishops should bring to the universal dialogical table come October is what this African experience says about current Catholic teaching and pastoral practice in the African churches. Can the church bring to this situation, as the Lineamenta suggests, ‘the wide acceptance of the teaching on divine mercy and concern towards people who [have for a long time suffered] on the periphery of [the church]’?

Articulation of experiences in these situations should emerge from the people. The reason for the questionnaire included in the Lineamenta was, in its own words, to enable ‘the particular Churches to participate actively in the preparation of the Extraordinary Synod, whose purpose is to proclaim the Gospel in the context of the pastoral challenges facing the family today.’ One wonders how widely the African bishops have consulted the local faithful in these and other questions so that they could have discovered ‘other [urgent] challenges or [useful] proposals related to the topics in the questions … to treat’ at the Synod.

In some European and North American dioceses and conferences of bishops (Germany and Switzerland, for example, and the Diocese of St. Petersburg in the USA) surveys were taken among the faithful regarding the issue of divorce and remarriage and the results were published. This kind of healthy process of broad collegiality called for by Pope Francis has not been evident in the African churches facing the Synod on the Family. I was in my village of birth recently and saw no sign of it; worse, I noticed no awareness that issues concerning one of their most immediate and basic Christian experiences were going to be discussed and policies formulated that would affect directly their life as Christians!

Often, the process of formulating a policy is as important as the policy itself. This is even more so with the forthcoming Synod. Without popular involvement in the process, the ‘pastoral policies’ arising out of it will remain simply another in the long list of those impractical Catholic curiosities as far as the life of the people is concerned.


Fr Magesa

Prof. Laurenti Magesa is a priest of Musoma Diocese in Tanzania. He teaches moral theology at Hekima and Tangaza Colleges in Nairobi.  He has published extensively in African theology, ethics and spirituality.  His latest book is /What is not Sacred? African Spirituality/ (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2013 and Nairobi: Acton 2014).