Africa: Opinion - Pope Benedict Championed Social Justice in Africa
Peter Henriot SJ
27 March 2009
Amidst all the media coverage about tribunals in Zambia, coups in Madagascar and disputes in FIFA, there have been in the past week some very important news coming out of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Africa. And the most important elements in that news, in my opinion, have been about social justice.
What do I mean? Well, I believe that a fair analysis of the Pope's messages over the past few days shows some really strong calls for greater commitment to democracy, development, concern for the poor and respect for African values.
Benedict made some powerful speeches in the two countries he visited, Cameroon and Angola. They were speeches before crowds of thousands in churches and public arenas, speeches to leaders of the Catholic Church and other churches, and speeches to government heads and politicians. In addition, he released a major document for discussion at an up-coming meeting in Rome later this year, the so-called "Second African Synod."
The topic of the synod is "The Church in Africa in Service of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace." You can readily see from the topic how timely and relevant it is to Zambia and to all of Africa. That's why I think that we are in for some very lively debates over the next several months about the relationship of Church and State and about the proper political role that the Church should play in our country.
It is clear from Benedict's speeches and from the Synod document that the Catholic Church simply rejects out of hand any theology or political philosophy that would demand that the Church be quiet about the misery of the people (e.g., poverty conditions) and the mismanagement of government (e.g., corruption). According to the Synod document, "the church ought not to retire into herself." I take that to mean that it is never the role of the church to "stay in the sacristy," as some Zambian politicians like to demand whenever a Pastoral Letter comes out to challenge the situation in the country!
The March 1 Pastoral Letter of the Zambian Catholic Bishops is well backed up by the Synod document's call for a "more prophetic role" of the Church in the social and political life of the African Continent. And in the Cameroon last week, Benedict stated quite bluntly, "In the face of suffering or violence, poverty or hunger, corruption or abuse of power, a Christian can never remain silent." And he said, "The bishop's mission leads him to be the defender of the rights of the poor ."
Benedict has a strong view about the responsibility of Christian lay people to be actively engaged in political affairs in order to promote social justice. "So it is the duty of Christians," he declared in Yaoundé, "particularly lay people with social, economic and political responsibilities, to be guided by the Church's social teaching, in order to contribute to the building up of a more just world where everyone can live with dignity." Certainly Catholics active in political life in Zambia should pay heed to these words.
While in Angola, he urged the government to do more to fight poverty, corruption and uphold human rights. In a nationally televised speech, he made a strong plea to Africans to make the changes needed to improve people's lives. He called for a transformation of the Continent, "freeing people from the whip of greed, violence, disorder and guiding it through the path of those principles that are indispensable to any modern democracy."
Those principles, he said, included respect, transparent governance, freedom of the press, health care and adequate schooling as well as the promotion of human rights. Africans needed "a firm determination to change hearts and finally put a stop, once and for all, to corruption."
Respect for traditional African values is particularly noteworthy in Benedict's speeches and in the Synod document. This document sums up these values as expressing "a respect for elders; a respect for women as mothers; a culture of solidarity, mutual aid, hospitality and unity; a respect for life, honesty, truth, keeping one's word...." These values are seen to be threatened by an aggressive globalization that pushes cultural values and practices foreign to Africa.
In Angola, Benedict called attention to the abuse of women. "Particularly disturbing is the crushing yoke of discrimination that women and girls so often endure, not to mention the unspeakable practice of sexual violence and exploitation which causes such humiliation and trauma."
He also addressed the challenge of witchcraft, encouraging Christians to offer hope "to the many who live in the fear of spirits, of evil powers by whom they feel threatened, disoriented, even reaching the point of condemning street children and even the most elderly because - they say - they are sorcerers."
But it is in the Synod document launched by Benedict that I find some of the most challenging statements about linking authentic faith and social justice. Some of the critics of the Church's activism here in Zambia will not be pleased by the document's analysis of several burning issues such as failures by political leaders, exploitation by mining companies and misuse of the media.
In reading the document, I was struck by its immediate relevance in addressing two current issues in Zambia. First, it speaks favourably of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) that "seeks to identify the forms and causes of the corruption which rages on the Continent and goes unpunished." Would that we now take up the APRM as an effective anti-corruption tool in this country!
Second, it sounds a clear and cogent warning about the risk of giving into the campaign for GMOs, which purports to assure food security. This campaign, according to the document, "should not overlook the true problems of agriculture in Africa: the lack of cultivatable land, water, energy, access to credit, agricultural training, local markets, road infrastructures, etc." Again, words very relevant to Zambia!
I want to say that I was very pleased by Benedict's strong social justice emphasis during his first visit to Africa. His speeches also touched on very serious spiritual and pastoral issues. But the social justice emphasis was clear enough to challenge those who want to opt for a church that distances itself from the real life, day to day struggles of its members. And the Synod document opens up very promising lines of action to promote a Church "in service to reconciliation, justice and peace." We can be strengthened by this leadership role encouraged by Pope Benedict.
[Peter Henriot is director of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection in Lusaka, Zambia]