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The simultaneous decline and rise of the Church?

Mphuthumi Ntabeni reflecting on the results of the recent referendum on abortion in Ireland muses on what might be going on. While many blame the scandalous widespread cases of sexual abuse as the cause of the vote for abortion, he suggests that it is more complex. He thinks that at present there is a general spiritual malaise in Europe, as well as a sense that the Church has lost touch with the struggles of ordinary people, and that this is very much a part of this complicated result. He compares this to what is happening in Africa, where conversely – in many parts of the continent – the Church is the only hope for millions of Africans. 

In the recent national referendum in Ireland, the Irish have reversed the Eighth Amendment introduced to their constitution in 1983 to ban abortion in their country. This is a watershed moment which reveals how far public opinion in the so-called “Catholic country” has moved away from the Church's teachings in the last four decades. Though the nominal number of people professing the faith in the UK has not changed much, very few attend any religious activities. As such, it is common in the UK for Christian institutions to hand over their under-utilised facilities to the state – because of the expense of upkeep and maintenance. Some sites, not regarded as heritage sites, have been auctioned. In Glasgow and Edinburgh churches are regularly being converted into marketplaces, nightclubs and crèche regularly.  It leaves an ashy taste in the believer's mouth, but this is – I think – symptomatic of the Church's loss of authority in these lands. Most blame the stories of the sexual abuse of minors by clerics, and the subsequent cover-ups, for it. Though these may form part of the contributing factors, I am of the opinion that things are much more complex than that. It involves, I think, a general spiritual malaise that’s currently endemic to the European continent.


More interesting to me is how the Church seems to be the last voice of integrity and human rights in Africa, concurrently with the European scenario. As such it’s stature is waxing bright instead of waning, in cities like Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon and Nigeria. Last week the Catholic Church organised a march in 45 towns (on the same day) in Nigeria, to protest the killing of Christians with seminarians, priests, nuns and many of the faithful taking to the streets. On 24 April, during a morning mass, two Catholic priests, Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha together with fifteen parishioners were massacred by suspected herdsmen armed with guns. The herdsmen invaded Mbalom community and attacked St Ignatius Catholic Church in Benue. The attack was one in a series of attacks against innocent Christians in Benue, Taraba, Adamawa and Kaduna states.

The purpose of the attack, it seems, is a fight over land. The herdsmen require land for their stock to graze, while communities use the land for farming. They've sown fear and confusion in the community and many have abandoned their farms. This could lead to starvation and famine in these areas because they are heavily dependent on domestic farm produce. The federal government security forces of Nigeria, swamped with the fight against Boko Haram, has made no real progress in dealing with the conflict or arresting the herdsmen.

People of various faiths and denominations, including members of civil society, joined in the national marches. These took place, especially in the Catholic Diocese of Abeokuta (Ogun state) and the Archdiocese of Ibadan (Oyo state), both of which are predominantly Muslim states. Marches also happened in the city of Abuja, and in the Edo, Delta and Kaduna states.  The marches were planned to coincide with the burial of those killed last Tuesday. Speaking to CNN, Bishop Olukayode Odetoyinbo of the Abeokuta Diocese, asked the Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to resign over his inability to protect the lives and property and to uphold the constitution of his country: “His duty is to protect Nigerians… But if a father cannot do that, it is obvious you are not able to keep the promise as expected.”

Democratic Republic of Congo

In December Joseph Kabila refused to step down as the president of the DRC, breaking a deal to call for elections, as brokered by the Catholic bishops, between the DRC government and opposition political parties. The Catholic Church, with the spiritual and civic group, 'Lay Coordination Committee', has emerged as the only real force of opposition against Kabila's government. They have organised several marches against the Kabila government, which has responded violently to them. Most recently these anti-government marches left four people dead in Kinshasa.

In Kasai and in the mineral-rich Kivu regions, where major cell phone manufacturing companies are also implicated in the violence because they have been known to deal with warlords to acquire the cobalt that is in high demand for cell phone battery manufacturing. Both groups, have been implicated in carrying out atrocities and displacing many people who end up being refugees in neighbouring countries.  The Church accuses Kabila's administration of exacerbating the long-standing tribal and mineral wealth clashes due to its corrupt practices. It also says that the government sponsors warlords to work with chosen foreign companies – mostly Israelis and Russians.

In a nutshell, the DRC's conflict is what can be termed as “Africa's perpetual war”. Not only has it been going on for a long time, it has also (at different stages)  involved more than five African states – Rwanda, Uganda, DRC, Angola and Zambia. South Africa was also once dragged into the conflict, for peacekeeping purposes, before it too was badly burnt. The UN has deployed the blue berets, the biggest and most enduring of its armies, but to no avail. DRC, which spans the size of central Europe, is just too vast, and its mineral-rich land is too tempting to the circling vultures of the capitalist system – the worst kind of business-greed. Meantime it’s citizens are among the poorest, tragically harassed and perpetually displaced. But many among them see the Catholic Church's willingness to dirty her boots on the pits of this fray, more as a sign of hope than of religion mingling with politics. After all, to quote the prophet Ezekiel (13:10), what’s the point of leading people astray by preaching peace, even though there’s no peace to be found?


The Catholic Church has been asked to act as a mediator in Cameroon between the Anglophone separatists, who are burning government institutions such as schools and clinics, and the Francophone government forces who are burning entire villages in retaliation. The crisis started in 2016 when the Anglophone minority intensified the call for separation feeling that they were marginalised, overlooked for development and oppressed by the Francophone majority government of President Paul Biya. The call was not only rejected by the government but violently repressed when the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions declared a full-blown declaration of independence last October. Subsequently, the separatists have armed themselves heavily, and are responding in kind to the government's violent repression, by ambushing and killing government security forces.

This has led to the displacement of many people in the Southwest. Many flee into Nigeria – where it is believed that about forty thousand are in precarious refugee camps. The bishop of Mamfe Diocese, Andrew Nkeya, told the BBC: “Three of four soldiers were killed by unknown boys. Then the soldiers came and burnt down the villages of 20,000 people, dispersing them internally and externally to Nigeria… There are more people dying in those camps than were shot, because of the diseased conditions they’re living under.” He said that Catholic schools have been shut down by separatists leading to a total breakdown of the Catholic educational institutions in the area.

The Catholic faith represents about a third of Cameroonians and is evenly distributed in all ten of its regions, but her major challenge is that even as an institution, the laity and church leaders hold different views on these issues. Hence, some feel it is impossible for the Church to act as a neutral mediator. This week the Catholic bishops have issued a memorandum to President Biya's government, asking for dialogue between the warring factions. Biya's government is opposed to outside mediators wanting the dialogue to take place only between the government and militant separatists, a move that is merely seen as a trap to arrest them.


Many feel that the Republic of Ireland's recent referendum is a clear sign that religion is separating from the public sphere. However, I think that this is a sign that political and cultural values are not being influenced by religious values. In as much as I think and believe that the Church should remain separate from the public square, I also believe that public debate should be influenced by religious values, especially by those enshrined in Catholic social teachings.  I don’t believe that there were any winners in the Irish referendum. If anything, I believe that both sides lost.

Some may be wary that too high a price is being demanded from the Catholic Church if it becomes too embroiled in African politics. I don’t believe the issues in the DRC, Nigeria and Cameroon are political. They’re human rights issues and fundamentally about the dignity of the human person. Therefore, we need to establish – first and foremost – a platform to allow for fair and dignified politics. In times of evil, silence makes you an accomplice. The Church learned this the hard way in the Rwandan genocide and, to a certain extent, with the atrocities of the Nazis during WWII. Dare we not repeat those mistakes again.

Image: Jesuit North-West Africa Province Communications

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.