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Francis Anekwe Oborji: African Family-Centered Ecclesiology & Same-Sex Blessings [MUST READ]

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It was not by accident that the Catholic Bishops of Malawi in East Africa are the leading African voice today, about the recent Declaration of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith (DDF), “Fiducia Supplicans” on blessings of same-sex couples. It was precisely, in Malawi, in 1989, that Pope St. John Paul II exhorted the Church in Africa and its Bishops, and affirmed that, “a serious concern for a true and balanced inculturation is necessary in order to avoid cultural confusion and alienation in our fast evolving society.”

In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Africa”, which was the fruit of the 1994 African Synod, where the theological foundation and pastoral orientation of the ‘African Family-Centered Ecclesiology’ was articulated, Pope St. John Paul II, referred to his early Homily of 1989 in Malawi. In the words of John Paul II:

“During my visit to Malawi I made the same point: “I put before you today a challenge – a challenge to reject a way of living which does not correspond to the best of your traditions, and your Christian faith. Many people in Africa look beyond Africa for the so-called ‘freedom of modern way of life.’ Today, I urge you to look inside yourselves. Look to the riches of your own traditions, look to the faith which we are celebrating in this assembly. Here you will find genuine freedom – here you will find Christ who will lead you to the truth.” – John Paul II, “Ecclesia in Africa”, no. 48 (See also, Homily at the conclusion of the sixth Pastoral Visit in Africa, Lilongwe (Malawi), (6 May 1989), 6: “Insegnamenti” XII/1 (1989), 1183.)

As can be gleaned from the statements and public pronouncements of not only the Malawian Bishops, but also most of the African Bishops on the “Fiducia Supplicans.” Whether speaking individually, or as a national Episcopal Conference, they all appeared to be one in highlighting those two points Pope John Paul II had challenged them with in the “Ecclesia in Africa” (no. 48) in 1995. Namely, “a challenge to reject a way of living which does not correspond to the best of your [African culture and] traditions, and your Christian faith.” As well as the need for true and balanced inculturation which is necessary in order to avoid cultural confusion and ambiguity in living and in presenting the Christian faith to the African people in our modern society where the media noise blankets the way most people take for life.

Combatting the present-day cultural crisis and assault on African identity through authentic Christian witness and inculturation (of the Gospel teaching on family and marriage), was also the central theme of the African Bishops’ “Message” (Nuntius) at the end of that 1994 African Synod in Rome. In their “Synodal Message”, African Bishops were worried of the continued modern-day ‘assault’ on the African culture and therefore, on the African identity. In the words of the Bishops:

“But the culture which gave its identity to our people is in serious crisis. On the eve of the 21st century when our identity is being crushed in the mortar of a merciless chain of events, the fundamental need is for prophets to arise and speak in the name of the God of hope for the creation of a new identity. Africa has a need for holy prophets.” – (See, “Message of African Synod – Nuntius” (1994), no. 15.)

Furthermore, there have been serious concerns that since after the First African Synod of 1994, where the African image of the “Church-As-Family of God” was first articulated and given a Magisterium backing by Pope St. John Paul II, some individuals from Western world were not comfortable with that ‘African Family-Centered Ecclesiology’, for whatever reason that is best known to them. There have been some attempts, as alleged, to suppress it. The African’ emphasis on the ‘African Palaver’ as model of dialogue and reconciliation within the Church-Family and large society, also suffered the same fate prior and during the Second African Synod in Rome in 2009. That is why, though the term “African Palaver” appeared in the “Lineamenta” of that Synod of 2009, it never surfaced in the “Instrumentum Laboris” and in the subsequent documents of that synod on “Reconciliation, Justice and Peace.”

Therefore, one should not be surprised to see African Bishops raising their voice almost in ‘unionism’, today, in their rejection of allowing priests to ‘bless same-sex couples’ as suggested in the declaration “Fiducia Supplicans.” The ongoing fuss on allowing priests to bless same-sex couples, therefore, becomes a good opportunity for the African Bishops to make their voice heard and to register their disapproval. It is an attempt for the Bishops to protect and safeguard, as they understand it, the Catholic Doctrine and teaching on family and marriage as well as the authentic African spirituality, tradition and cultural sense of the family and marriage, which abhors any homosexuality.

This is why you would find that in most of their public statements on this matter since the publication of the “Fiducia Supplicans”, the various Episcopal Conferences of the African Bishops, have, each, rejected allowing the blessing of same-sex couples in their local churches and countries. It is not simply that the laws of different African nations are against such a sexual orientation of homosexuality. Homosexuality itself, in whatever guise, the Bishops argued, should not be allowed in their local churches because such a practice goes contrary to the Catholic Church’s long Tradition, Doctrine and teaching on marriage and family which the Church received from the Apostles; and as well as to the authentic African spirituality and cultural sensibilities. The African Bishops’ emphasis is primarily on these two points, namely, respecting the purity of the Catholic Doctrine and teaching on marriage and family, and upholding the authentic African spirituality and cultural sensibilities on marriage and family.

In other words, the African Bishops are concerned because they want to avoid any form of ambiguity and cultural confusion in their proclamation and works of inculturating the Gospel and Church’s teaching on marriage and family in their cultural context and to their people. This is the crux of the matter! It is an effort of the African Bishops in their attempts to protect the young and fragile Christian faith of their flock in Africa and elsewhere. Since the same-sex unions or whatever, does not in any way feature as among the main problems confronting the African people and the local Church today.

Moreover, on the wider spectrum, some knowledgeable individuals and groups are beginning to voice out. To say that the whole fuss about promoting homosexual sexual orientation, and forcing it on African governments or churches to accept and implement in Africa, has to do with the sinister attempt to reduce African population (and those of other countries of the Global South), by targeting the culture and religious sensibilities of the African people on marriage and family. Since the only thing that keeps African people and nations going today are their religious faith and recourse to their culture at any critical moment of their lives both as individuals and as indigenous and religious communities.

Thus, some people believe that the whole fuss about promoting homosexual life-style or homosexual relationships is politically motivated and heavily sponsored from the modern-day imperial world centers of power, the so-called developed countries. That it is part of the effort to reduce the African population, and to ‘neutralize’ the African’s attachment to their religious faith and culture as well as the efforts to rebuild and modernize the African culture from what was left of it after the European colonialism of the last centuries.

Again, on the ecclesial level, however, some see it as an onslaught on African spirituality, and especially, on the renewed African Family-Centered Ecclesiology of the “Church-As-Family.”

African Family-Centered Ecclesiology vis-à-vis ‘Blessings of Same-Sex Couples

The intuition or rather inspiration on the part of the African Bishops to insist that the blessings of same-sex couples is not allowed in their local churches in Africa, has to do also with their chosen “African Missionary Ecclesiology of the Church-As-Family of God.”

The evaluation of the image of the Church-as-Family (an extended or universal “Family of God”), is the most recent result of theological research in Africa. During the 1994 Synod, it found great reception among the African Bishops, as the reports of the circuli minores and the final Message of the Synod itself clearly indicated. It is an ecclesiology developed in the context of Proclamation and Evangelization with its inspiration generally from Saint Paul the Great Missionary. The inspiration is specifically from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians on reconciliation of the Jews and the pagans with one another and with God (Eph. 2:11-22).

The model of the “Church-as-Family” did not feature as such in the Lineamenta and the Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod; and at the beginning of the Synod, it did not appear often in the individual interventions of the African Bishops. This is because many of them came with prepared Papers as recommended by the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, Rome. However, during the study sessions of the circuli minores, there was dialogue among the delegates to put more emphasis on the model of the “Church-as-Family” as an appropriate ecclesiology for Africa. In the end, the Bishops recommended it as a suitable image for the Church.

The Bishops accepted it as a model for works of evangelization in the continent today because of its African cultural coloring and spiritual basis in the African context. It is a concept, which Africans can easily appreciate and identify with, because of its African value of the extended family, bound together by ancestral blood and community life. This communitarian accentuation of the family makes the new model a real African reading of the Vatican II concept of the Church as communion (communio) or as the people of God (See, Vatican II, Lumen gentium 4).  It is an African cultural heritage, which can contribute to the promotion of ecclesial communion in the continent and in the Universal Church-Family.

The model of the Church-as-Family is not entirely new, because elements of it can be found in the New Testament.  (See, ITm. 3, 15; Eph. 2, 19-22, etc.), and in some Church Fathers, in liturgical prayers, both ancient and modern, in the documents of Vatican II (cf. LG 6, 28, 51; AG 32, 40, etc., as well as in post-conciliar documents), and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 759). However, in Africa, the model was first developed in the Francophone countries, particularly in Burkina Faso in West Africa, and later in the Anglophone countries as well. The Bishops of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) chose this image of the Church as the guiding principle for evangelization in their local Church. (See, A.T. Sanon, “The Universal Christian Message in Cultural Plurality”, in: CONCILIUM, 135(1980), pp.91-95.) The image of the Church-as-Family as studies and pastoral application have shown, has many pastoral advantages especially for the African local Churches.

In addition to addressing the internal problem of exaggerated ethnocentrism, issues of building a true nationhood in modern African nation states, and of better relationships in African local churches and Dioceses, the “Church-Family” ecclesiology has also the purpose of clarifying matters as regards the type of relationship that should exist between the African local Churches and the Universal Church. This touches the problem of autonomy and communion or rather of unity in diversity in the Universal Church-Family. In this regard, the “Church-Family” implies that the relationship between the Church in Africa and the sister-Churches in the North should be a healthy one. This implies that the African Family-Centered Ecclesiology of the “Church-As-Family” touches on the issue of the recognition of signs of growth or development into maturity found in the African Churches. This refers specifically to the on-going efforts on inculturation. The efforts indicate that at least primary evangelization has been done in this area and that African Christians have begun to advance the cause of the mission of the Church in their land.

Consequently, considering all the above factors, the African Bishops, following the orientations given by Vatican II, wish that the unity in diversity or rather ecclesial communion be interpreted dynamically, so that their young Churches could inculturate the Gospel in their cultures and develop new forms of Christian living, worship, and thought that are relevant to their people. (For more on the Vatican II’s teaching on diversity in matters of Christian living, discipline, liturgy, and theological expressions – within the unity of faith, see. Lumen gentium 13; Ad gentes 22; Orientalium ecclesiarum (On the Oriental Churches), 2-4; Unitatis redintegratio (On Church Unity and Ecumenism), 14-17, etc.)

In fact, this is one of the principal motives behind the Bishops’ choice of the model of the Church-as-Family of God. In the opinion of the African Bishops, what is needed at the moment is a dynamic approach to inculturation – courage and good will to enable the structures of communion to function properly, as they should; that is, with a certain amount of autonomy, responsibility and trust.

However, just like all models of the Church, the image of the Church-as-Family is limited in relation to the mystery of the Church, and so it must be complemented by other models.

The African Family and Image of the ‘Church-As-Family’

Family is the basic unit of the society (and therefore of the Church). In fact, prior to the use of the term “Church-Family” by the Fathers of the 1994 Synod of Bishops, Special Assembly for Africa, the Church Magisterium (Teaching) has for history taught that “the Family is the basic unit of the Church” (often referred to as a domestic Church). (See, Vatican II, Lumen gentium 11; Apostolicam Actuositatem (Vatican Council II Decree on the Apostolate of the Lay People). See also Paul VI Africae terrarium (Apostolic Message to the People of Africa), 10-11) Evangelii nuntiandi 71; 11: AAS 58 (1966) 837-864); John Paul II, Familaris Consortio, Apostolic Exhortation on the Role of the Christian Family); and Ecclesia in Africa, 80-85.)

In Africa, this basic fact of the family as the basic unit of the society is a living reality. But it is evident that family is not something peculiar to Africa, since it (family) exists everywhere and many common elements are found, particularly in the traditional societies. Where then lies the African originality of the family? In the words of Charles Nyamiti, the African originality of the family goes beyond the ordinary accentuation of the term. It lies in the cultural coloring of the term in Africa. In other words, it is only when the family is considered in its cultural context that its African individuality or originality appears. Thus, for instance, in many non-African societies, the family is made up of the husband, wife and their child or children. However, this image of the family is rather recent and it is as a result of influences found in the technological and industrial societies. Family is as well seen as fount from which one is gradually introduced into the society. However, the African family is more extensive, as Nyamiti puts it:

“It includes all living members of these groups, besides being mystically connected to the ancestors and, through social pacts, to outsiders such as friends and others. Besides, membership within the African family (clan or tribe) is usually brought about by special initiation rites showing thereby the sacredness of the family. In other words, the category “family” in Africa evokes not only blood communal membership of few living members, but also the themes of clan, tribe, affinity, maternity, patria potestas, priesthood, ancestors (thereby including the themes of mythical time, archetypes, heroes, founders), initiation and hence fecundity, life, power, sacrality, and so forth.”    (See, C. Nyamiti, “Approaches to African Theology”, in S. Torres & V. Fabella (eds.), The Emergent Gospel: Theology from the Underside of History, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1978, p.39.)

This extensive concept of family in Africa shows that, although the formal content of the term “family” is identical in Africa as it is in many other societies, the mode of its integration in its cultural contexts is different. It is particularly in this concrete mode of integration, that is, in the local coloring of the cultural themes, that the originality of the African concept of the family lies.

Characteristics of the African Family

Now, what is the relevance of the African family to evangelization and to the image of the Church? What is in the African family that motivated the Bishops into choosing it as a model of ecclesiology and evangelization in an African context? To answer these questions, we shall next examine the characteristics of the African family vis-a-vis the new image of the Church-as-Family. The emphasis is on the two major characteristics of the African Family: the African extended family system, and community life and respect for traditions in the African Family.

  1. a)The African Extended Family System

In Africa, as we have noted, the concept of family has a very rich meaning. One of which is that the family is not made up of only those who are still living in the flesh. The unseen ancestors and those yet to be born are part of the family and are every inch interested in it. In addition, the African sense of the family extends beyond the husband, wife and children. It is an extended family, which includes all the descendants of a particular progenitor (ancestor). A typical example would be the extended patriarchal family composed of the family head and his spouse, of his sons who are married and their wives, or still composed of numerous women whose husbands are brothers the first of whom has become the head of the family following the death of their father. There exists for example, in Mali, such an extended Family (among Dogan people) whose members live in sixteen homes embracing fifty individuals: eleven men, thirteen wives, sixteen sons and ten daughters. This is not an isolated case and in some societies, the large families can count up to hundreds of individuals.

The extended family therefore derives from the extension in time through matrimonial links of relationships between parent and children. Besides, it includes individuals without any parental relationships, but who, having been put under the care of the family head, end up being considered members of the family. Such a family with its members sometimes make up an entire village. However, this big extension remains an exception. This is so since the extended family may break up after the death of the father. Some brothers can free themselves from the authority of the elder brother and establish themselves together farther away, thus with their wives, children and relatives, constitute a new nucleus for a new extended family.

Put together, in Africa, the family includes children, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters who may have their own children, and immediate relatives. This is known by the ethnologists as extended family system. It is larger than that referred to by them (ethnologists) as primary family; meaning that which comprises parents and their children.

Moreover, in Africa, living the extended family system is seen as culturally binding. It is seen as a fact of life. Each person is born into an extended family. Cardinal Francis Arinze explains this fact very well: “Africans are at home both in the nuclear family and in the extended family. The sense of family belongingness is rather strong. Many African languages have the same word for brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces, the same word for grandfathers and uncles, and sometimes even the same name for fathers and masters. The sense of family belongingness pervades all these scales on the genealogical ladder.” (See, F.A. ARINZE, “Reflecting on Church-As- Family” (Introduction to Symposium organized by the Association of Nigerian Priests and Religious in Rome on “The Church as the Family of God” (Rome, 19, February 1995.)

In other words, it is in the sense of genealogy that the system is built. In fact, in the extended family all the members of the same generations are “brothers” and “sisters” (what others may refer to as distant cousins); in Africa, they can only marry outside the family where there are no blood links with their family.

Furthermore, any member of the extended family is free to visit the other household and feel at home. In many cases, children of the extended family need not be sent by their “biological parents” to the other household before they can visit there. They are free to visit any household of the extended family at any time and be accepted as well. One does not even need to write or phone the other household before visiting. Such is seen as being too formal in a house where one is considered a member.

  1. b)Community Life & Respect for Traditions in African Family

Here, I would like to begin by emphasizing that among Africans, the stress on family is not on legality but rather on togetherness, on communion, on respect for traditions and on unquestioning acceptance of what the ancestors have practiced, sanctioned and established as the way things are done. From this standpoint, one can reaffirm that the stress is on the community. Community life is the soul of all African traditional society.

Furthermore, the African family has a strong sense of the divine. It is true that the father is taken as the head of the family; yet his function has a link with the ancestors. The father is regarded as the family priest. He is regarded as the loving provider for the family unit, and as the reference point for tradition and the link with the ancestors.

Moreover, the African sense of the family brings out the complementarity of the role of the members of the family. Each member of the family knows his or her role. There are certain duties as well as obligations expected of husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and children. The emphasis is on communitarian living. The husband or father is appreciated as the protector and symbol of unity. The mother or wife is all the more appreciated as the one who disseminates love, tenderness, care, calm and peace. The children are considered a blessing from God, and as comforters of the parents and helpers of the aged or sick parents and grandparents. According to a general rule, the division of work between family members is done on the basis of two criteria: sex and age; the boys learn their job gradually in the company of their father, the girls learn in the company of their mother. In other words, the African family has room for all its members: parents, children, grandparents and grandchildren, sick and healthy, old and young, hard-working and handicapped members. Family affairs are settled through dialogue. None of the members of the family would dare to expose the failings of his or her family to outsiders.

In another vein, it is through the family that the individual is progressively integrated in the society through the rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood, the rites which make the youth a real member of the society. In the African traditional society, rites of passage (initiation rites) are done through tough schooling made of sacrifices, denials and various physical tests, under the guidance of a master and in an unconditional obedience to the elder brothers already initiated. At initiation, the young people take up the apprenticeship of death and they learn to dominate passions and emotions. To accept to go through the initiation rites is to learn with pain, that the passage through death is itself the condition for fertile life. One must die to be reborn. The rites of passage in Africa is an excellent example of Arnold van Gennep’s three stages of initiation rites; namely, Pre-liminal stage (separation), liminal stage (margin or threshold) and post-liminal stage (aggregation). (See, V. TURNER, The Ritual Process: Structures and Anti-Structures, Cornell University Press, New York, 1984, pp.94-130.)

Moreover, in the traditional African society, to be a newly initiated person, is truly, to experience newness, to be a new person. Again, like the bonds of family relationship, the bonds of an initiation lived together creates among the participants, a solidarity which nothing can destroy. Normally, young people of almost the same age are received together for the initiation rite. After initiation, the group is proclaimed an Age Grade. They are now recognized as adults and corporate body in the community. It is from now that they can participate fully in community development. Where any of them fails to participate in the community’s assignment to the Age Grade, he receives the appropriate penalty laid down by the customs.

Consequently, through the rites of initiation, the young learns that man is defined by the community. That one cannot fulfill himself except in the fulfillment of his duty within the community. John Mbiti writes that the African can only say, “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.” (See, J.S. MBITI, African Religions and Philosophy, Heinemann Educational Books, London, 1990, pp.108-109.) Furthermore, they learn that there are certain duties and rights, in the midst of the group where one must live; that one’s first duty is to ensure the survival of the group while respecting the traditions, customs and secrets of the process of initiation. At the family level, the children have already received the apprenticeship of all these. The various members of the family have taught them the roles of adults. It is from the family that the children learn the first elements of tradition, in an atmosphere of love, trust and of friendship, characterized by an absolute respect to the elders of the family.

As regards marriage, this is a family affair. This means that marriage involving a member of the family is considered not just the affair of the young man and his fiancée (or the young woman and her fiancé), but a long process between both families (entailing the marriage payment by the fiancé, religious ceremonies and sacrifice, and the celebration of the marriage itself). The long process is often carried out on behalf of the intending couple by their families. One of the major reasons for the family’s strong involvement in marriages stems from the fact that the offspring that would result from marriages are already counted members of the family. In fact, only the family head can give his daughter in marriage and receive wives for his sons. Marriage in turn, creates new relationships between couples and between them and their various in-laws and the two families thus allied. Marriage is always between a man and woman. The question of the so-called ‘same-sex marriage, unions or couples of the same sex’ is totally, inconceivable in African worldview, spirituality, culture and thought. It is a taboo, so to say.

On the negative side, however, it needs to be said again, that the African family encourages polygamy which nevertheless applied to only a minority of families. Other negative aspects of the African family include, domination by men in some cases, profiling of a sterile married woman because of her inability to conceive and bear children. There is also the case of the denial of equal rights to women, especially in matters touching property and having an active voice in family or clan decision-making processes.

In addition, the people’s attitudes in relation to the African family, could breed laziness. This is true in the case of the extended family system. The extended family creates room for a bread-winner in the family. The bread-winner, who happens to be the fortunate rich person within the family, is pestered for help each day by other members of the family, the old and young, the healthy and the sick.

However, in pointing out these attitudes of the members in the African Family, I do not intend to belittle the “Church-Family” model. Rather it is in keeping with the aim to find the best way possible of living the ideal of the model. For, if it is true that in the traditional African family, there is a sense of being and belonging, as our investigations so far seem to suggest, we are led to ask: how is this sense of the family to be restored in today’s Africa? What strategies of evangelization could be employed in order to address adequately the tribal, ethnic and other forms of strife, which eat up the African sense of people and belongingness? These questions could become a new challenge to African theology other than the fuss on ‘same-sex unions’ controversies.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, it is obvious that the African Bishops have their concrete reasons, theologically, culturally, missiologically, and pastorally, for expressing hesitation against allowing the blessing of same-sex couples or anything of sort in their local churches and cultural context. It is important that this African sensibility on this controversial issue be respected.

In spite of all this, however, the African situation calls for re-education of the people. It is re-education within the ecclesiology of the Church-As-Family. This is a call for pedagogy of pastoral accompaniment and awareness. Since the African sense of the family and marriage is built on communitarian living and family solidarity and warmth towards the weaker members of the family, that means that those with homosexual tendencies should not be discriminated against or cast away. Rather they should be treated as those who are really in need of help and some understanding.

The emphasis in this case, is therefore, developing a kind of pastoral solicitation and closeness towards those with homosexual tendencies and those of them already in homosexual relationships. The aim of such pastoral accompaniment and approach should be how to assist them see the reason for them to return to the authentic tradition, cultural, doctrinal and the gospel teaching on marriage and family life. To rebuild their spiritual life, and reconcile once again, with the ecclesial community and the society. This approach requires patience and pastoral maturity on the part of the church ministers and the society as a whole, towards those with homosexual tendencies, or those in same-sex relationships and other irregular unions or marriages.

This is necessary since the African worldview, ontologically, and anthropologically, as well as doctrinally and culturally, shows that the African understanding of the family and marriage cannot coexist with the suggested blessings of same-sex couples or anything of that kind on homosexuality. Homosexuality, in whichever form as a sexual orientation or lifestyle, is inconsistent with the Gospel teaching on true marriage and family and with the authentic African cultural and spiritual heritage, consciousness, worldview and thought on marriage and family.

Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest. He lives in Rome where he is a Professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He runs a column on The Trent. He can be reached by email HERE.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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