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Wolfgang Schonecke {*}

Lack of Leadership Responsibility

What the Synod for Africa Should Deal With


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 9/2009, P. 473-477
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    From 4 to 25 October representatives of all the African bishops' conferences will come together in Rome in order to discuss together the future pastoral care on the continent. The lack of responsible leadership at all levels of society and often in the church, too, should as a central problem of today's Africa be of special importance at the Synod of Bishops.


It is almost presumptuous to want to say something that generally applies to Africa. For this continent is most richly blessed with hundreds of languages, cultures and ethnic groups. And what has a Tuareg in Mali in common with a township-dweller in Johannesburg or a small farmer in Kenya with the kiosk-keeper in Cairo? The same is true for the entirely different situations of the Catholic Church on the continent. Christians in Algeria and Mauritania are a tiny minority of a few hundred foreigners, whereas the parishes in Rwanda and Burundi have often tens of thousands of members.

Equally different are the mentalities. Traditional, often magical ideas co-exist with modern Western thinking communicated by school and media. West Africa is mainly moulded by Islam, Eastern and Southern Africa more influenced by Christianity. Christianity presents itself in its entire historical range of the Catholic Church over the Protestant Churches of the Reformation up to the independent African Churches and the daily increasing Free and Pentecostal Churches. The socio-political differences, too, could not be starker. So-called failed states like Somalia are part of the reality of Africa, as well as the young democracy of Ghana, which has passed its first severe tests. Globalization continues deepening the gap between rich and poor. Foreign investors and local elites benefit from the fantastic wealth of resources, energy, mineral resources and land, whereas the despair and the readiness to use violence of the victims of globalization are growing.

This is the context in which Africa's bishops at the invitation of the Pope in October during the "Second Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa" want to talk together about the Church of the continent in the service of reconciliation, justice and peace, and to develop joint pastoral orientations. But how can the Synod out of those contradictions and differences formulate guidelines that have some general validity, without being so abstract that they remain irrelevant?

The first African Synod in 1994 succeeded in discovering a unifying vision that speaks to Christians of different cultures and simultaneously fits in the biblical tradition and theology of the Council: the image of the Church as God's family.



Given the disintegration of family structures in Africa, it is not an unproblematic concept. It has nevertheless touched the hearts of Africa's Christians and portrayed an ideal image how the Church in Africa wants to be. That reality is often far away from it is immanent in all ideals, even in St. Luke's description of Jerusalem's first Christian community in the Acts. The first synod has especially emphasized three areas of evangelization for the life and actions of the church as a family: inculturation, justice and peace and dialogue.

As Benedict XVI in his new encyclical "Caritas in veritate" in the context of globalization re-interprets the principles of Pope Paul VI's encyclical "Populorum Progressio", the Second African Synod will anew take into consideration the challenges of globalization for Africa in terms of reconciliation, justice and peace. There are good reasons for it. The number of conflicts on the continent has admittedly decreased, but the task to come to terms with the psychological and social effects is enormous, and the church rightly feels particularly challenged.

Only a small elite has benefited from an economic growth of more than 5 per cent since the turn of the century, and so the number of African millionaires runs up to more than 80 000. The average citizen, especially in rural areas, has felt little of it. And the ever-diverging gap is a growing potential for conflict in African societies and calls the Western model of development into question. It is not only the result of a religious radicalization when in Nigeria Islamic "Taliban" take action. They are recruited from the extreme frustration of a new generation that sees no longer any future prospects. Reconciliation between the emerging social classes and between the ethnic groups being at enmity and a fairer distribution of resources as a condition for peace are key issues for the development of Africa's countries. But is the analysis of the so-called Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod deep and radical enough to get to the root cause of the problems and to see new perspectives (see HK, February 2009, 104 ff)?

With the encyclical "Caritas in veritate" one could argue that it cannot only be about new structures and better sets of regulations in pursuing a just, peaceful, reconciled world. Ultimately, it was primarily the moral quality of the leadership elites in politics, business and church, who determine the destiny of their peoples by their decisions.


The Responsibility of the Elites

It is in line with the trend to remind of Africa's responsibility for its own development. The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) was a first attempt by influential African politicians to shoulder responsibility. At a meeting of the Internationales Missionswerk Missio in Trier, the longtime Secretary General of the Nigerian bishops' conference, George Ehusani called the "Lack of responsible leadership" the central problem of today's Africa. In his speech in Accra the American President, Barack Obama took the same line.

As correct as this analysis is, as little may it serve as a cover for the responsibility of developed countries, which by their unfair trade policy, brutal exploitation of resources, pollution of the environment, arms trade and the support of corrupt regimes have a huge share of the responsibility [unbezahlbare Mitschuld] for the underdevelopment of the continent. In a sharp criticism of Obama's speech Gerald Caplan writes, "Even if every African country was led by a saint, they could do nothing about the severe environmental and economic damage that global warming—for which Africa has no responsibility whatever (...), about the destructive impact on African development of the present worldwide economic crisis (...), about the drastic increase in food prices that is causing such suffering, including outright starvation, to millions of Africans." The bishops of Africa, too, can little do against these crimes of the past, their fellow ministers in Europe and the U.S. perhaps more.

Today, as already at the time of the slave trade, foreign exploiters need the cooperation of corrupt local elites. In decision-making positions in politics and business personalities who are caring for the common good and a sustainable development of their people are rather exceptional phenomena. The social map of central Africa would look differently today and five million people were still alive, if after the genocide in Rwanda or the overthrow of dictator Mobutu in the Congo statesmen of Nelson Mandela's stature had taken over power, and had not served the interests of their ethnicity or their clientele but the progress of the entire population.

But lack of leadership responsibility is certainly not a African problem. The shamelessness with which German bankers continue to use the taxpayers' money in order to play for high stakes [Kasino spielen] at the international financial markets



and get paid for it million bonuses, is in no way inferior to the corruption of a Laurent-Désiré Kabila and Robert Mugabe's abuse of power. It is embarrassing for the church that people like Mugabe and Kabila are often products of its educational institutions. Although Catholic schools achieved the best academic results across Africa, they have apparently failed to implant the pupils a sense of social responsibility that is strong enough to oppose the pressure of their own clans and the ruling culture of corruption.

An unsparing "impact analysis" of the Catholic educational system, including the orders, which are often providers of these institutions, would reveal that our educational institutions impart academic knowledge, but few Christian values. The suggestions of the Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod for it (No. 133-135) are commendable but inadequate in view of the challenge to form a new generation of leaders who feel committed to the common good. If the church in Africa is failing in this difficult task, it leaves the field to the radical Islamists who not only offer with the Sharia the ideal of a just society, but with the jihad also a practical method to implement it politically.

The responses of the African bishops' conferences to the Roman questionnaire admit with astonishing honesty that bishops and priests, too, have problems with leadership and that a lack of leadership responsibility exists. Among the clergy there are "divisions along ethnic, tribal, regional and national lines (...), a xenophobic mentality (...), tensions between bishops and priests (...), and bishops who side with a political party." (No. 53) This self-criticism includes serious questions about the selection and training of future spiritual leaders. The envisaged guidelines are rather vague and do not meet the requirements of the growing gap between pretence and reality.

The African clergy is righty annoyed when Rome increasingly often appoints foreign missionaries as bishops, but it does not face up to the fact that there are often no local candidates who meet the requirements of canon law for the episcopal office.



In Africa, as well as in Europe the question is to be asked whether the seminary of the Council of Trent is still suitable to impart a future priest the necessary skills for his many responsibilities: the personal experience of faith enabling him to be "spiritual guide" for others, the communicative competence understandably to translate the word of God into the life of his listeners; to be an empathetic and inspiring human resources manager of his employees and a financial manager of a business enterprise, too.

In Germany, the priest of a large pastoral area is manager of a medium-sized enterprise. In Africa this task means for the priest to maintain structures inherited from the missionaries, without the support of foreign benefactors. The seminary has not prepared him for any of these tasks. No wonder that the young priest feels completely overcharged and often covers up his incompetence with clerical authoritarian behaviour and / or takes flight into a "second life".


The Challenge of the Sects

If the church wants to offer a corrupt political elite the counter-model of power in accordance with the Gospel, i.e. power as a means to serve the community, then selection and training must start somewhere else. In the present situation seminaries often attract the wrong candidates. Almost all seminaries offer academic degrees, in order to promote self-assurance and thinking skills. The drawback is that seminaries attract young people who failed to go to university because they are financially or intellectually too weak and who choose, consciously or unconsciously, the priesthood as an alternative pathway to social advancement; in Europe, too, this was for centuries often the case. For those in charge of the seminary it is almost impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Another effect of the academisation of the priestly formation is that all energy and time is focused on academic success and little is left for personal and spiritual development. In the training of the Church's leadership bold new steps are necessary if the church wants to keep its credibility, to be "salt and light" for a society that is crying for responsible leadership. It is clear that the Synod cannot take up the topic "viri probati" that is in the air, although these "proven men" and women long since exist. As catechists and leaders of base communities they have shown their leadership skills at local level and form the backbone of the church in Africa.

Catechists of the first generation were parish founders who asked the bishop for a priest, after they had brought a vibrant community into being. In rural areas of Africa they are still de facto parochial leaders, though usually without an official mission, in almost all spheres of life of the parish, apart from the sacraments. Practice shows then that parishes led by laity are by no means necessarily inferior to those that see the priest every day, especially when lay leaders get support and inspiration by the priest.

The "Instrumentum Laboris" for the Synod also complains of the lacking integration of the laity, especially women, in decision-making bodies of the churches, but it makes no specific proposals to remove it. But the migration of millions of Catholics to Evangelical Free Churches and Pentecostal Churches, which in Instrumentum Laboris in an accessory sentence are dismissed as "sects", shows how urgent this issue is. The problem with it is that it would be very fruitful for the Synod especially with regard to the issue of justice, peace and reconciliation to shed light on this enigmatic phenomenon.

There are many and diverse reasons why especially young Catholics feel drawn to the Free Churches. For the first time in their life they find there something that they have neither experienced in catechumenate and religious education nor in the liturgy: a personal relationship with Jesus and an encounter with the living word of the Bible. Services are there more vibrant, more true-to-life and promise healing for physical and mental illness, as theologically problematic the ritual expression may often be. Last but not least, the laity there get the feeling to be responsible for their community, and that they can contribute their skills and gifts of the Spirit, which is usually not wanted in a clerical church. They are therefore willing to make large financial contribution. This is often commercially exploited by the preachers and makes religion in Africa a thriving branch of economic activity. But if something is urgent for the African bishops and priests, it is the funding problem. Lay responsibility is a part of the solution.

The phenomenon of the Free Churches deserves greater attention of the Synod for a completely different reason. In many countries they play the dubious role of legitimizing power and wealth. Not without reason African leaders show a keen interest in these churches, especially where the Catholic Church is critical of society and where episcopal pastoral letters are a thorn in the government's side. The popular so-called "Prosperity-Churches" are for their part highly attractive for the class of the winners of globalization. Their property, which is often gained by fraud and corruption, is interpreted in the Sunday service with quotations from the Old Testament as a sign of God's blessing in order to anesthetize one's own conscience and to neutralize unpleasant questions about the consequences for the victims. This sort of religion is opium and an obstacle on the path to peace and reconciliation, because it religiously makes the injustices permanent and complicates the solution of social conflicts.



In the reflection on the Church's ministry of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace in today's Africa the since the democratic revolution of the nineties changed cultural context must be taken seriously. Most of the African countries are admittedly still far from workable democratic institutions and a democratic culture. Presidents still change the Constitution in order to stay in power all their life. The military still now and then revolts and causes its legitimation by feigned elections. But what is firmly established is a relative freedom of information.

Dozens of independent newspapers and radio stations and the increasingly easy Internet access in rural areas, too, have broken the information monopoly of governments. A culture of freedom of expression is slowly catching on. In addition, there are more educational opportunities. The only goal of the so-called Millennium Development Goals that Africa has more or less achieved is the second: elementary education for all. Better education and freer information cause the growth of a more critical awareness, not only of the political but also of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The educated class of the laity accepts only with difficulty a management style that relies solely on authority, without any factual proof of competence.

The globalization of information has still another consequence. Religion loses its sovereignty of interpretation as the only authority administering meaning. Young Africans are not only strongly influenced by the media, tens of thousands of them migrate to the last corners of the world and come into contact with other cultures, religions, ideologies and opinions - with the secular world view of the West, too. The Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod sees this development one-sidedly negative as "loss of cultural identity" and complains about the "lack of appreciation of what is specific African (52)", without further thinking on how the values of a new global youth culture and the African tradition can be led to a new synthesis. As so often in church history, the Church in Africa, too, sticks for a too long time to old and outdated forms, instead of focusing its forces on revitalizing a newly emerging culture through the spirit of the Gospel.

Inculturation, the other great theme of the first African synod, does not only remain a central missionary task with regard to the traditional cultures and religions but even more so in the face of a secular media culture of which Africa, too, is not spared. Creative, forward-looking leadership would mean for the African Synod not to idealize the old and to demonize the new, but to develop from the values of African tradition, the achievements of Western culture and the message of the Gospel modern African, Christian forms of life and society. A three-week synod cannot accomplish this but it might show pathways in the right direction.


    {*} Wolfgang Schonecke (born 1938) was until 2007 Head of the Network Africa Germany with headquarters in Bonn and Berlin, and since then has performed the Berlin office ( From 1965-1982 he worked in the pastoral care in Uganda; from 1982-1992 Schonecke took over tasks of leadership for his Order of the Africa Missionaries - White Fathers; from 1994-2001 he led the Pastoral Department of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA).


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