Global Council Network


The most pressing socio-economical as well as challenges for the Church in Africa

by Dr Nontando Hadebe        


Africa is a continent that has many stereotypes and sometimes is treated as if it is one country. For many Africa is a continent of wars, conflicts, poverty in the midst of abundant natural resources, political corruption, dictatorships, instability, poverty, diseases and environmental crisis. Yes all these are true but Africa is greater than its current challenges. Let me introduce the continent to you: It is the 2nd largest continent; home to abundant natural and human resources; is home to three main religions Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religions; has endured 4-5 Centuries of slave trade the worst violations of human rights in history then colonialism and post-colonial challenges and yet rises again and again from the ashes to be a continent of great athletes, human rights champions, authors, scholars, growing economies and evolving democracies. It is home to great civilizations, the Nubians in Sudan who were the first to build pyramids and there are more pyramids in Sudan then Egypt; great kingdoms (for example Ghana, Monomotapa – Zimbabwe, Egypt and Zulu – South Africa). So there is no one narrative or description of Africa there is only diversity, multiplicity and ever changing contexts. Africa is also divided in many ways such as linguistic (legacy of colonialism) – English, French and Portuguese speaking; regionally North, West, East, Central and South; religiously – North Africa is predominantly Islam and Sub-Saharan Africa Christian with Islam and African traditional religions. The greatest growth of Catholic Church has been in Africa and there is uneven distribution among countries for example some countries like Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique have as high as 50-70% of Christians being Catholics whereas in South Africa Catholics are only 6-7% of Christians. So even the Catholic experience is different from country to country that is why it is important to mention these facts when speaking about the Catholic Church in Africa – it is diverse and there are differences yet similarities because some of the challenges such as HIV and AIDS, poverty and status of women and sexual minorities are common yet still different in these countries. The Catholic Church continues to be major provider of health, education and social services for marginalized. Through Justice and Peace groups in local parishes there is response to the needs of the poor but as will be discussed later, there are other issues related to equal status of women and minorities that the Church struggles with and in this regard is inconsistent with democratic processes and rights in many countries. Here again there are differences among African countries on these two issues of equal rights and participation of women and also the status of sexual minorities (LGBTI)

Catholic Church responding to Africa

After Vatican 2 Catholic bishops formed a Synod of Bishops to request special focus on Africa because many issues facing Africa where not covered at the Synod for example there was hardly any mention of colonialism and even in discussions on inter religious dialogue no mention was made of African religions. Post Vatican 2 meetings were hosted by Bishops and the result was the issuing of Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia In Africa Of The Holy Father John Paul II To The Bishops Priests And Deacons Men And Women Religious And All The Lay Faithful On The Church In Africa And Its Evangelizing Mission Towards The Year 2000. The importance of African cultural values, dialogue with African culture, inculturation and response to multiple challenges were emphasized. Below are some quotations from the document:

The Synod considers inculturation an urgent priority in the life of the particular Churches, for a firm rooting of the Gospel in Africa.(88) It is "a requirement for evangelization",(89) "a path towards full evangelization",(90) and one of the greatest challenges for the Church on the Continent on the eve of the Third Millennium.(91)

67. With regard to African traditional religion, a serene and prudent dialogue will be able, on the one hand, to protect Catholics from negative influences which condition the way of life of many of them and, on the other hand, to foster the assimilation of positive values such as belief in a Supreme Being who is Eternal, Creator, Provident and Just Judge, values which are readily harmonized with the content of the faith

42. Although Africa is very rich in natural resources, it remains economically poor. At the same time, it is endowed with a wealth of cultural values and priceless human qualities which it can offer to the Churches and to humanity as a whole.

African cultures have an acute sense of solidarity and community life. In Africa it is unthinkable to celebrate a feast without the participation of the whole village. Indeed, community life in African societies expresses the extended family. It is my ardent hope and prayer that Africa will always preserve this priceless cultural heritage and never succumb to the temptation to individualism, which is so alien to its best traditions.

Inculturation includes two dimensions: on the one hand, "the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity" and, on the other, "the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures".(87)[1]

The emphasis on inculturation led to transformation of African Catholic Church through liturgy, small Christian Communities and theologies. Mass was conducted in local indigenous languages and even the music was composed by local musicians. African theologies developed inculturation theologies that integrated African cultural values with Christianity particularly in the areas of ecclesiology and Christology. Through inculturation theologies the riches of African culture was appropriated for Christianity. However African women challenged the uncritical appropriation of African culture which advanced patriarchy and failed to address cultural practices that had negative impact on women.  Masenya argues that colonialism and capitalism “only served to reinforce the patriarchy inherent in the African culture. It is an indisputable fact that African culture, like all other patriarchal cultures, has a low view on women[2].” Similarly but with a different emphasis, Dube contends that the “first things first” approach adopted during the struggle against colonialism that liberation a first priority and demanded solidarity between women and men tended to ignore gender oppression within African society[3]. As a result women’s issues were marginalised in both pre and post independence eras and in African theology. However, this status quo has been challenged by feminist consciousness and women’s rights movement that have swept throughout the continent. These movements found fertile ground in the post colonial era which according to Mikell is characterized by “a climate of political experimentation and ‘democratization,’ whether resulting from western pressures or internal shifts within cultural/religious communities[4]” that offer women “unique political opportunities to alter their socio-political positions.” These opportunities are described by Mikell as ‘dialogue opportunities’ which provide a context for women’s voices to be heard and as discussed in chapter two has resulted a new era where women’s rights are enshrined in constitutions and protected by law. This is the socio-political context of African women theologies.

The political situation in post-independence Africa failed to materialize the promises of new life and in response Africa Munus was produced focusing on political and economic issues that continued to deprive Africans of their rights to life. Similarly the church in South Africa in response to apartheid and theologies that supported the state and racism produced the Kairos Document which was ecumenical and inclusive of both laity, religious leaders and theologians. It used the principles from liberation theology of ‘See Judge and Act’[5]. This is the definition of the Kairos document:

The KAIROS document is a Christian, biblical and theological comment on the political crisis in South Africa today. It is an attempt by concerned Christians in South Africa to reflect on the situation of death in our country. It is a critique of the current theological models that determine the type of activities the Church engages in to try to resolve the problems of the country. It is an attempt to develop, out of this perplexing situation, an alternative biblical and theological model that will in turn lead to forms of activity that will make a real difference to the future of our country.

The time has come. The moment of truth has arrived. South Africa has been plunged into a crisis that is shaking the foundations and there is every indication that the crisis has only just begun and that it will deepen and become even more threatening in the months to come. It is the KAIROS or moment of truth not only for apartheid but also for the Church.

What the present crisis shows up, although many of us have known it all along, is that the Church is divided. More and more people are now saying that there are in fact two Churches in South Africa--a White Church and a Black Church. Even within the same denomination there are in fact two Churches. In the life and death conflict between different social forces that has come to a head in South Africa today, there are Christians (or at least people who profess to be Christians) on both sides of the conflict--and some who are trying to sit on the fence!

So we can see that theology in Africa is dynamic and contextual. Inculturation, Kairos, black liberation and women’s theologies represent the many faces of theology in Africa.

However there is another part of Africa that I think the Church struggles with and that is the: growing democratization of society that encourages debate, contestation and equality this has a lot of implications for the Church particularly the equal rights of women, reproductive health and decriminalization of homosexuality which will be discussed later; the legal systems that continue to be used to challenge all forms of discrimination; the migration to other churches particularly Pentecostal and Evangelical Churches; the changing nature of the family – the nuclear family is no longer the dominant forms of the family. This has brought a new struggle of identity which in the past was whether one could be both African and Christian. This time the struggle is whether one can be a citizen in democratic society and the Christian. I recognize that this refers to parts of Africa that are practicing democracy. However even in countries where there is dictatorship or military governments the question is still the same – whether one can be citizen (allegiance to dictator) and be Catholic. There are more questions that can be asked but am using this as an example to show that Africa is not uniform but consists of diverse experiences. I am choosing the democratic processes because these pose new challenges to the Church in Africa.

Developments that pose a challenge to the Church in Africa

1. Constitutional Democracies promoting equality of all citizens

Two contentious rights that are in conflict with the Church are equal rights of women and LGBTIQ.

a. Equal rights of women

African countries are signatories to international, pan African and regional treaties on human rights particularly gender rights. The recent addition is the Maputo Protocol that seeks to eradicate all discriminatory practices against women particularly in culture as a means of addressing the high levels of violence against women and the marginalization of women that sees women being the majority of the poor in the countries. The Maputo Protocol was adopted on 11 July 2003 following advocacy efforts led by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa4 and civil society organizations. The Maputo Protocol contains almost identical provisions as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and expands legal protection for women.

  • Art. 2 of the Maputo Protocol defines discrimination against women as any distinction, exclusion or restriction or any differential treatment based on sex and whose objectives or effects compromise or destroy the recognition, enjoyment or the exercise by women, regardless of their marital status, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all spheres of life. The definition of discrimination encompasses a variety of possible discriminatory actions having either the express purpose ( de jure ) or the actual effect ( de facto ) of discriminating against women. The Maputo Protocol prohibits practices that can perpetuate women’s inequality

  • The Maputo Protocol was adopted on 11 July 2003 following advocacy efforts led by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa4 and civil society organizations. The Maputo Protocol contains almost identical provisions as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and expands legal protection for women.

The goal of 50/50 equality of women and men in every social structure. Africa has countries with the highest representation of women in Parliament with Rwanda topping the world! South Africa has also reached milestone with women constituting 50% of parliamentary portfolios. This creates a crisis of representation for women who have to negotiate two worlds the constitutional world of full democracy and equality that seeks to promote and shield women from all violations particularly discrimination and violence and the Church which in most cases does not deal with women’s issues because of fear of the unmentionable subject of ‘women’s ordination.’

Yet women form the majority of members in the church and their exclusion from voting and participation as was with the case of the synod on the family presents the church as moving in the opposite direction of continental and national goals of promoting gender equality and participation of women. It also creates a crisis of identity forcing women to live in two worlds of subordination in church and empowerment in the world. Can these two worlds continue to be in conflict creating challenges for women who want to be both Catholic and Citizen with equal rights? Is this sustainable for the Church to remain on the opposite side of democracy and human rights for women?

b. Equal Rights of LGBTI persons

Over the past few weeks two court decisions reflect the status of LGBTI in Africa the first is that of Kenya which upheld the criminalized homosexuality using the argument that it is a Christian country and therefore cannot support the rights of LGBTI[6]. In contrast last week Botswana decriminalized homosexuality because it is a violation of the constitutional rights of all citizens[7]. The same argument of being a ‘Christian country’ is used by Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and many others to uphold laws that criminalize homosexuality and deny LGBTI persons equal rights. So Christianity is some countries is being over ruled in the name of constitutional democracy and this has implications for the role and status of the church as a moral and prophetic voice. This voice is increasingly being lost as many countries choose to be secular states.

Activists on LGBTI issues include parents and friends who refuse to stand by and watch their loved ones being abused and violated.

In a research on LGBTI done in 10 countries in Southern Africa they found increased tolerance in some countries and rigidity in others. The six main narratives on LGBTI were[8]

  • Legal narrative: ‘it is against the law’

  • Moral narrative: ‘it is against God’

  • Political narrative: ‘it is ‘unAfrican”

  • Public Health narrative: ‘it is an illness’

  • Media narrative: ‘it is scandalous’

  • Social Exclusion narrative: ‘they don’t belong

Homophobia continues to be a challenge although in some countries there is increase in tolerance and acceptance of LGBTI. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa made a statement that he will not worship a homophobic God. The underlying issue is the human dignity of persons and Pope Francis upheld the dignity of LGBTI persons in Joy of Love stating clearly opposition to violence against them even though he did not support same sex marriage. For many people the first step is upholding dignity and ensuring that there is no violence against LGBTI. When one group is denied their rights and dignity it opens the door for the marginalization of other groups. The suffering of one group is the suffering of all because we are connected as the creation of God.

2. Courts as agents of change for marginalized groups

Recent decisions as mentioned before show that courts are now the agents of change towards achieving equality for all. Whereas in the Church power is invested in ecclesial authorities who determine the faith and can silence or excommunicate anyone whereas in civil society there are structures and processes for contestation, challenge by anyone who feels violated by the law. The legal system is dynamic and changes to ensure justice for all. This dynamic culture does not exist in the Church because the lay people have no power to challenge the authority of the magisterium. In the context of constitutional democracy that seeks to defend the dignity of citizens; freedom of speech; decolonial theories that challenge hierarchical power structures and interrogate social location of subjects in any discourse thus making the current culture of the Church out of sync with the rest of society. So once again there is a gap between the processes in the Church and socially acceptable norms including the promotion of rights and dignity of all citizens.

3. Changing nature of the family

The singular definition of the family as nuclear – one father, one mother and children does not reflect the reality of most people in different parts of Africa. Southern Africa has one of the lowest rates of marriage in the world and most of the households are intergenerational consisting and mostly headed by women[9]. So in this context the definition of family needs to be broadened in response to the realities of people in society and in the church. There is need once again for a listening church that starts with the experiences of people and their realities, engages with them so that together they can come up with innovative responses that can fulfil the mandate of the family within the different arrangements of family. To rigidly demand that only one type of family is legitimate is a decision to live outside the realities of life which make ministry irrelevant as it does not address the realities that people live in.

4. Migration to other churches

One of the reasons for the migration to other churches is the lack of ongoing formation of Catholics beyond confirmation. The type of formation is important because it needs to empower laity to engage creatively with the realities of their own lives and contexts. The paradigm of propositional truths that require assent must be replaced by critical thinking that requires faithful integration of context, culture, social and human sciences in matters of faith and practice. It is in such a context that there can be a true development of the sense of the faithful because they will be agents of their faith and not passive recipients. There are other reasons which include positions on status of women, sexual abuse scandal etc  

5. Increased secularization

One of the famous African theologians wrote that Africans are religious persons and religion is definitive for who they are but with increasing globalization and communication across the world, media secularization is increasing and there is need to address these issues too.

6. Sexual abuse scandal

Although the cases in Africa are not at the same scale as those in US and Europe, the voices of victims are slowly emerging and coming from minors, Sisters and lay women. How the Church in Africa will deal with these cases which are criminal activities will determine whether the Church is supportive of legal reforms protecting women and minors from violence or operates outside of the law. One of the outcomes is the loss of the moral and prophetic role of the Church in Africa. These scandals and the Church’s response will determine whether the public and laity can fully place their faith in the leadership of the Church.


There is still so much that can be said about the current status of the Church in Africa and the various lay organizations operating within the Church. There are few and far between organizations involved in reform and this may change due to the issues just mentioned. But the winds of change are blowing and are unstoppable! With Pope Francis and his commitment to reform offers a way forward for the African Church to rise up in all challenges as a prophetic voice. It is indeed a Kairos moment which offers an option for decisive change. Can we take up the moment and serve the people of Africa without discrimination or exclusion.



[2] Masenya, Madipoane. “African Women Read the Bible” pages 64-78 page 69 Various Authors, 2000. Inculturation in the South African Context. Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, page 69

[3] Searching for the Lost Needle: Double Colonization & Postcolonial African Feminisms. By: Dube, Musa W., Studies in World Christianity, 13549901, 1999, Vol. 5, Issue 2 page 216-223

[4] Mikell, Gwendolyn. “African Feminism:Toward a New politics of Representation” Feminist Studies, Vol. 21 (Summer, 1995) pp. 405-424