During his visit, the pope spoke on issues of peace and ecological sustainability that these countries are facing. Mozambique recently signed a peace accord with longtime rebels, and the country is still recovering from the cyclone earlier this year that killed over 1,000 people. Madagascar faces severe deforestation, and Mauritius too faces risks from climate change.
Africa has the world’s third largest Catholic population, after the Americas and Europe. Nearly 1 out of every 5 Africans – 19.2% – is Catholic. The Pew Research Center expects the number of African Christians south of the Sahara, including Catholics, to double by 2050.
From my perspective as a scholar of African religions, however, the pope’s visit needs to be understood against the background of the church’s longer history in Africa and the current challenges Catholicism faces in the continent.
Early Catholic history in Africa
Although Catholicism in Africa expanded dramatically under European colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the church’s roots in Africa go back to its earliest days.
Muslim traders then took Islam across the Sahara Desert to West Africa and over the Indian Ocean to East Africa.
Spread of Christianity
The later arrival of Catholic missionaries on the western, central, southern and eastern coasts of Africa spread Christianity across the continent.
African Catholics and European missionaries nonetheless protested against the slave trade. Even the Vatican condemned slavery in the 1680s. But many bishops and priests already possessed slaves, and the Vatican enslaved Africans to man its ships.
The church’s complicity in Africa’s subjugation only intensified in the colonial era in the 19th and 20th centuries as the church founded parishes, schools and hospitals across the continent, often with the encouragement of colonial authorities.
Reforms and end of colonialism
Catholic missionaries worked mostly in European languages, contributing to the continent’s linguistic and cultural colonization.
But Catholic missionaries also criticized colonialism. In 1971, for example, authorities in Mozambique, still under Portuguese rule, expelled a Catholic order for criticizing the colonial regime for preventing missionaries from properly serving Mozambicans.
The long-term outcomes of these Catholic-backed independence movements have been mixed.
In what was to become Zimbabwe, for example, bishops supported resistance against white-led Rhodesia from the 1960s to 1980 but unwittingly brought dictator Robert Mugabe, who died recently, to power.
And in many French-speaking African countries, bishops served as neutral mediators who led national conversations between autocratic rulers and civilians throughout the 1990s, often achieving democratic reforms.
Rise of Pentacostalism, IslamAP Photo/Alexander Joe
To many Africans today, in the wake of independence and the church’s support for it, the Catholic Church has distanced itself from its colonial past to become an institution associated with sociopolitical reform, education and health care.
This accounts in part for its substantial growth in the three countries visited by the pope.
In Mozambique, Catholics are 30.3% of the population, the country’s largest religious group, surpassing indigenous religious practitioners and Muslims. In Mauritius, at 27.2%, Catholics take second place to Hindus but outnumber Muslims. And in Madagascar, they come in third at 21.7%.
But the church faces new challenges.
The pope’s visit, then, reflects a strategic commitment to the continent, for good reason.
- ^ completed (www.news24.com)
- ^ the pope spoke on (religionnews.com)
- ^ recently signed (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ killed over 1,000 people (www.aljazeera.com)
- ^ severe deforestation (www.nature.com)
- ^ faces risks (www.ft.com)
- ^ 1 out of every 5 Africans (press.vatican.va)
- ^ to double (www.pewresearch.org)
- ^ scholar of African religions (www.press.uchicago.edu)
- ^ influential church figures were North African (www.cambridge.org)
- ^ Islam grew faster than Christianity (www.cambridge.org)
- ^ came to Africa by ship (www.cambridge.org)
- ^ the contemporary Mozambican Church (www.cambridge.org)
- ^ produced a Catholic catechism (www.cambridge.org)
- ^ expanded (uwpress.wisc.edu)
- ^ Vatican enslaved Africans (global.oup.com)
- ^ encouragement of colonial authorities (www.press.uchicago.edu)
- ^ occurred in lockstep (www.cambridge.org)
- ^ criticized colonialism (www.hup.harvard.edu)
- ^ preventing missionaries (boydellandbrewer.com)
- ^ many priests supported (global.oup.com)
- ^ unwittingly brought dictator (global.oup.com)
- ^ establish multiparty democracy (global.oup.com)
- ^ led national conversations (global.oup.com)
- ^ democratic reforms (www.cambridge.org)
- ^ AP Photo/Alexander Joe (www.apimages.com)
- ^ associated with (www.oxfordscholarship.com)
- ^ 30.3% of the population (www.thearda.com)
- ^ second place (www.thearda.com)
- ^ come in third (www.thearda.com)
- ^ 12% (www.pewforum.org)
- ^ second largest Christian community (www.thearda.com)
- ^ expected to increase (www.pewforum.org)
- ^ battle for souls (www.catholiceducation.org)
- ^ Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter (theconversation.com)
Authors: Joseph Hellweg, Associate Professor of Religion, Affiliated Associate Professor of Anthropology, Florida State University