Over the decades that I have travelled in Africa I have met only four African atheists. Africans seem naturally networked to religion. All meetings — on politics, sport and even business — begin with a prayer. God is invoked on every occasion, private or public. Religion is comfortably woven into daily life. Amid the current economic boom that most African countries are enjoying, huge new numbers of churches are being built, some of them vast halls.
The Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination, is part of the fabric of all African societies. Its schools, community centres and health clinics are trusted far more than state ones and often closer to the people. In wars in Africa that I have covered as a journalist, I found Catholic parishes became refuges in which food and medicine were provided — like the monasteries in the chaos of early medieval Europe. The priests, nuns and church workers who run them are often the best informed about what is happening and the most committed to the local community, unlike foreign aid agencies, which are forced to pull out when there is danger.
The Catholic Church in Europe used to be like that, part of the warp and weft of society. And if it wanted to become so again, it should send for an African Pope.
The numbers and the zeitgeist dictate that the next Pope should come from Africa. The percentage of practicing Catholics in Europe and North America has declined steeply. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Centre, since the 1960s four American-born Catholics have left the Church for every new member. In contrast the number of Catholics in Africa has grown from 55 million in 1978 to more than 150 million today. By 2025 that figure is expected to be 230 million. In the past five years, the number of men training to be Catholic priests in Europe and America has fallen by 10 per cent. In Africa it has risen by more than 14 per cent.
African history is largely untroubled by religious wars. Wherever religious wars are reported in Africa the cause is usually a dispute over land rights involving two communities that happen to be of different faiths. Religion per se is rarely the cause. That traditional tolerance however is now under pressure – not from atheism – but from externally-funded, exclusive fundamentalist religions in the form of Wahabi Islam exported from Saudi Arabia and evangelical Christian fundamentalism funded from the United States.
In Europe and the US the Church has become self and sex-obsessed, out of touch with modern views on sexuality and the rights of individuals and discredited by its failure to face up to its child-abuse scandals — the inevitable product of a celibate priesthood. That has undermined its credibility.
In Africa, where polygamy is still accepted, many priests have wives and children but that is often an open secret, not an issue that seems to trouble their communities. Spiritual leaders have more pressing and essential issues to confront. In a rich continent full of poor people, death and disease are never far away. At a national level, Catholic leaders are respected and trusted when they speak out on social and economic justice — which many of them do with far more passion and credibility than their Western counterparts.
Would an African pope change the Church’s attitude to homosexuality0? Highly unlikely but on social justice, both local and international, expect a far more forthright and vigorous voice. Above all an African pope could bring a revitalising spiritual enthusiasm and passion. There are 16 African cardinals to choose from — though in theory the cardinals do not have to choose one of their number. The names of Cardinals Francis Arinze of Nigeria and Peter Turkson of Ghana have been mentioned.
The last two Popes have tried to restore — even recreate — the Church as a conservative, European-centred institution, maintaining all the trappings of a secretive and authoritarian ecclesiastical monarchy.
An African Pope would be freed from this baggage. He could restore the Church’s universal vision by moving out of the Vatican and bequeath its magnificent — but almost exclusively European Renaissance — treasures to the world. He could then rebase the spiritual, emotional and geographical centre of the Church somewhere closer to a crossroads of modern humanity, a region where Judaism, Christianity and Islam began, a place where religion is most intensely felt, where the destiny of humanity itself may be forged: Jerusalem.
A version of this article was published in The Times February 18th 2013