E. A. Foster: African Catholic

African Catholic. Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church

Foster, Elizabeth A.
328 S.
€ 39,23
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Reuben Loffman, Queen Mary University of London

This is the kind of book that you’d be tempted to think existed before its publication in 2019 given the scale and scope of its subject. To the best of your present reviewer’s knowledge, however, this is indeed the first monograph to examine how decolonization impacted the Catholic Church from the vantage point of Francophone Africa.

Foster argues that, from the period broadly stretching from the end of the Second World War to the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church significantly changed its attitude to Africa and African clerics. Rather than seeing the continent as a global backwater in need of paternalistic Europeans to save it, from slavery and slaving for example, the Church eventually took Africa and its peoples seriously as having important contributions to make to Catholic thought and practice both in the continent and beyond (pp. 227-256). Foster ends her book by drawing attention to the fact that the global south is now far outshining the global north in terms of numbers of Christians, with Africa playing an important part in this historic transformation (pp. 270ff). So much has the global balance of Christianity shifted that Foster draws our attention to the fact that African clerics have been heading to France for a while now to shore up the ailing numbers of European priests (p. 270). So, what caused this great transformation?

Foster argues that four factors combined to increase the profile and power of Africans within the Catholic Church during the long post-war period. These factors were, first, the “ongoing dissolution of the French Empire,” secondly, “the emergence of a more robust Catholic left in France,” thirdly, “the rise of a vocal and determined French African political and cultural elite” and, finally, “the brewing tension within the Catholic Church itself” (p. 3). Some of these factors, such as the rise of an African political and cultural elite, are given more coverage than others, such as the dissolution of the French Empire, during the course of the book. Sékou Touré’s scapegoating of the Church is introduced to the reader early on to give a sense of the radical changes that will form the book’s backdrop, and the first chapter covers French investment in African missions (p. 8ff). But, the lion’s share of this book naturally focusses on the Church and the faithful.

The small but determined group of Africans, such as Alioune Diop and Raymond-Marie Tchidimbo, who dominate this book are shown effectively engaging and debating with an increasingly antiquated old guard, personified in the form of Monseigneur Marcel Lefebvre. The reactionary wing of the Church soon found itself completely out of step with the political mood music playing increasingly loudly across Francophone Africa in the post-war period. Lefebvre, for example, is one of the main antagonists of this monograph as he struggles ardently and at times ineptly against a rising African priesthood and the Church’s increasingly accommodating attitude to Islam. In a moment that exemplifies the book’s argument about the rise of African power within the Church, Foster informs us towards the end that Lefebvre was eventually excommunicated by a Beninese Cardinal Bernardin Gatin for consecrating four traditionalist bishops (p. 264). But this was not before Lefebvre had published a 1959 article entitled ‘Where is Africa going?’ that had infuriated many with its hostile arguments against Islam and its explicit equation of the religion with communism (p. 202).
Foster’s story is undergirded by some prodigious archiving work conducted chiefly in France, Italy, and Senegal. Much effort has gone into digging up the correspondence and debates from published and unpublished sources that give life to the book’s narrative. Some archives could not be consulted. For example, the Vatican archives for the period in question were shut and so the book had to work around this lacuna and it does so to a great extent (p. 16). The third chapter, for example, showed how Foster’s work paid off on occasion. It explained how Catholic intellectuals such as Fathers Joseph Michel and Joseph-Vincent Ducattillon had different interpretations of the Spanish Dominican Francisco de Vitoria’s writings on the theology of colonisation (p. 95-123). Michel believed that Vitoria outlined a “duty to decolonize” in his writing whereas Ducattillon argued the opposite (p. 96). As Foster suggests, Catholic reliance on a 400 year old Spanish texts “reveals a staggering lack of sustained, learned, or critical . . . engagement with modern imperialism and colonization” (p. 98).

As well as enjoying the third chapter, it was also good to see that the thoughts of women such as Sister Marie-André du Sacré-Coeur were included towards the end of the book (p. 246). Indeed, it would have been good to have read even more about the kind of influence Catholic women exercised both in their religious communities and more broadly not least because, as Foster notes, ‘nuns . . . were more numerous than priests on the ground’ (p. 282). Foster herself acknowledges that “many fruitful avenues on Catholic women in postwar Africa remained to be explored” (p. 19). These unexplored avenues are understandable in some respects since, as I have also found on occasion, reconstructing the voices of Catholic women is often difficult in part because Foster is right to write that the Church “remains a patriarchal . . . institution in Europe and in Africa” (p. 19). So, my comment that it would be good to read more of women’s voices in histories of the Church in Africa is a plea for more investigation into the ways in which they approached colonisation and decolonisation than a criticism per se. Path-breaking works, such as Phyllis Martin’s wonderful book Catholic Women of Congo, might serve as examples of how Catholic women’s voices might be more thoroughly integrated into the Church’s story in Africa 1.

As well as the influence women’s voices did or did not have, I also wondered what congregations in Africa thought of the matters that Foster discusses. It would have been good to get a bit more of a sense of what pressure if any Catholic congregations brought to bear on the debates Foster so expertly surveys. The inclusion of more life history interviews could have helped with this topic. Writing as a historian of Central Africa, for example, I would have been interested to know more about congregations and lower-ranking clergy in French Equatorial Africa. But, my own research interests aside, Foster has produced an impressive study of a vital yet understudied moment in Church history and in highly readable prose that will be accessible to specialists and non-specialists alike.

1 Martin M. Phyllis, Catholic Women of Congo-Brazzaville: Mothers and Sisters in Troubled Times, Bloomington 2009.

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