The Next Pope: An African?
African Christianity is big news lately in the West. Philip Jenkins's recent book The Next Christendom is quoted everywhere—he argues, with great plausibility, that in 50 or 100 years the heart of global Christianity will be Africa, not Europe or North America. In a previous newsletter, we noted that the African wing of Anglicanism has been offering a persistent and influential conservative critique of that communion's liberal drift.
Adding his voice is author Phillip E. Johnson, in an article titled "The African Century?" in the current issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. For those unfamiliar with this magazine, it bills itself as both conservative and ecumenical. That is, its editors and readers come from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox backgrounds. These disparate believers base their conversation on "shared belief in the fundamental doctrines of the faith as revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the ancient creeds of the Church."
Johnson, a Presbyterian elder and emeritus Professor of Law at Berkeley, is best known in evangelical circles as the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, and most recently, The Right Questions (all InterVarsity Press), books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. His article begins with a quotation from Harriet Beecher Stowe's mid-nineteenth century classic Uncle Tom's Cabin. At that book's end, an escaped slave, George Harris, prophesies the destiny of his African homeland: "The development of Africa is to be essentially a Christian one."
That prophecy, says Johnson, has come to pass.
Johnson argues that this has been true even though the "Christianization" of Africa took place largely under the radar of the secularizing establishment in the West. Western media and academics in the twentieth century preferred to focus on the political and material disasters arising from Western models of African development. They spent most of their time by the end of the century wondering, as Johnson says, "whether the developed nations should formally forgive the uncollectible loans that were made and wasted while economists and diplomats were under the illusion that borrowed money and technology would bring development to Africa."
But all the while, the African people were turning to the Gospel for their answers. As we notice in Christian History's most recent issue, #79, a powerful group of indigenous evangelists succeeded during the first half of the twentieth century where Western missionaries had failed, propelling Christianity in Africa from between 8 and 10 percent of the population (8 to 10 million) in 1900 to nearly 50 percent (360 million) today.
Johnson suggests the future of this trend when he reminds us that recent speculation (in some quarters, even betting) about who will be the next Roman Catholic pope has focused increasingly on an African: Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Arinze is a conservative who stirred up controversy in this country recently when he regaled the crowd gathered for Georgetown University's commencement ceremony with a few uncompromising words on the evils of abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia.
"The last time a pope was chosen," says Johnson, "it was a bold and marvelously appropriate step to choose a man from a Catholic country suffering under Communist oppression." So why not follow up John Paul II's appointment with another appropriate step: the first African pope? "Such a pope could make a fresh start in imposing much-needed discipline on wayward bishops and in calling Catholics and the rest of us back to the basic principles of family morality, which we often seem to have forgotten."
To which we add our amen—and a historical reminder:
The very ability of an African such as Arinze to serve in the hierarchy of his church has a fairly recent origin. To be precise, October 29, 1939, when the scholarly Ugandan priest Joseph Kiwanuka was consecrated by Pope Pius XII at Saint Peter's Basilica—the first African Catholic bishop.
The story of how that bold, appropriate move happened—over the protests of a divided church—is told in our aforementioned issue #79. Itself a prophetic move, Kiwanuka's consecration opened the gates to a vibrant indigenous African Catholic leadership. Thirty-five years later, on Mission Sunday in 1964, Kiwanuka assisted Pope Paul VI at St. Peter's as, for the first time, black African Christians were declared saints. Three years after Kiwanuka's death in 1966, that same pontiff consecrated no fewer than 12 African bishops in Kiwanuka's old cathedral.
Now, in the eyes of many observers both inside and outside the Catholic Church, the time is ripe for the next step. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, a new crop of African bishops will find themselves being consecrated by one of their own countrymen. And a new, "African century" of the church will be well launched.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
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