Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan makes an impassioned argument for the Church doctrine on marriage. CNS photo

African bishops fired up in defense of marriage

  • October 1, 2015

The Synod on the Family begins Oct. 4 and promises to be a rather unpleasant few weeks in the life of the Church.

At last year’s Synod, a vast number of participants, including leading bishops from Canada and the United States, were angry at what they viewed as the manipulation of the Synod by its managers. They detected an agenda to accommodate the Church’s teaching to the sexual revolution in the attempt, inter alia, to provide a practical way to recognize the legitimacy of second marriages after divorce. The managers of the Synod took the majority of participants by surprise with their maneuvering. That is not going to happen this year.

Those who think the Church’s response to the sexual revolution — the dominant cultural fact of these past 50 years — should not be capitulation, but challenge along the lines of St. John Paul’s theology of the body, are coming ready for battle. Last year, Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposals were met with a pre-Synod book authored by five cardinals, Remaining in the Truth of Christ, which dismantled his argument as being a rupture with Catholic history, sacramental theology, the nature of marriage, eucharistic doctrine and the nuptial identity of the Church.

This year’s pre-Synod book is called simply Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family. It’s a powerhouse lineup, including St. John Paul’s esteemed vicar for the Diocese of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini. Notable are the essays from the global south, from Cardinal Jorge Urosa of Venezuela and Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea.

Indeed, no Synod fathers are more fired up than the African bishops, who took none too kindly at being lectured by liberal Germans last year about how backward they were. Another book, Christ’s New Homeland — Africa: Contribution to the Synod on the Family by African Pastors, brings a further 11 cardinals and bishops to bear.

Indeed, when the disdain for the African voice reached intolerable levels last year, the managers scrambled mid-Synod to include Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, in the Synod leadership. He has been added to the list of Synod “presidents” for this year. One imagines that he will be on guard, having warned just this week about the dangers which “lie under a variety of types of camouflage concealing very cleverly hidden agendas.”

Unless Pope Francis forces the Synod managers to put an end to the condescension of the northern Europeans toward their African brethren, there will be fireworks. Consider, for example, the contribution in the Eleven Cardinals book by Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, a man who regularly witnesses the martyrdom of his own flock at the hands of Islamist terror.

“For a long time, all Christians had a common position on the main attributes of Christian marriage,” Cardinal Onaiyekan writes. “Neither the great schism that gave rise to the Orthodox churches nor the Protestant Reformation that gave rise to the many Protestant churches tampered with the essential properties of marriage. All agreed that marriage is between a man and a woman, in unity and indissolubility. It is only recently that we have begun to see shifts on the part of many Christian bodies. In the last couple of decades, it as if a doctrinal earthquake had overtaken the Christian churches. It is difficult to explain the calamitous changes that have taken place without reference to the strong influence of the evil one.”

Is that earthquake now about to hit the Catholic Church’s teaching and practice? Cardinal Onaiyekan continues:

“The Catholic Church, however, thanks be to God, has up till now continued to maintain in her official doctrine that marriage is between one man and one woman and that once a marriage is validly celebrated, it is indissoluble. Of course the Church is aware of the difficulties of marriage and has designed pastoral ways of dealing with them. What we are now faced with is that the errors which have eroded other Christian communities, are now invading our (Catholic Church). Efforts to introduce changes in Church doctrine and practice are being persistently inflicted on our Church, not only by fringe theologians on the margins of the Church, but sometimes by people quite high up in the ecclesiastical realm. This is what we saw during the 2014 Synod. We can only hope that the battle has now been laid to rest. It is important to realize that it is our faith that is at stake.

The pressures there are not likely to ease off, for the evil one has not surrendered.”

In the global south, to speak of the devil attacking the household of faith is not as unusual as it would be in the north; note how often Pope Francis speaks about the devil. Does he agree with Cardinal Onaiyekan that the evil one sowed confusion at the Synod last year?

In launching the Synod, Pope Francis has a tricky task. The battle lines are already drawn from last year. If unity is to prevail, the Holy Father will have to provide an indisputable foundation for it. He might choose the Gospel reading (Mark 10) from the opening Mass for the Synod: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

It seems Providence has provided just the right liturgical starting point.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life:

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