Skin Deep Catholicism? Print
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 17 March 2009 21:46
A long time ago in a universe far, far away . . .

I was a brand new Catholic and grad student in Seattle, Washington and in those far-off, ante-deluvial days before I had heard of the internet - got my Catholics news through dead tree sources. One day I was infuriated by an article i saw in a major Catholic magazine that dismissed evangelical missionary efforts as mere "sects". My own memories of the extraordinary people I had known in that world were very fresh and I sat down and ripped off a furious letter to the editor. The letter was published in the next issue but I heard no more and assumed that it had fallen into the great Catholic ocean and disappeared without a trace. Eventually I forgot I had even written it.

I finished graduate school and began offering the early version of the Called & Gifted process in Seattle. One day, I was browsing a new book on evangelization and thumbing through it until I found a particularly passionate passage that I really liked and started to read out loud. I read through a whole paragraph before it dawned upon me that the words sounded strangely familiar. In a truly jaw-dropping moment, I realized that my long forgotten letter was being quoted by a presenter at a major conference on evangelism held in 1994 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The conference featured a who's who of Catholic evangelization: the then Fr. Avery Dulles, Ralph Martin, Fr. Tom Forrest, Fr. Kenneth Boyack, etc. And the African Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria, who had quoted my letter at length in the course of his presentation.

One of John Allen's pieces about the Pope's visit to Africa - How Benedict Needs to Show that He Gets Africa - reminded me of that letter and how some issues have apparently not changed in Africa.

Allen writes:

"Yet local observers say formation in the faith can sometimes be skin-deep, since many African Catholics fall back on indigenous beliefs in moments of crisis. They may go to Mass on Sunday, but then also consult a tribal shaman when a child is sick or a job has been lost. During a February 2007 symposium at the Catholic University of East Africa in Kenya, experts warned that witchcraft is "destroying" the church in Africa, in part because skeptical, Western-educated clergy are not responding adequately to people's spiritual needs.

"We have to put that down to insufficient catechesis and insufficient inculturation," said Fr. Patrick Lafon, former secretary general of the bishops' conference in Cameroon and today a doctoral candidate at The Catholic University of America in Washington."

Hmmm. No doubt that it is part of the answer. Let me quote from my long-ago letter, published in "Evangelization in the Church of Jos, Nigeria", by Archbishop Gabriel Gonsum Ganaka, John Paul II and the New Evangelization, p. 106.

"Much of the signs and wonders approach associated with evangelical/pentecostal missions stems from the recognition of what, at the Fuller School of World MIssion (Now the School of Intercultural Studies), is called "The Excluded MIddle". The theory goes as follows: Western missionaries carried their rationalist and anti-supernaturalist cultural assumptions with them and went to peoples saturated with a worldview that incorporated minor deities, demons, curses, charisms and spells into daily life.

Western rationalism dismissed these beliefs as mere superstition and converted people to a worldview of a "high trinitarian God and a "low" strong personal code of behavior. The "middle" realm of demons and spells was never addressed, but it would not go away. These people had lived for many generations with the spiritual realities of the demonic, had seen people die of curses, and knew, whatever the missionary said, that these things were real. To deal with them, they turned once again to their traditional spiritual practices and the result was the various forms of Christ-paganism.

To fill this gap, some evangelical missionaries looked once again the early Church, and found in the experience of Pentecost and the healings, prophecies, and miracles of the Book of Acts, a Christian answer for the "excluded middle".
For more on this topic of the divide between classic western Christianity and the "new" charismatically influenced spirituality of the global south, go here.

In that same talk, Archbishop Ganaka tells the story of his archdiocese. How the first Catholic priests didn't reach Jos until 1907 and for several decades, missionary priests died without seeing any fruit.

" . . .in 1974, there were five indigenous priests, today (1994) there are 61; in 1974 there were six nuns, today there are 34; in 1974; there were seventeen parishes, today there are 46. Even though the Jos diocese continually opens new parishes, we are nevetheless overwhelmed by the number of new converts to Christianity. Today, the Catholic population in our diocese has risen to 515,000."

I am sure that today, 15 years later, the numbers have surged again.

But struggles remain. In late 2008, Jos experienced violent riots between Muslims and Christians in which over 400 died and thousands were made homeless.

Like us, many in Africa have had a real encounter with Christ, but it had not yet transformed us utterly yet. It has not begun to challenge our deepest fears, caused us to question deeply-rooted habits, or renounce cherished grievances. We need to experience "power evangelization" at the deepest roots of our being.

I am often reminded of C. S. Lewis' telling observation in the Screwtape Letters; "if I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention? You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwoord, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won't come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet."

How it that that always feel so true, no matter how many years have passed?