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A synod conversation with Catholic Africa’s lion in winter

ROME — Supposedly Pope Paul VI once flirted with the idea of naming patriarchs for each of the world’s continents, as a step towards greater local control. Although the concept never went anywhere, if it had a strong contender for Africa over the past couple of decades, it probably would have been Nigeria’s Cardinal Francis Arinze.

Now 82 (he turns 83 on Nov. 1), Arinze incarnates many of the qualities typically associated with African Catholicism.

He’s got an infectious laugh and a smile that could light up whole city blocks, with a keen wit and a propensity for not taking himself too seriously. At the same time, he’s unyielding in defending Catholic orthodoxy, never mincing words or allowing himself to be cowed by the conventions of political correctness.

Here’s Arinze, for instance, on proposals to address the problem created by divorced and civilly remarried Catholics by allowing them to receive Communion, despite the fact that the Church regards their first marriage as still valid:

“You don’t solve a headache,” he says, “by cutting off the head!”

Or, here’s Arinze on why Western nations shouldn’t try to compel Africa to adopt population control measures as a condition of development assistance:


“The richer countries may have more money, but they shouldn’t turn themselves into professors of moral theology just because other countries are poor,” he said.

Technically, Arinze is out of the game since he no longer holds a Vatican post, and thus is also not a participant in the Oct. 4-25 Synod of Bishops on the family.

In reality, this lion in winter very much remains a point of reference for his fellow African prelates. When 10 of them recently put out a collection of essays in advance of the synod, they asked Arinze to contribute the preface, knowing that putting his name on the book gave it an instant injection of credibility and news appeal.

That book is called “Christ’s New Homeland – Africa” and was published in the United States in late September by Ignatius Press.

Arinze sat down for an interview with Crux on Wednesday in his apartment immediately adjacent to St. Peter’s Square. The following are excerpts from that conversation.

Crux: What would Africans like to see from this synod?


Archbishop Charles G. Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana spoke at a press conference on Oct. 8. (Michael O’Loughlin / Crux staff)
African bishop: We’re not here to block reform
Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi, Kenya, carried a cross as he led the Stations of the Cross from Holy Family Basilica along a street in the Kenyan capital in April, 2015. (CNS photo/Herman Kariuki, Reuters)
Kenya’s cardinal determined to be in the thick of the synod action
Cardinal Robert Sarah, right, and Jeannette Toure, an auditor from Ivory Coast, at the synod at the Vatican in 2014 with other bishops. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Africa’s Cardinal Robert Sarah set to be a synod protagonist
Arinze: I think they would like the synod to speak with a clear voice that marriage comes from God, as a union between a man and a woman. God created one Adam, one Eve. When Christ came, he blessed that unity of marriage. He went to the marriage feast in Cana, and he did his first recorded miracle, changing water into wine, which means that he approved! Marriage comes from God, not from human beings, so human beings cannot reinvent or redefine it.

You are convinced it’s not possible to invite divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to Communion?

That is correct, in the sense that Christ has said, “What God has joined, let no man put asunder,” and the Catholic Church traditionally has interpreted it to mean that a consummated marriage sanctified by the sacrament cannot be broken by any authority.

Including the authority of the Church?

Yes, not even the authority of the Church can break it. That being so, if a man leaves a woman or asks her to go away, or she does the same, and they get a fresh partner, that can’t be approved. Christ has one word for a person who does that: “Adultery.” We cannot improve on what Christ has said. We cannot be wiser than him, or say that “there is a circumstance he did not foresee.” We cannot be more merciful than Christ.

We must look for a way to help the divorced who are remarried, [but] we don’t help them by saying, “Come and receive Holy Communion.”

The Eucharist is not something we possess, and we can give to our friends and those with whom we sympathize …. The idea of sin is not something new invented by modern conservative people in the Church. It is Christ himself who called it a sin, and he used that word “adultery.” He knows what he’s talking about. Without departing from Christ, how can we backpedal?

Remember, only God will conduct the last judgment, not us, not even half a dozen cardinals from the Vatican. God will judge each person’s circumstances, but objectively we cannot approve [divorce and remarriage].

Some African bishops have said that if the Church makes a change on Communion for the divorced and remarried, some people living in polygamous relationships might ask why that can’t be done for them, too. Is that a concern you would share?

Yes. It’s not a bad argument, because the polygamous could say, “Look, my own situation is better than that of these other fellows who threw out their first wife and got another one. I didn’t throw out the first one, she remains, and I only took on a second one. God even tolerated polygamy in the Old Testament!”

We have to look for another way to ensure compassion for those who are in difficulty. You don’t solve a headache by cutting off the head!

There has been conversation in the synod about a finding a “new language,” especially on homosexuality, meaning something that’s more inclusive and welcoming. How does that look from the African perspective?

I would be suspicious, because I would wonder what type of new language you want. Shouldn’t we call things by their name, calling good “good” and evil “evil”? We don’t condemn the person, but we don’t approve the action.

One of the duties of bishops is to teach, and it is very important that the Gospel be undiluted, without adding salt or pepper, but without subtracting them, either. The message is not ours. Christ’s message must shine clearly on what marriage is. If two men come together for business purposes, we’re not worried about that. But if they begin to call it marriage, don’t you see that it’s not all right anymore?

Some at the synod have talked about allowing decisions on the divorced and remarried or on homosexuality to be decentralized, made at the level of regional or national bishops’ conferences or by individual bishops. How do you feel about that?

Are you going to tell me that we can have a national bishops’ conference in one country that would approve something which, in another conference, would be seen as sin? Is sin going to change according to national borders? We’d become national churches. Have there not been other religious affiliations in the world that came dangerously near to that?

National bishops’ conferences are important and should have a clear role, but I don’t think it should include these areas. It looks dangerously like nationalizing right and wrong.

There’s been talk at the synod about what Pope Francis has labeled “ideological colonization.” What does it mean in the African context?

Africans would think immediately of the big countries that have more money, more economic weight, pushing the so-called “Third World”, or developing countries — although every country is developing somehow — to adopt abortion and contraception, but they don’t use those terms, they call it “family planning.” They’ll say you must have it in your government plan, otherwise you have too many people and that’s why you’re not developed. You should reduce your population, and they make it a condition for receiving international financial help.

To take another example, some African governments have assigned prison terms for homosexuality. It’s not that I support those measures, but for the richer countries to say that if you don’t change those laws you’re against human rights and therefore we’ll see that you don’t get financing, this also becomes ideological colonization.

The richer countries may have more money, but they shouldn’t turn themselves into professors of moral theology just because other countries are poor. When I was archbishop, I said to one big agency that came to Nigeria to help us, “We have a minimum dignity below which we’re not prepared to descend for the sake of your money. Don’t go below that!”

Many observers speak about an “African moment” in Catholicism. What does Africa have to give to the Church that it needs right now?

Without boasting or pretending that Africa has a monopoly on good things, there are some things we can bring. [For instance], Africans can share the joy of being a Christian. Christianity is good news in Africa. Young people commit themselves with serious sacrifice to Christianity.

When I was archbishop, I began a monastery of enclosed Benedictine nuns in 1978, the year of three popes. An Italian convent sent four nuns, three Italians and one Nigerian, to get it started. Now there are 120 nuns there. They’ve founded another monastery in Nigeria with 50 nuns, and they’ve taken over one in Italy where there are 10 nuns, all Nigerians. The Italians have died out, only the Nigerians remain. They have sent their nuns to some other convents in Italy and Spain, quietly, without any noise.

Young people are ready to offer themselves. They are responding. Young people are not allergic to sacrifice, and Africans can share that. Africans are sharing in the mission of the Church.

By John L. Allen Jr.




  1. Monica Lai Reply

    May God bless Cardinal Francis Arinze. He is clear and speak the TRUTH.

  2. Maggie Postlethwaite Reply

    God bless our African clergy, religious and faithful. they are like springtime after a terrible winter. may we learn from them to follow God’s Word and then we will have true peace.

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