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Preparations for African Synod

On Tuesday, the Vatican
released the lineamenta, or "grand lines," for the Second Synod of
Bishops for Africa. The first Synod for Africa met in 1994, and resulted
in the document Ecclesia in Africa. No date has been established
for the next synod, although responses to the lineamenta were
requested by the end of October 2008, making it unlikely the synod will be
held before 2009.

The theme will be, "The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation,
Justice and Peace."

In church terms, it's a very ad extra choice, meaning that it's
primarily concerned with the church's engagement with the outside world
rather than internal questions of doctrine, discipline, or liturgical
practice. That's in keeping with the pastoral priorities of most African
bishops, who find issues such as poverty, war, and public corruption far
more pressing than the ad intra issues that loom large in Western
debates.

The lineamenta says that the church in Africa has made "a
preferential choice for the poor."

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Dialogue with African Traditional Religions and with Islam is also
flagged as a challenge. In keeping with the blunt spirit under Benedict
XVI, the lineamenta acknowledges that Islam is an "important yet
difficult" dialogue partner, and insists upon "reciprocity" as a
cornerstone of the relationship -- meaning that majority Islamic states
must respect the religious freedom of minorities.

The document suggests that it is time for a serious mobilization of the
laity in Africa, leading lay Christians to look beyond their individual,
tribal or ethnic interests, towards a "a large-scale, resolute" commitment
to the broader public good. As part of that effort, the lineamenta
encourages the church to foster a deeper ethic of "work done well," taking
one's daily work as the pathway both to individual sanctity and to broader
social transformation.

The lineamenta closes by asking bishops' conferences, religious
orders, and other forces in the African church to respond to 32 questions
in order to help shape the instrumentum laboris, or "working
paper," of the synod.

One criticism that will likely be heard is that with its ad
extra
focus, the lineamenta neglects some important questions
within the church. To take just a few examples:


  • The problem of priestly formation, ensuring that new priests have
    fully integrated the spiritual and disciplinary requirements of the
    office;
  • Inculturation of the faith in the various African contexts,
    especially in liturgy;
  • The challenge of aggressive Pentecostal and evangelical sects, which
    are making inroads in many African countries, sometimes at the expense
    of the Catholic church;
  • Debates over condoms in the context of HIV/AIDS, especially the
    question of the moral legitimacy of condoms in the context of a married
    couple trying to prevent transmission of the disease.

No doubt these issues, and others like them, will surface in the synod
process. Nevertheless, the choice of the lineamenta to focus on
broader social and political matters tends to reflect a conviction on the
part of many African church leaders that getting hung up on internal
debates is a bit like fiddling while Rome burns.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is href="mailto:jallen@natcath.org">jallen@ncronline.org

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