8-11 October 1996
Maryland, Lagos

Theme: African Traditional Religious Movements

Most Rev. E. S. ObotOpening Address
Most Rev. Albert FasinaHand-over Address
Rev. Chidi Denis IsizohGoodwill Message
Rev. Fr. E.I. MetuhInculturating values in African Traditional Religion
Rev. Fr. Paul BekyeAfrican Traditional Religion in Church Documents
Rev. Fr. Matthew Hassan KukahNon-Christian religions in Africa: hope and impediments
Summary of group discussions on the papers


I. Most Rev. E. S. Obot
Chairman of AECAWA Commission for Inter-Religious Dialogue

On behalf of the AECAWA Commission for Inter-religious Dialogue, I welcome all to the 1996 Annual Plenary Meeting with study session of our Commission. I thank God that we have been able to come here despite the problems inherent in the communications system in the sub-region. I am, however, sad that our brothers from the Inter-Territorial Bishops' Conference are unable to attend. Let us pray that their painful absence will serve as sacrifice towards achieving peace and stability in our sub-region.

The Former Executive

This is the first workshop/seminar of the Commission since it was re-constituted at the last plenary meeting of AECAWA at Enugu. It will therefore serve as a pathfinder for our subsequent endeavours. I want to seize this opportunity also to thank the former Executive (the Chairman Bishop Fasina, the Secretary Rev. Fr. Adekoya; the Financial Secretary Rev. Fr. Theriault), for the selfless service they rendered to the Church in AECAWA countries through the Commission. May God bless them in their future assignments. I would like to mention here for your information that the Financial Secretary, Fr. Theriault has been retained as a member of the new Executive. Rev. Fathers and others present, as a mark of appreciation of the work of the former executive, we all have the obligation to continue the good work started by them.

The New Executive

Let me now formally introduce my humble self to you as The New Chairman of the Commission. Fr. Vincent Nyoyoko is the New Secretary and Fr. Theriault (as already explained) is the Financial Secretary. The success of this New Executive depends on the cooperation they will receive from you, the experts and resource persons. Without you, we cannot achieve much and with you the Church in our sub-region will have cause to be proud of your dedicated service.

Theme of Workshop/Seminar

The study session is on African Traditional Religions and non-Christian Religious movements. Lectures will be delivered by three experts. The study and reflection from the lectures to be given will definitely help us to see how A.T.R. and non-Christian New Religious Movements can enrich some of our Christian practices and thereby promote the much trumpeted process of inculturation. Secondly, the lectures will help us to find out the good elements in these religions and religious movements which we can adopt without watering down the Christian Faith. Thirdly, the papers will pinpoint practices in the religions and movements which may be contrary to Christian Tradition. Some of our healers (healing ministers) sometimes use practices which can be termed superstitions.

Words of Caution

I should like to say emphatically that to believe or imagine that these religions and movements are no more active will be deceiving ourselves. The situation on the ground points to the fact that many of our Christians are still affiliated to them. This is all the more reason why we must critically study these religions and movements. Indeed, certain aspects can practically enrich our teachings and devotions and thereby satisfy the underlying felt need of our people. This point was very graphically put by the President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, His Eminence Cardinal Arinze, in his letter to Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar on March 25th, 1988. The recently concluded African Synod, through His Holiness Pope John Paul II's document Ecclesia in Africa, has encouraged a serious study of African Traditional Religions and New Religious Movements by all those involved in evangelization in the continent.


My dear Brothers and Sisters, let us therefore remember that, because we are indebted to the Church in the sub-region, we must heed the constant yearnings of our people for an integral and "new" Evangelization in Africa.

Once more, I welcome you to this study session. May the Lord who has begun the good work in us bring it to perfection.


Most Rev. Albert Fashina
Bishop of Ijebu-Ode
Out-going Chairman of AECAWA IRDC

Praise be to Jesus Christ, our Lord, from whom all good things come.

I greet you, my Lord Bishop, E.S. Obot, Chairman, AECAWA Interrreligious Dialogue Commision, and the members of the Commission from the Gambia, Sierra-Leone, Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria.

I want to thank the bishops of AECAWA who gave me the opportunity to serve. My gratitude goes to all the members of the Commission for their wonderful and energetic cooperation, hard work, high sense of duty and the immeasurable zeal with which they serve. Without their cooperation, nothing could have been achieved. We appreciate the contribution of the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to Nigeria, Most Rev. Carlo Maria Vigano, and the personnel in the Nunciature. They gave time, supplied necesary information, and from time to time served as our link with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in Rome.

The services rendered to the Commission by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) is very valuable. Not only did the Council take great interest, but supplied human and material resources to build up the Commission. May God bless and reward Francis Cardinal Arinze, the President of the Council, the able Secretary of the Council, Most Rev. Fitzgerald, M.Afr. and the executive members of the Commission. Many thanks also to Missio Aachen and Missio Munich for their financial contribution to the work of the Commission. The words of Scripture, Money has answer for everything" (Ecclesiastes 10:19), can be applied to the financial commitments of the Commission which the two generaous agencies helped to undertake. May God bless all our benefactors.

The report of gthe Commission to the AECAWA Plenary Meeting in Enugu in November 1995 summarises the work already done and the plan of some of the work which the Commission proposes to undertake. I appeal to all the members of the Commission to cooperate with the new Chairman to improve on what has been done. Thank you and God bless you.


Rev. Fr. Chidi Denis Isizoh
Representative of The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue

On behalf of His Eminence Francis Cardinal Arinze, His Excellency Bishop Michael Fitzgerald and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, I thank the Chairman of the AECAWA Interreligious Dialogue Commission, His Excellency Bishop Ehpraim S. Obot, and the members of his commission, for organizing this seminar. Our Pontifical Council is happy to encourage such a regional initiative.

This is not the first time our Pontifical Council is participating in a seminar organized by your Commission. In 1993, my predecessor, Father François-Marie Gapi, was invited by the then Chairman, his Excellency Bishop Albert Faina, to a four-day study session on Islam and African Traditional Religion. This year you have chosen to concentrate only on Africa Traditional Religion the study of which is very dear to Africans. This is also a study which the Synod of Bishops for Africa very much encouraged.

In the last thirty years much has changed in the approach of Christianity to African Traditional Religion (ATR). There has been a shift from a condemnatory or negative conception to a better understanding and appreciation of the values found in ATR. Except for die-hards who refuse to update their information, ATR has graduated from being regarded as a pagan cult, witchcraft, idol worship, animism, fortune telling, etc., to the status of being considered a providentially developed stage in man's approach to, and contact with, God.

To reach this level, it took several years of study by experts, and many documents of Popes and Bishops, and other agents of evangelisation. I am happy that one of the speakers during this Seminar will give us a list of the relevant documents of the Church and, perhaps, let us have a glimpse of their contents.

As you may know, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, aware that African Traditional Religion is the religious background of most of our Christians, in meeting the followers of and converts from this religious tradition, proposes a different type of dialogue, that of a pastoral approach. It published a guideline for dialogue with the ATR in 1968. Seven years later, in 1974, it organized two colloquies at Abijan and Kampala. In 1988, a letter urging the Bishops of Africa to pay greater pastoral attention to ATR, to its followers and to new converts from it was sent out to the Bishops of Africa. This was followed by a special issue of our journal dedicated to Traditional Religions (Bulletin 69, 1988).

During meetings with Bishops collectively or individually, especially when the come to Rome for their ad limina visits, the Council has always reminded them of and emphasized the importance of pastoral attention to ATR. Occasionally some of the members of the Council's staff visit countries where there are many adherents to Traditional Religions, they hold meetings with them, and also encourage other agents of evangelisation to do the same.

Recently, from 29th July to 3 August 1996, the Pontifical Council organised a colloquium in the academic environment of the Catholic Institute for francophone West Africa, Abidjan, to which some twenty-seven experts from all five continents were invited. While, at the same time, being a continuation of the series of colloquies promoted by the Pontifical Council, the first of which was held in Pune, India in 1993 (see Pro Dialogo 85-86, 1994), the theme taken up in Abidjan was: "The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the encounter with Traditional Religions". The chioce of this theme was, to a large extent, determined by the Council's effort to focus the attention of the agents of evangelisation on the importance of studying and understanding the religious background of the vast majority of traditional peoples of Africa, the Americas and Asia who have become Christians in the last two or three ceturies. It was an attempt to encourage a pastoral initiative already found in some of the young Churches of Africa and Asia, aimed at helping the new members live as true sons and daughters of their lands with all their cultural values and, at the same time, as authentic Christians. The colloquium, as Cardinal Arinze explained in the inaugural speech, was a gathering of theologians to "reflect on what Christianity has to say to people to Traditional Religions, especially those of them who have become Christians".

The Acts of the colloquium will be published in January 1997.

Your seminar comes just a few weeks after this inter-continental colloquium and gives it a concrete, local dimension. The need to study and understand ATR cannot be overstressed. The replies to the Lineamenta of the Africa Synod showed the constant affirmation, country after country in Africa, that despite the impact of, and contact with, Christianity, Islam and modern political and economic developments, the rise of big cities and scientific and technological knowledge, ATR is still alive and deeply influences in different ways the lives of many Africans, be they followers of African Traditional Religion or converts to other religions. Their attachment to their religious heritage, their sensitive and characteristic ways of responding to the basic questions concerning the visible and the invisible worlds, make it clear that to have authentic Christians, the Church must not ignore this rich background of the Africans.

It is to be acknowledged with joy that many of the African theologians have worked hard over the years to articulate some of the elements of ATR which the visitors from the northern hemisphere had misinterpreted. At the close of this centrury, with so many universities and research centres in Africa, it is not expected that any person should spend time and energy in blaming the missionaries or travellers from Europe and America for the slow development and integration of African religious concepts into Christian theology which is observed in some countries of Africa. While some Africans are sitting up for several hours each day to construct philosophico-theological systems in which ATR and culture are utilized in expressing Christian theology, it is regrettable that some others spend much of their time attacking ecclesiastical persons and institutions for what they did not do a hundred years ago to enhance the study of the religion. This is the moment of construction or, perhaps, reconstruction. The Popes, especially Paul VI and John Paul II, the Fathers of the African Synod, and indeed the whole Church, are calling on African experts to propose the best lines of approach to inculturation. It is an attempt to do just that that has brought us together here in Lagos.

The documents that will be produced after this seminar will remain only materials for the archives if no further action is taken. Each participant is invited to take a cue from what will be discussed here and then go back and rally other African scholars to help promote a meeting between Christianity and ATR and culture. Western scholars in past centuries used both Greek and Roman categories to articulate our Christian theology. What are the Africans doing today? Let this question ring a bell in our ears throughout, and even after, this Seminar.

I thank you for inviting me to this important Seminar. We are in for an enriching exchange of ideas which we pray may be for the salvation of our people and the greater glory of God.

Lagos, 9th October 1966, Feast of St. Denis


E. Ikenga-Metuh

In his l967 message to the Hierarchy and all the peoples of Africa, Africae terrarum, Paul VI, of blessed memory, made this insightful statement which has since stimulated and encouraged the development of both African theological studies and dialogue with African Traditional Religion and cultures:

The Church views with respect the moral and religious values of the African tradition, not only because of their meaning, but also because she sees them as providential, as the basis for spreading the Gospel message and beginning the establishment of a new society in Christ...

And that is why the African who becomes a Christian does not disown himself, but takes up the age-old values of tradition in spirit and in truth. —Africae terrarum, n. 14

What is value? And which are these age-old African values? A definition of value could be that:

value is the worth a person, society or culture accords to an object, course of action, outlook, viewpoint or role chosen in preference to other alternatives. The relative importance of a value is further determined by its place in the hierarchy of values. The priority given is in preference to other values. —A. Shorter

In a cultural context, values are expressed not only through language, but also through images, symbols, beliefs, patterns of behaviour, rituals and institutions. Values which are so expressed repeatedly and consistently in various contexts that they become a regular pattern in the thought of a people or culture become "themes". There are themes which are peculiar to a particular culture, e.g. circumcision, and others which are "life themes" because they relate to universal human experience, e.g. marriage. Some values and themes refer explicitly to religious experiences, for example, the experience of God, sin, forgiveness and retribution; others are not so explicit. However, African Traditional Religion is so entangled with African social, cultural and political life that making this distinction is not always possible.

Values in African religion and culture

Various Church documents and writers in African Traditional Religion have mentioned a number of values found in African religion and cultures. Some of these are comparable and compatible with Christian values; others are not. The first part of this paper will describe some of the more striking of these values and point out at the same time their compatibility or otherwise with the Gospel message. The second part will reflect on their significance as preparatio evangelica, stepping stones for the effective spreading of the Gospel.

In Africae terrarum Pope Paul VI enumerated some values found in African culture which are compatible with the Gospel message and could serve as stepping stones for the spread of the Gospel message. He lists five such values: (1) a spiritual view of life, (2) respect for the dignity of man, (3) sense of family, (4) respect for the position and authority of the father of the family, (5) community.

The booklet, Meeting African religions, published by the Secretariat for non-Christian Religions in 1968, repeats some of the above and adds others. It mentions (6) the idea of God as the First and Last Cause of all things, (7) that African religion is anthropocentric man is the focus of relationships in the universe (pp. 43-45). Other values are derivable from African philosophical assumptions: (8) the dynamism of being or the concept of being as vital force, (9) the participation or harmony of beings in the universe, (10) the power of images and symbols (pp. 31-35), (11) a communitarian sprit, (12) African humanism, (13) the socio-ethnic dimension of African art (pp. 39-41).

The Report on the Church in Africa, presented by the African Bishops to the 1974 Synod of Bishops in Rome, lists a few traditional African religious values in this memorable statement:

There is a wealth of values to be found in the African inheritance, including a spiritual view of life, the holiness of human life, God, creation, morality and sin, life after death, and the African sense of family. n. 10

The Lineamenta for the 1994 special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Africa lists a lengthy list of "positive" and "negative" characteristics of African Traditional Religion. Here only a selection of the more striking positive and negative values are presented:

Positive religious values

  1. Africans have a sense of the sacred and a sense of mystery. Religion enfolds the whole of life; there is no dichotomy between life and religion.
  2. There is widespread belief in the afterlife; the invisible world of spirits and ancestors is always present, mediating between God and man.
  3. Belief in the efficacy of prayer, and different types of rituals.
  4. Belief in moral rectitude as an essential requirement to a good relationship between God and man.
  5. Sin is offence against God, and harms the public good and interpersonal relationships.

    The ritual sphere

  6. Rites form an essential part of personal and social life.
  7. God, deities, ancestors and the dead are invoked through rites.
  8. Rites of passage celebrate important stages of human life and seasonal cycles.
  9. There are many other rites for various human needs, purification, sacrificial healing rites etc.
  10. Some traditional blessings are very rich and very meaningful.

    The religion-moral sphere

  11. Recognition of the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of human life.
  12. High moral principles like truthfulness, faithfulness, restraint and control of the human temperament.

    The religion-cultural sphere

  13. Respect for elders as custodians of customs and traditional wisdom.
  14. The whole community is involved in education of the young.
  15. Marriage is an alliance between families, and cultural provisions are made for upholding its stability.
  16. Blood alliances bind with a bond that is rarely broken.

    The religio-social sphere

  17. Hospitality is a duty and is the most common ATR value all over Africa.
  18. Family and clan solidarity is very strong.
  19. The poor, sick, orphans and widows are taken care of within the extended family system.

Negative values in ATR

Despite the many positive aspects of ATR, there are nevertheless some negative aspects like the following:

  1. Fear and rarely love is the motive of religious cult.
  2. God is rather remote, and hardly features in cult or daily life except in a few cases.
  3. Magic, divination and the use of ordeals feature prominently.
  4. Salvation, although viewed as holistic, is primarily this-worldly. This gives ATR a strikingly utilitarian and manipulative orientation.
  5. Certain natural things: rivers, trees, mountains, are believed to have in them spirits or supernatural powers which become objects of worship.
  6. Some beliefs and practices seem to negate fundamental human rights, like human slavery, rejection of twins and some children born with strange features, also customs oppressive of widows.
  7. Clan consciousness, though strong, is exclusivistic.
  8. Spirit possessions, witchcraft, and secret cult beliefs and practices are against Christian principles.

Positive values of special interest

Some African writers have persuasively argued that there exist in African religions very high spiritual and religio-humanistic values which are of theological interest. Mercy Oduyoye, for example, discusses some traditional African beliefs and values which could form a basis for developing African Christian theology. She mentions among others belief in God as father of the human family, the divine origin of the universe, man appointed by God as steward of creation, community and communion between the living and the dead, a sense of the supernatural, a holistic attitude to life, covenant making, the power of evil, rites of passage. She thinks that Christianity in Africa could be enriched by these values (M. Oduyoye, 1983, pp. 109-116). Cubic goes a little further and claims that the existence of these values in African religion demonstrates that it contains some elements of divine revelation (S. Cubic, 1981, p. 174).

1. The spiritual view of life

Almost each and every listing above mentions this as an obvious and fundamental value in African Traditional Religion. This view sees living beings and visible nature itself as linked with the world of the invisible and spirit. This outlook is what the History of Religions at the end of the last century mistakenly termed "animism". But it goes much deeper than that. It is not just that some spirits are incarnate in matter, but that the entire creation is imbued with the power and influence of the divine. Thus African world views do not see any demarcation between the visible and invisible world, the material and spiritual, the sacred and the profane. The two realms shade into each other. Rather characteristic of African world views is what Taylor has described as that sense of cosmic oneness which is an essential feature of primal religion (J.B. Taylor, The primal religion).

This spiritual view of life explains the high degree of religiosity found among Africans and peoples with African cultural background. Some would say that Africans are naturally or even "pathologically" religious. The tide of secularization so characteristic of Euro-Western cultures has not successfully eroded this African value in spite of the wide scale westernisation taking place in Africa. Rather, as the structures of African Traditional Religion collapse under the impact of modernisation and urbanisation, African tractional religionists drift into Christianity and Islam, where they find welcome refuge and continue to express their religiosity even if in different patterns of beliefs and symbols.

2. Belief in God

The idea of God as the first or ultimate cause of all things is expressed in different ways from culture to culture, but the fact remains that the presence of God permeates African life as the presence of a higher being, personal and mysterious. People have recourse to Him at solemn and more critical moments of life, when they consider the intercession of every other intermediary unavailing. He is often addressed as Father or Mother (especially among matrilineal peoples). Prayers made to Him, whether by individuals or by groups, are spontaneous, at times moving, while among forms of sacrifice, sacrifice of first fruits stands out because of its symbolization that "To the Lord belongs the earth and all it holds" (Ps 24:1; cf. Paul VI, Africae Terrarum, n. 8).

3. The dignity of the human person

The African traditional world view is anthropocentric. Man is at the centre of the universe. This view finds adequate expression in what Fr. Placide Temples in his Bantu philosophy described as the Bantu vision of the ontological order. Above all being or forces is God, spirit and creator. After Him come the deities, and then the founding ancestors of the different clans. They constitute the most important chain binding men to God. Then comes living man, and subordinate to him are the physical forces in the universe: animals, plants and minerals. The goal of all the beings in the universe (God, deities, physical beings) is the enhancement of human life. It is man in his social and spiritual dimension who is their concern. Above all, man has a God-given destiny, which he must realize during his earthly existence and account for on his return to God in death.

4. Deities and ancestors as mediators

Mediation is a very visible characteristic feature of African Traditional Religion in which the Supreme Being is believed to be remote, and consequently worship of him is poorly developed. The multiplicity and variety of these mediators—deities, ancestors and sprits—gives the impression that their cult is the main focus of ATR. From the Christian perspective there are some aberrations in some aspects of their cult. However, mediation, which underlies their cult is a cherished Christian value. And calls have been made for the inculturation of especially the cult of the ancestors. The relationship between the African and his ancestors operates at various levels: ontological, socio-juridical, religious, spiritual and moral. Ontologically, ancestors are fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers of the living, with whom they form one family. For the African family is a single continuing unit made up of the living, the dead and those yet to be born. The ancestors are thus ever present and take part in important meetings and decisions in their families. Juridically they are still heads of their various families and clans. Religiously, the link between the living and the ancestors consists in the cult which the ancestors receive from the living. Morally, ancestors are guarantors of solidarity, tradition, ethics and cultural activities, and would punish members who break any of these rules. Most importantly, they are believed to mediate between God and members of their family communities. Belief in ancestors clearly affirms belief in life after death, and could sum up the practicalization of the Christian belief in the communion of saints. The ancestors' role as mediators between God and man can be inculturated if its is understood that such a mediatorship is in Christo, et per Christum (E. Ikenga-Metuh, 1995, p. 84).

5. Sense of community/family

African traditions tend to define a person in terms of the group to which he belongs. In traditional African society a man gains this sense of community through the family, the lineage, the clan and the tribe. Thus from birth an African learns to believe that "I am because I belong." An individual is a nobody without his family. For, as a Ghanaian proverb says, the family makes the man. The family comprises not only the living, but also the dead members and those yet to be born. The community even at the highest levels (village, tribe or nation) is conceptualized as the family at large. Participation in the life of the community is considered a precious duty and the right of all. But the exercise of this duty is conceded only after progressive preparation through a series of initiations whose aim is to form the character of the young candidates and instruct them in the traditions, rules and customs of society. The community takes care of the welfare of its members, including its sick and disabled members, guarantees his security and rallies to his or her support in times of need and in times of triumph. There is common ownership of property, especially land, economic trees and/or livestock. At death the family buries the member within the family compound with the belief and hope that he would reincarnate within the family.

6. Moral and ethical values

Many African myths, proverbs, sayings and folk tales, as well as some of their customs and traditions, demonstrate that there is a basic moral consciousness among African peoples. These sayings recall, for example, that the man who "eats his words, breaks his oath" or "violates the blood bond" commits a personal moral fault. The Akan proverb, "You may not see yourself growing up, but you definitely know it when you do wrong," is a clear indication of moral consciousness. Other sayings suggest that virtue or vice has its consequences, e.g. "Let the head that provoked the wasp take the stings." "If the ear is warned and it refuses to listen, when the head is cut, the ear would fall with it." The Akan talking drum says, "If you are in the habit of doing what is right, you will live long."

However, these sayings expressing high moral principles are found side by side with belief in taboos which evoke automatic supernatural sanctions. It is in fact fear of these sanctions that gives bite and sting to the African moral code. This has given rise to the opinion that African moral sense is not governed by the dictates of conscience but by fear of taboos and/or blind conformity to customs and traditions. However, one should distinguish between moral consciousness of the goodness or badness of an act and the observance of these norms. Taboos, customs, traditions and norms which safeguard the common good with heavy sanctions command greater compliance.

The concept and functioning of conscience are clearly defined in some African societies. The Yoruba word for conscience is "Ifa Iya", Oracle of the Heart. They believe that in order to live a morally good life, God puts into human beings "Ifa Iya". Of a person who behaves wickedly or shamelessly, the Yorubas say, "He has no sense of shame; he has no oracle of the heart" (Ikenga-Metuh, 1987, p. 245). That there is a sense of sin as an offence against God, who will ultimately sanction it, is borne out by sayings like these: "Justice is the spirit land." "God will judge" (Igbo). "Those we cannot catch we leave in the hands of God" (Yoruba). There are even sayings suggestive that God's sanctions may come about in the afterlife, like this Yoruba saying which may be addressed to an offender: "As to this thing or wrong you have done to me, you and I will relate it before God who sees us both" (E. Ikenga-Metuh, 253).

7. Sense of human well-being as wholeness

I have resisted the temptation of using the Biblico-Christian term "salvation" to describe the aspiration to a state of perfect human well-being in African religion. African religious traditions do not believe that human beings are in a fallen state from which they need to be saved. The ideal state of happiness to which African Traditional Religion proposes to its adherents is a state or condition of "total well-being" or wholeness. This can be described as a condition of fulfilment deriving from peace and harmony with all the beings with whom he is in relationship: God, the deities, ancestors, spirits, his community, family, his physical and social environment. Practically this is experienced in the state of good health, long life, a large family, prosperity, integration and good esteem in one's community, and hope of joining one's ancestors in the afterlife and eventually reincarnating into one's family in this life.

Religion and life itself are conditioned by this concept of wholeness. There is no demarcation between the religious and secular aspects of life, or between this life and the after life. Life itself follows a cyclic process of birth, death and birth. Life goes on interminably. So the final end of a person, or condition of wholeness is not found only in the afterlife, but rather a total condition of well-being, fulfilment and happiness both in this life and the afterlife. What is important about the afterlife is that a person is received into the community of his ancestors, so that he could continue to participate in the affairs of his clan which encompasses both the living and the ancestors. So ATR is world-affirming, and the well-being to which its adherents aspire to is mainly this-worldly. African religion does not promise salvation of a moral and spiritual nature. Rather it promises life-enhancement. Life belongs to God and is his great and holy gift to man. In ATR's understanding, all other creatures exist in God's plan only to maintain and cherish this vital gift of life. The goal of ATR is "to enlist the help of God, the deities and ancestors, and harness the forces below man (magic) to strengthen the life of man on earth" (P. Temple, 1969, p. 120). Secondarily ATR celebrates man's life on earth, especially the crisis points in the life cycle: birth, puberty, marriage and funeral rites. The goal of ATR is to provide man with all the means—world view, rituals, sacrifices, divination, magic etc.—to achieve wholeness.

Although many theologians may see this concept of wholeness as a disvalue rather than a value, it does invite us to rethink the dichotomy and polarisation which Greco-Christian thought puts between matter and spirit, the good of the body and the soul. The concept of well-being as wholeness emphasizes that it is the whole person, his entire relationships, not just the well-being of his soul which should be the goal of salvation.

Values of ATR in the inculturation process

In a letter addressed by the Secretariat for non-Christians to the presidents of all episcopal conferences in Africa and Madagascar, entitled Pastoral attention to African Traditional Religion (ATR), a number of reasons were given for pastoral attention to ATR. The following are relevant to our discussion here:

  1. Many [African] Christians at critical moments in their lives have recourse to practices of traditional religion or prayer houses... where they feel that certain elements of their culture are more respected.
  2. The Church respects the religions and cultures of various peoples, and wishes in her contact with those people to preserve all that is noble, true and good in their religion and culture.
  3. The better ATR is understood by the heralds of the Gospel, the more suitable will be the presentation of Christianity to Africans.
  4. Elements of a non-Christian religion, and the culture it influences, can enrich Christian catechetics and worship, and find in them their deepest fulfilment.

As methodology, the document suggests three approaches:

(1) An in-depth phenomenological study of ATR, its major tenets and values, both positive and negative, and the strength and influence of ATR, together with the effects of social change on it.

(2) Dialogue between Christianity and ATR. Dialogue can be understood in two senses: dialogue with adherents of ATR who do not yet want to become Christians—dialogue in this case is to be understood in the ordinary sense of encounter, mutual understanding, respect and mutual searching for God—and dialogue with adherents of ATR who want to be Christians, or with Christian converts from ATR. Dialogue in this latter case is to effect a more adequate presentation of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that the Church may have deep roots in Africa. This is the field of inculturation (F. Arinze & M.L. Fitzgerald, Pastoral attention to ATR, n. 11).

For the aim of inculturation is to ensure authenticity and depth of faith in the African Christian, to heal cultural alienation, to bridge the gap between faith and life. It is a question of rediscovering, recovering and salvaging lost or disappearing spiritual values, giving them the possibility to survive, grow and be elevated and purified in the spirit of the Gospel (Synodus Episcoporum, Coitus Specialis pro Africa—Relatio ante Disceptationem, n. 18).

The process of inculturating values of ATR

Vatican II gives directives on the process of effecting inculturation. The first step is to stir up a theological investigation in each major socio-cultural area, to evaluate the cultures and traditions of the area in the light of the Gospel message, constant traditions and the Magisterium of the Church. It directs:

A fresh scrutiny of divine revelation itself as consigned to Sacred Scriptures and which have been unfolded by the Church Fathers and the teaching authority of the Church should be undertaken.

In this way a better view will be gained on how their customs, outlook of life and social order can be reconciled with the manner of living taught by divine revelation. As a result, avenues will be opened for a more profound adaptation in the whole area of Christian life. Ad gentes, n. 22)

Inculturation here is indeed a theological encounter between "divine revelation itself as consigned to the Sacred Scriptures" and African culture and tradition. The purpose of the scrutiny is to sift and identify "the unchanging good news of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ" as different from the Judaeo-Graeco cultural packaging in which it is presented in the Scriptures. In the encounter, African culture and traditions are evaluated in the light of divine revelation. Culture is subjected to and judged and corrected by faith, not vice versa. However, there is a mutual exchange between faith and culture in inculturation. Faith takes from African cultures those elements which are suitable to illustrate its mysteries, while culture seeks to appropriate divine revelation and is illuminated, corrected and transformed by it.

The Relatio post disceptationem of the African Synod summarises the criteria for a successful inculturation:

(1) compatibility with the Christian message, for Christ and his message have absolute precedence over culture,

(2) communion with the universal Church: "We do not want to construct a totally new and different Church." n. 19.


There is a close bond and a dialectical relationship between evangelization and inculturation. The command of Jesus "Go therefore, make disciples of all nations" (Mt. 29:19) is also a call to inculturation, described as "the encounter of the Good News with all the peoples of the earth through the instrumentality of their culture;" better still, inculturation is "the evangelization of culture."

In the process of inculturation, the Good News should take full possession of African cultures, even as the Word took human flesh. In the process it should correct, complement and perfect African culture. Having done that, it should express itself through it. In this study we have confronted some African values with the Gospel message. There are some elements in African culture which are incompatible with the Christian message, while are others are not only compatible but also which, when purified with the light of the Gospel, become providential channels through which the Gospel can penetrate and take firm root in the African cultures and African Christian life.

Our analysis shows that it is the same deep sense of the spiritual view of the universe which one encounters in African world views, that one also encounters in the Bible. Incarnated African Christianity should seek to retain this deep sense of the presence of the spiritual which secularization is eroding in European Christianity. It should, however, replace the fear of the spirits, good and evil, and magic which is often mixed up with it, with the fear and love of God. Christianity has largely recognized and enriched the traditional African belief in God. Traditional worship responses, invocations, prayers, oaths, even sacrifices, given to God in ATR should also be accepted, purified and addressed to God through Christ.

In many cases, evangelizers in Africa have stopped short of doing this. The mediatorship and intercessory role of the ancestors should be recognized. The Instrumentum laboris in fact suggests that "completed and purified by the light of the Gospel, the concepts of life and death, of veneration of ancestors, and belief in the afterlife, can enrich Christianity and make certain aspects of the mystery of salvation more understandable to the African" (African Synod, Instrumentum laboris, n. 70).

The same could be said of the other values in African Traditional Religion and cultures discussed here: the sense of community, the holistic view of life, the dignity of the human person and a moral and ethical sense. This is the spirit of the African Synod, which advises:

A positive attitude must be adopted in respect to the religious values of Africa, in the spirit of the Lord's injunction: "He who is not against you is for you" (Lk 9:50; Instrumentum laboris, 107).

Effective inculturation begins when viable theological suggestions are applied to whole areas of pastoral life, evangelisation, catechetics, the liturgy, homiletics, the sacraments and the ordinary daily religious life of African Christians. Effective inculturation will enable the Christian faithful in a particular culture to witness in every aspect of their lives.


Arinze, F. & Fitzgerald, M.L. (1987), on behalf of the Secretariat for non-Christians, Pastoral attention to ATR.

Hickey, R., (1982), Modern missionary documents and Africa. Dublin, 1982.

Cubic, S. (1983), "Revelations in African religions," Theological Journal 12:1, p. 124 ff.

Ikenga-Metuh, E. (1987), Comparative studies of African religions. Onitsha, IMICO.

Ikenga-Metuh, E. (1996), African inculturation theology. Onitsha, OMICO.

Paul VI, Africae terrarum. Vatican City, 1967.

Oduyoye, M.A. (1983, "The values of African religious beliefs and practices for Christian theology," in K. Appiah-Kubi and S. Torres, African theology, pp. 190-116.

Secretariat for non-Christians (1968), Meeting the African religions. Vatican City.

Synod of Bishops, Special assembly for Africa, (1990), Lineamenta, Relatio ante disceptationem, Relatio post disceptationem nuntius, Instrumentum laboris. Vatican City.


Paul K. Bekye

Preliminary Considerations

The positive recognition of religious pluralism is a distinctive mark of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church. And African traditional religious experience and expression, having emerged from the limbo of negation and scepticism to eventual recognition, is gradually taking its rightful place among the religions of the world, and is considered the legitimate expression of a genuine religious experience of African peoples in their encounter with the divine. The following presentation examines those official pronouncements of the Catholic Church which have a bearing on African Traditional Religion. By official Church documents, we intend papal or conciliar documents, and documents of Sacred Roman Congregations; these, more than other magisterial pronouncements, represent formal Church directives of universal application.

The method followed is basically expository. The documents are largely left to speak for themselves, without too much hermeneutics. We are, no doubt, aware that deep theological, cultural and socio-political undercurrents, at the basis' of each document, have tremendously influenced the general attitude of the Church in regard to non-Christian peoples and their religions. A detailed treatment of these, useful as it certainly would be, would however necessitate a much longer presentation which is beyond the scope of the present exercise.1 Only brief references to these have therefore been made to enable us better situate within context a particular document.

A first thing to however say, as far as the topic under discussion is concerned, is the general scarcity of references to African Traditional Religion (ATR) in official Church pronouncements. Very few documents of the Church mention Africa Traditional Religion as such. Secondly, also, those Church documents which do mention ATR directly are quite recent; they are of the post-Vatican II era. The scarcity of, and the lateness of reference ATR in Church documents is indicative of a situation where African Traditional Religion hardly ever was a subject of direct magisterial concern.

Paul VI and African Religious Tradition

The very first magisterial documents to make mention of the religious of African peoples, and in a positive light for that matter, is Africae Terrarum of Pope Paul VI, issued on October 29th 1967. In this document Paul VI made the following unprecedented statement:

Many customs and rites, once considered to be strange are seen today in the light of ethnological science, as integral parts of various social systems, worthy of study and commanding respect. In this regard, we think it profitable to dwell on some general ideas which typify ancient African religious cultures because we think their moral and religious values deserving of attentive consideration.2

Paul VI's optimistic view of Africa religious tradition in Africa Terrarum, (the encyclical he devotes entirely to Africa), is based on his positive recognition of the worth of ethnological science in broadening the horizons of knowledge on African peoples. Consequently, Paul VI corrects, in a formal way, the hitherto misrepresentation of African Traditional Religion as "animism". As he says, "here we have more than the so-called 'animistic' concept, in the sense given to this term in the history of religious at the end of the last century.3

In the Pope's view, African traditional religious expression constitutes raher "a spiritual view of life... which considers all living beings and visible nature itself as linked with the world of the invisible and spirit."4 And, continues the Pope, central to this "spiritual view of life, (this) spiritual concept is the most important element... the idea of God as the first or ultimate cause of all things. This concept, perceived rather than analyzed, lived rather than reflected on, is expressed in very different ways from culture to culture, but the fact remains that the presence of God permeates African life as the presence of a higher being, personal and mysterious".5

Consequently Paul VI calls for an exchange of meaning between Christianity and African religious tradition.

The great significance of Paul VI's appraisal resides in the fact that it is the first time that such an official recognition by a Christian Church has ever been made of a typically African religious tradition, and this is quite unprecedented. Such a recognition that African peoples do have a religious expression that is properly and uniquely African, is much in the spirit of the changed climate of the Second Vatican Council II with its theological openness towards non-Christian peoples in general, and non-Christian religions in particular.

By his pronouncement Paul VI went a great step forward in making explicit and solemn what the Council itself had refrained from pronouncing on. The Second Vatican Council, in spite of its positive appraisal of other religious besides Christianity, had, for undisclosed reasons, refrained from making any explicit statement on African traditional religious culture. This was quite in contrast to the request at the Council by African bishops, together with other scholars of religion, for "mention to be made of religions in Africa".6 The Council had declined and limited itself to making explicit comment only on the traditionally so-called five great religions of the world. It 'singled out for special comment the traditionally so-called world religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. For the others, the Council made a generic statement: "Other religions are found throughout the world attempt in their own ways to calm the hearts of men by outlining a program of life covering doctrine, moral precepts and sacred rites; thus the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions".7

In any case, even if African Traditional Religion was not the subject of direct and explicit mention by the Council, yet the Council's open attitude towards non-Christian religions has been recognized as a significant turning point in the Church's general attitude towards non-Christian peoples and their religions. As the writer Paul Knitter has remarked, "for the first time in the history of official Church statements the religions of the world are singled out and praised for the way they have answered those profound mysteries of the human condition."8 Undoubtedly, Vatican II's "Declaration on the Church's Relationship to Non-Christians" (Nostra Aetate), backed up by a Secretariat that handles questions of dialogue and ecumenical relations with non-Christian peoples has forever marked the Council out as an important watershed in Christian with people of other religions.

Paul VI's recognition of the reality of the African religious heritage was therefore not only in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, but it indicated radically changed times. And as if to give a concrete demonstration on his positive appraisal of African culture and religion, Paul VI, on African soil (the first ever by a roman Pontiff), challenged African Christians to "have an African Christianity", based on African "human values and characteristic forms of culture.."9

John Paul II and African Traditional Religion

If a Pope has ever involved himself so personally and deeply in the African reality, it is John Paul II. He has been loud in the praise of African cultural and religious heritage. The numerous pastoral visits John Paul II has made to Africa provided him with unique opportunities to impress upon his African hearers the high regard and respect the Church has for the African traditional cultural heritage, and how this should be brought into the service of the gospel, and for the enrichment of the universal Church.10

But it is in his most recent Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa, that a clear pronouncement on African Traditional Religion is made. "Africans", says John Paul II, "have a profound religious sense, a sense of the sacred, of the existence of God the Creator and of a spiritual world, the reality of sin in its individual and social forms is very much present in the consciousness of these peoples, as is also the need for rites of purification and expiation."11 The Pope therefore calls for dialogue with African Traditional Religion:

With regard to African Traditional Religion, a serene and prudent dialogue will be able, on the one hand, to protect Catholics from negative influences which condition the way of life of many of them and, on the other, to foster the assimilation of positive values such as belief in a Supreme Being who is Eternal, Creator, Provident and Just Judge, values which are readily harmonized with the content of the faith."12

The Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue and African Traditional Religion

In 1988, the Secretariat for Non-Christians, as it was then called (incidently headed by an African, the Nigerian born Cardinal Francis Arinze), as part of its solicitude for African Traditional Religion, addressed a letter to the Bishops of Africa and Madagascar, urging them to give a serious pastoral attention to African Traditional Religion, incorrectly called "animism", the letter says.13 As reasons for the urgent need for such a pastoral attention the letter states, among others, that "African Traditional Religion forms the religious and cultural context in which the majority of African Christians lived and are still living." The letter contends that "many Christians, at the critical moments of their life, have recourse to the practices of traditional religion: to prayer houses, centres of healing, to 'prophets, to sorcery or fortune tellers." Besides, says the letter, "traditional religion is still vibrant and dynamic in Africa, even though this varies from country to country". "Even some intellectual elite of some African countries declare themselves adherents to traditional religion", the letter affirms. The letter re-echoes the position of the Church with regard to her religions in the words:

The Church respects the religions and the cultures of peoples, and wishes that in her contact with them, to preserve all that is noble, true and good in their religion and their culture.

The letter envisages a fruitful dialogical encounter between Christianity and African Traditional Religion with promises of a mutual enrichment for both:

In the measure where traditional religion will be better understood by the messengers of the Gospel, Christianity will also be presented to Africans in a more appropriate fashion. A study of traditional religion will identify the underlying felt needs of Africans, and clarify the manner in which Christianity can respond to them. This way, the Church will be at home in Africa, and Africans will feel more and more at home in the Church.

The letter thus recommends dialogue with traditional religion to take place at two levels, first, "with the people who adhere to traditional religion and who do not yet desire to become Christians." With such persons, "dialogue has to be understand in the ordinary sense of encounter, of mutual understanding, of respect and a mutual search of the will of God". Second, 'with those who desire to become Christians, and with Christians converted from traditional religion, the dialogue has to be understood in a wider sense of a pastoral approach to traditional religion, in view to present the Gospel of our Saviour Jesus Christ in an appropriate manner so that the Church takes deeper roots on African Soil".

As part of the pastoral attention to traditional religion the letter calls for appropriate research centres to be established for research purposes into traditional religion, to discern the "principal tenets of its beliefs: particularly God the Creator, the place of the spirits of the ancestors, the fundamental rites in this religion, sacrifice, priesthood, prayer, marriage, the human soul, life after death, religion and the moral life". The letter strongly recommends that ATR be part of the curriculum and study programmes of seminaries religious houses of formation.

This letter of the President of the Pontifical Council or Inter-Religious Dialogue is the first of its kind to come from very high ecclesiastical circles, a Roman Congregation, to pronounce directly and elaborately on the need for the Church, particularly in Africa and Madagascar, to take ATR seriously, to give it urgent pastoral attention, to study it, and to enter into dialogue with it. Undoubtedly, too, it gave birth and greater impetus to efforts already contemplated or initiated in research work on ATR by theological faculties and ecclesiastical institutes of higher learning such as at Kinshasa, Nairobi, Abidjan and Port Harcourt, as well as the teaching of ATR in major Seminaries. The letter is a main inspiration for the various dialogue commissions on the diocesan, provincial, national, inter-regional and international levels.

The Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue has since religiously promoted dialogue with traditional religion, with ATR receiving great attention because of the relatively large area of its influence. For instance, at the November 1995 Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, ATR received substantial attention. The idea of holiness in African Traditional Religion was examined, as well as the motivations within traditional religions (with focus on ATR) for dialogue with Christianity.14 The same Pontifical Council organized recently in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a Colloquium on the theme "The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Encounter with Traditional Religions". This was from July 29th to August 3rd, 1996. African Traditional Religion received prominent attention at this Colloquium as theologians, including several Bishops mostly from French speaking West Africa, reflected attentively on Traditional Religions and their place in God's plan of salvation. Recommendations made at the Colloquium include the intensification of dialogue with traditional religion, teaching traditional religion in seminaries and religious houses of formation, and promoting research into traditional religion in ecclesiastical institutes of higher learning.

A Break with the Past

What we have done so far is to present those documents of the Church which have made a direct and an explicit pronouncement on African Traditional Religion. These statements, as we have pointed out, are few and also very recent, as they back to the Second Vatican Council. Hitherto, and before the Second Vatican Council, the Church had a generally negative attitude towards non-Christian peoples and their religions. Until the Second Vatican Council, non-Christian religions, for theological reasons, were hardly ever the subject of positive appraisal by the Church; if there was a reference to non-Christian religions, it was either to negatively contrast them with Christianity, the only true religion, because it is revealed, or to condemn them.

On the other hand it has to be admitted that the Church has, in many magisterial pronouncements, both before and after Vatican II, made some fine statements on respect for the cultures particularly of people in mission lands. Magisterial directives are also abundant on the comportment of missionaries in regard to the cultures of those to be evangelized. Even if, for the most part, these documents speak generally of respect for culture and do not usually make explicit mention of religion, but as an indispensable component of culture regard for religion is sometimes implied. This is particularly the case in the Vatican II and post-Vatican II documents. Besides, the documents form a necessary background to understanding the place of African and their religious traditions in these documents of the Church. We shall make a brief presentation of them, dividing them into two categories, namely, Vatican II and post-Vatican II documents, and Pre-Vatican II documents respectively. Following our methodology, we shall highlight first some Vatican II and post-Vatican II Documents on culture, and then the pre-Vatican II ones.

On the threshold of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII, (the Pope of the Council), in Princeps Pastorum of 28th November, 1959, directs that missiology be instituted in the curriculum of local seminaries in mission lands. One of the aims of this instruction was, in the words of the Pope, to sharpen "the students' minds, so as to enable them to form a true estimate of the cultural traditions of their own homelands, especially in matters of philosophy and theology, and to discern the special points of contact which exist between these systems and the Christian religion."15 This directive was in line with the teaching of earlier Popes, such as Benedict XV, Pius XI and Pius XII; but it more perfectly forms a bridge between these earlier teachings and that of the Second Vatican Council.

In Lumen Gentium 13 and Ad Gentes 22, the Second Vatican Council, in appreciating the customs and ways of life of each people, insists on the need for the missionary effort to assimilate these into the patrimony of the Church. In Evangelii Nuntiandi 20 Paul VI makes mandatory the incorporation of human cultures into the building up of the kingdom of God as a necessary requisite of evangelization in today's world. And John Paul II in such documents as Catechesi Tradendae 53, Redemptoris Missio 52-54, and Ecclesia in Africa 42-43, makes dialogue with cultures as an essential component of evangelization and gospel proclamation.

Several pre-Vatican II papal documents, particularly those on the missions, contain fine expressions of the Church's appraisal of local culture. These documents however exhibit the following characteristics. First, they manifest an overt disparity between the theoretical affirmation of other cultures and the practical application in the mission field. Second, the theoretical affirmation of cultures of peoples did not include an affirmation of their traditional religions; in fact the documents pessimistically portray the ultimate fate of the so-called "heathen peoples". And third, with regards to Africa, in practice both African culture and traditional religion were largely negated. Coupled with this was an apparent downgrading of the African personality itself.

Already in the 7th century, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), in a letter to Abbot Melitus,16 the missionary companion of St. Augustine of Canterbury, indicates what principles were to be observed in their missionary apostolate among the English. The letter explicitly requested Augustine not to "destroy the temples of the gods, but rather the idols within those temples." The temples themselves were to be purified with holy water, and have altars and relics of saints placed in them thus converting them, as the letter says, "from the worship of demons to the service of the true God".

The psychology here is quite sound. In the words of Gregory the Great, the people "seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed.. will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God". This way, the Pope envisaged a continuity and newness between the ancient religion of the English people and their new faith. In the thinking of Gregory the Great, the English people, being allowed to retain their places of worship, more readily would accept the mystery of Christ celebrated in them.

In 1959, the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide, gave the following instruction to Vicars Apostolic of foreign missions:

Do not in any way attempt, and do not on any pretext persuade these people to change their rites, habits and customs, unless they are openly opposed to religion and good morals. For what could be more absurd than to bring France, Spain, Italy or any other European country to China?17

Clearly, the Sacred Congregation was anxious for the respect of the local traditions and customary practices of the people in the missions. The problem, however, is that theory and practice did not always tally in the application of official Church directives. A case in point was the question of the so-called Chinese rites concerning the veneration of the ancestors. These were to ironically and effectively challenge the Sacred Congregation's very principles of cultural tolerance. In the case of these rites of ancestral veneration, the Italian Jesuit priest and missionary of China, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) had authorized the cult of Confucius and other rites to the dead as non-superstitious and hence compatible with Christian faith and morals. But the polemics that ensured after his death among missionaries led to the final condemnation of these rites by Pope Benedict XIV in his decree Ex Quo Singulari in 1742. These rites were however to be re-approved by Pius XI in 1935 as essentially non-religious, and his successor Pius XII in 1939, in his Instructio circa quasdam caeremonias super ritibus Sinensibus, did not only reinstate the traditional Chinese funeral rites and the cult of the familial dead, but abrogated the censures imposed against them by Benedict XIV.18 This noteworthy event on the part of Pius XII, put an end to the long drawn out controversy over the Chinese and Japanese rites of veneration of the ancestors and other rites linked with patriotic festivities which had, for three centuries, weakened the missionary endeavours of the Church in Asia, occasioning bitter quarrels between missionaries themselves.

Pius XII himself, in his first encyclical letter, Summi pontificatus, demonstrated his own positive approach to local culture. Outlining the principle of adaptation which, according to him, must pervade the entire activity of the Church in mission countries, the Pope considered it right for all nations to preserve and develop their cultural patrimony. He based his doctrine on the unity of the human race, and the equality of all men. It was thus the duty of the Church to assume such cultural patrimony into the new churches. As he says:

The Church of Christ.. cannot and does not think of depreciating or disdaining the peculiar characteristic which each people, with jealous and understandable pride, cherishes and retains as a precious heritage. (Therefore) all that, in such usages and customs, is not inseparably bound up with religious errors will always be the object of sympathetic consideration, fond whenever possible, will be preserved and developed..19

And in the Address to the Directors of Pontifical Mission Works in 1944, he again emphasizes that:

The specific character, the traditions, the customs of each nation must be preserved intact, so long as they are not in contradiction with the divine law. The missionary is an apostle of Jesus Christ. His task is not to propagate European civilization in mission lands. Rather, it is his function so to train and guide other peoples, some of whom glory in their ancient and refined civilization, as to prepare them for the willing and hearty acceptance of the principles of Christian life and behaviour.20

It is in his encyclical Evangelii Praecones that his thought on the need to promote the local culture as a principle of missionary acculturation in most explicitly expressed. Quoting extensively from his two earlier documents, the Summi Pontificatus, and the address to the Directors of Pontifical Mission Works, Pius XII lays down, as a matter of principle, the Church's attitude toward local culture in her missionary activity:

Another end remains to be achieved, and we desire that all should fully understand it. The Church from the beginning down to our own time has always followed this wise practice: let not the gospel, in being introduced into any new land, destroy or extinguish whatever its people possess that is naturally good, just or beautiful. For the Church, when she calls people to a higher culture and a better way of life under the inspiration of the Christian religion, does not act like one who recklessly cuts down and uproots a thriving forest. No, she grafts a good scion upon the wild stock that it may bear a crop of more delicious fruit.21

Pius XII based himself on a fairly optimistic assessment of human nature, which "has in itself something that is naturally Christian... (Thus) the Catholic Church", he says, "has neither scorned nor rejected the pagan philosophies".22 In this Pius XII, to an important extent, anticipated the teaching of Vatican II in declaring that "whatever there is in the native customs that is not inseparably bound up with and error will always receive kindly consideration, and, when possible, will be preserved intact".23

This statement of Pius XII however underscores also the predominantly pre-Vatican II attitude towards traditional religion, particularly in the African context. Unfortunately, traditional religion, as is well known, was collectively and negatively branded as "superstition" and was considered erroneous. It never therefore received kindly consideration, neither was it thought worthy of preservation. Unfortunately, also, it was not only traditional religion that was negatively appraised; the ultimate fate of non-Christian peoples themselves was pessimistically viewed.

Pope Benedict XV, in his Pontificate, had approved an extensive missionary policy for the preaching of the gospel. His encyclical letter, Maximum illud, of November 30th, 1919, is considered "The Magna Carta of modern Catholic Missiology", as subsequent missionary documents of popes have taken inspiration from it. But the expansive missionary policy of Benedict XV was however motivated by what Raymond Hickey considers "his pessimistic appraisal of the ultimate fate of non-Christian peoples." "A much more rigid interpretation of the axiom extra ecclesiam nulla salus was commonly taken at time",224 he says. Thus, Benedict XV, in Maximum illud, speaks pessimistically of "the numberless heathen who are still sitting in the shadows of death. According to recent statistics their number accounts to a thousand million..."25 He laments the "sad fate of this multitude of souls", to whom has to be extended the "benefits of divine redemption".26 Addressing the bishops, "in whose hands are placed the salvation of the world", he speaks of a "divine task... to light the torch of those sitting in the shadows of death, and open the gate of Heaven to those who rush to their destruction.27 And, addressing religious superiors and heads of religious congregations devoted to the missions, he requests that missionaries, after having "successfully accomplished their task and converted some nation from unhallowed superstition to the Christian faith and having founded there a church with sufficient prospects, they should be transferred, as Christ's forlorn hope, to some other nation to snatch it from Satan's grasp."28 It is a sacred obligation for the faithful to support the mission among the "infidels", for no one stands in greater need of "our brotherly assistance than the gentile races which, in ignorance of God, are enslaved to blind and unbridled instincts and live under the awful servitude of the evil one"29.

Pius XI's Rerum Ecclesiae makes similar statements: the apostolic preachers make "smooth the way to salvation for heathen nations",30 that is, those still "deprived of the Christian religion",31 and are "white for harvest".32 It is his God-given duty that "as long as divine providence shall continue us in life, this duty of our apostolic office shall keep us always solicitous because after pondering on the fact that the pagans still number almost a billon, we have no peace in our spirit."33 There is no charity, he says, so great as "having them withdrawn from the darkness of superstition and instructed in the true faith of Christ".34 He recommends that a prayer be said every day by Christians that the "divine mercy may descend upon so many unhappy beings and upon such populous pagan nations".35 Thus, the missionary, ambassador of Christ, was to "bravely face all hardships and difficulties, work, insults, poverty, hunger and even death however cruel, as long as he can snatch a soul from the mouth of hell".36

Besides the pessimism, in the documents is also noticed a marked tendency to contrast a civilized and a superior Christian or western culture, from where the missionaries came, with the "backward" and inferior cultures of non-Western peoples to be evangelized. Evangelization itself had taken on the added dimension of cultural advancement and the civilization of the so-called uncivilized peoples. Africans, no doubt, fell into this category. Hence the papal documents generally identify as "backward" those peoples who were as yet unopened to European civilization. Mission therefore among African peoples, besides "snatching souls", and liberating the multitude of "unhappy beings" from "unbridled instincts" and "dark superstitions", had the added dimension of civilizing the accursed descendants of Ham.37 The very nature of mission was thought to be determined by this additional exigency of imparting "the light of the gospel and the benefits of Christian culture and civilization to the peoples sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death".38

Hence we find the frequent use of such ethnocentric terms as "savages", "uncivilized", barbarous peoples", alongside the more religious ones such as "heathens", "infidels", "pagans", and "pagan nations" in the two papal pronouncements, that is, Benedict XV's Maximum illud, and Pius XI's Rerum Ecclesiae. These encyclicals incidentally coincided with the hey-days of the intense European imperialist activity in Africa. They therefore reinforce the cultural dimension of western Christian expansion with its tendency to look down on, or downgrade all non-Western cultures as backward. "Pagan territories" were identified as those "vast territories which are still unopened to Christian civilization.. the immense number still deprived of the fruits of redemption".39 To be civilized was to be Christian, and vice versa. Pius XI exhorts bishops in Christian countries not to put any obstacles in the way of young men, ecclesiastic students or priests who wished to offer their lives in the service of "the heathens, particularly those who are still savages and barbarians".40

Even when, concerning the equality among European and native missionaries, Pius XI stresses that "he errs grievously who considers such natives as of an inferior race, and of obtuse intelligence", he nonetheless concedes: "But if you find extreme slowness of mind in the case of men who live in the very heart of barbarous regions, this is due to the conditions of their lives, for, since the exigencies of their lives are limited, they are not compelled to make great use of their intelligence.."41 It was common of the period to readily stigmatize Africans with intellectual morbidness.

The additional motivating force behind the missionary enterprise, as appears in these papal documents, was therefore that the barbarous peoples", by being evangelized would reap the benefits of "Christian civilization". Benedict XV, for instance, speaks of "countries where the Catholic Faith has been preached for several centuries, nations who have fully seen the light of the gospel (and) have reached such a degree of civilization as to possess men distinguished in every department of secular knowledge."42 Attaining to a high degree of civilization was apparently the same as "seeing the light of the gospel". And in this the missionary Bishop, Joseph Blomjous, is in perfect agreement:

This was because the Europeans at that time saw their own culture and their own religion in so bright a light that anything else seemed like night in comparison. This explains why the missionaries of old did not acknowledge African culture as much as they should have done, nor did they build their message upon it.43

As pointed out earlier on, we find here amply portrayed the paradoxical tension between, on the one hand, the positive theoretical affirmation of, and respect for local culture, so well pronounced in Church statements, and, on the other, the negative practical application in the missionary situation, particularly in Africa. On the level of official Church pronouncements, the Catholic Church has always manifested her great solicitude for a genuine regard for, and respect of the ways of life of the people in the missions. This attitude is quite in line with the early tradition of the Church to assume into Christianity whatever was good in the ways of life of a people and gradually to eradicate what was not compatible with it. Unfortunately, says Raymond Hickey, this "attitude was not always accepted by those in the field".44 In the case of Africa, Bishop Blomjous explains why:

The Missionaries of old were not unintelligent fools without any foresight who wanted to destroy ruthlessly all the cultural values and customs of the Africans. On the contrary, many of them had an extraordinary good appreciation of the realities of life and serious attempts were made to bring about a mutual penetration and cross-fertilization between Christianity and the African heritage. In spite of this, however, when it came to concrete questions of adaptation, the majority of missionaries had a negative attitude. Why was this? It was perhaps precisely because they were too much aware of the realities of life. The Africa of that time was perhaps not quite as idyllic as the ethnologists and Africans of today describe it. One has only to think of the slavery among the African tribes, of the poisonings, of the misuse of power by sorcerers, of the abuses of polygamy and child-marriage and of the cruelties practiced against people of other tribes. The missionaries became simply disillusioned and alarmed. They compared all this with the relationship in the families in which they had grown up and they began to condemn what they say in Africa."45

Bishop Blomjous blames this on the ethnocentrism of human weakness: "Is it not a general human weakness to regard one's own people as the best? Wasn't there, and isn't there still, even in Africa, a tribal selfishness which judges disapprovingly of other tribes?"46

But the issue definitely goes much deeper than a simple freak in human nature, even if the charge of ethnocentrism is substantially correct. The Church's evangelization, as has already been pointed out, often took on the dimension of cultural domination. Having carried with it the same ethnocentric attitude that was so typical of 19th century European imperialist expansion, it had found its justification in a faith in a universal superior culture. The papal documents considered above have lent credence to the classicist mentality which greatly determined the Church's attitude toward Africans and their religions. It is an attitude characterized by the presuppositions of what David Westerlund calls "a theology of discontinuity".47 This involved a total disruption or break with the African religious past in order to advance to "a higher culture and a better way of life under the inspiration of the Christian religion".48

What we find at play here is both the classicist mono-cultural outlook, and the predominantly underdeveloped pre-Vatican II theology of salvation in which missionaries were trained. In addition to official Church directives were the strict instructions of the founders of congregations to missionaries to learn local languages, respect local customs, study and diligently record them. It was, for instance, the conviction of Cardinal Lavigerie, Founder of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers), that "(these) could be of very great interest, even for theology".49 In the case of Africa, it is thanks to the missionaries that the African oral languages were developed into written languages, and he recordings of local customs by the missionaries have become sources for the historical and cultural study of these peoples. This they did long before the field-work anthropologists took interest in research among African peoples.

This notwithstanding, missionaries who were to implement official Church directives in practice never involved themselves in any real dialogue particularly with African religious culture. The early missionary endeavour represented, as it were, a meeting of two outlooks—two world views—which not only remained mutually closed to one another but were, in fact, mutually opposed to each other. Aylward Shorter is quite right when he says that Christianity's "first contact with Africa tended to be uncompromising, intolerant-even violent".50 It is a tragedy, he says, that the "early missionary endeavour in Africa never produced a confrontation or a meetings between African religious thought-systems and the thinking of 19th century European Christianity",51 but a violent confrontation in which, to be Christian the African religious past had to cede to the civilizing influence that Christianity presented itself to be. Shorter blames the inability of missionaries to promote an integration between the Christian message and local cultures that is, to practice inculturation, on the "contemporary classicists theology" in which the missionaries themselves were trained. In his view:

Missionaries were equipped to study languages and respect cultures. They were exhorted to do so by their founders, but they were hindered from real dialogue by their theology, not merely by an under-developed theology of salvation and the Church, but by the very nature of contemporary classicist theology itself.. Before long they became experts in the social institutions and practices of the people they served, but the theology they imbibed during their training prevented them from making any positive use of their newly acquired knowledge. It is as if they were studying non-Christian cultures only to condemn them, or at least to bypass them.52

For the most part, the mono-cultural outlook which obtained largely between the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council, and which underlay the contemporary classicist theology hindered any integration between Christianity and African traditional culture, so that "even when ethnographic researches of Christian missionaries revealed the new riches of African religious thought to the world, the Church was resigned to condemning the very object of her interest". And even when the papal call was clear that "the herald of the gospel and message of Christ is an apostle.. his office does not demand that he transplant European civilization and culture, and no other, to foreign soil, there to take root and propagate itself",53 in practice this was most often the case, at least as far as Africa was concerned.

Vatican II and the new Perspectives

It certainly is in this regard that Vatican II is a watershed in its theological openness to, and appreciation of the religious traditions and religious values of non-Christian peoples. By contrast, the great solicitude of the pre-Vatican II Church for the respect of local culture and native customs, positive as it was, (even if theory and practice often remained in disparity), nonetheless stopped short of according any legitimacy to other religious traditions besides Christianity. The prevailing theological and cultural climate had no room for overtures of this kind. In carrying the issue to unprecedented levels, Vatican II read well the signs of the times, and seizing upon the Kairos, the "right moment", opened wide the windows, allowing in fresh air to invigorate a new atmosphere of greater understanding and closer cooperation and dialogue between Christian and non-Christian peoples and their religions in the search for, and response to "that truth which enlightens all men" (cf. NA 2).


Rev. Fr. Matthew Hassan Kukah

The approach of the new millennium offers us as Christians a new incentive to chart new courses for our project of evangelisation in answer to the words of Jesus: Go out and preach to all nations. This is the mission of the Church. But the environment for preaching the Word has changed so much today. As it is clear, we have moved from being a global village to being a global neighbourhood. These developments for obvious reasons have implications for every area of our individual, community, national and international lives. There is an intense competition for the markets of the souls, hearts and minds of the human race. Those in search of these new markets for their goods, in whatever shape or form, are compelled to break new boundaries and build new alliances. One form of development displaces another with much ease and abandon. When the telegram came, it was hailed as an incredible breakthrough; then the telephone and telex came. Now the World Wide Web, known variously as the Information Superhighway or the Internet is the new idol. With just one click of the computer you can gain access to information about just anything under the sun. People with all kinds of goods to market, ranging from space information, stock markets, new cults, lesbianism, homosexuality, religious movements, music, to the most lurid pornographic information, are in the Internet. Last year a French Catholic bishop, who was expelled from his diocese for pastoral reasons, announced to the world through the Internet that he had now created a diocese on the Internet. He requested prospective followers to gain access to the new diocese through the Internet!

It is therefore pertinent that we ask ourselves what the implications of these developments are for Christianity and our continent. There are many reasons why we should be prepared to deal these developments rather than wonder whether we are to wage battle with them, embrace them or just let them be. To answer these questions, I will first ask what we mean by non-Christian religious movements. Then I will try to look at what aspects of these new religions we as Christians can learn from or collaborate with. Finally I will examine the main issues against the background of the New Millennium.

What are non-Christian religious movements?

Given the very sad experiences of the past, the very fact that we are even referring to non-Christian religions as religions, today is a great step forward. The experiences of our people with Christianity tells us very sad stories of these encounters between Christianity and non-Christian religions in Africa and elsewhere. Our case remains a very delicate one today due to new developments around the world. Those cultures which resisted Christianity in most parts of Asia have now discovered a new role for traditional religions in their social, cultural and political lives. Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism resisted Christianity on the grounds of their pride in the fact that they believed that their religions predated Christianity.

In Africa more resilient cultures were able to withstand the lock stock and barrel influence of Christianity on traditional religions. The problem of new converts who found themselves in this unfortunate world was that they ended up prisoners in a buffer zone between Christianity and their Traditional religions which they left behind. Their seeming spiritual and cultural aphroditism were later to become the objects of derision in African literature. Under such titles as Things fall apart, No longer at ease, People of the city, No past no present no future, or King Lazarus, African writers were able to place the impact of these confused world views on Africa and Africans.

Today, with hindsight, some of our courageous African scholars were quick enough to take on the gauntlet and challenge the traditional assumptions by white missionaries about African religions. They include some of the early men of vision such as James Mbiti, Bolaji Idowu, Kwesi Dickson or Ikenga Metuh, to mention a few. Their works have raised the yellow card and argued that for us to be genuinely Christian, we need not abandon being Africans. Indeed, it is argued, to be a good Christian, one has to be first of all a good African. In the document Nostra aetate the Catholic Church has also brought these problems to light. But, as they say, old habits do die hard, indeed if they do. We are therefore compelled to ask, what does the task of dialogue with Africa's non-Christian religious movements entail? Does it entail an admission of failure, an act of guilt cleansing, or a mere soporific? It is possible to categorise these non-Christian religious movement into three broad areas:

Traditional religion

In the wake of the strain and stresses of colonial rule, Christianity was perceived as a foreign effort to displace the old power and replace it with a new power. As such, there were those who believed that they could not risk the loss of the salvation which meant unity with their ancestors for the salvation which meant unity with foreigners. These preferred to retain an ethnic purity of sorts, and for them therefore Ifa Religion, practised by the children of Oduduwa, the Yorubas, would be seen as a better guarantee of their collective salvation This, in the mind of the worshippers, was to be seen as a continuation of the lives of the children of Oduduwa with their ancestors rather than unity with strange peoples of all shades and colours which universal religions offer. These have been the guiding principles of traditional religions in Africa where it is believed that these gods are better placed to answer the questions and problems related to the trials and tribulations of the community here on earth. Many of those who continue to hold on to this are largely uneducated, having totally refused to embrace Christianity of any sort in the first place. For many reasons, they have come to consider those who converted to Christianity as the renegades, and in their hearts they pray that they will one day be converted.

But at the same time, there are many of them, like my grandmother, who reasoned rather differently at her time. She reasoned thus: Had God wanted their generation to embrace this new religion, He would have sent them to the earth much later or sent the religion itself much earlier. She always believed that everyone would give an account to God based on how they responded to the divine dictates of their environment, and that included religion. It is not for nothing, she would argue, that God gave each people their religion. If the white men think it is so easy to leave one's religion, why do they not leave their own and join our own? People like her thank the white man for the education and progress which the new religion has brought (since conversion was seen to be synonymous with western education!). Those in this bracket are by and large very friendly towards Christianity and many of them made various sacrifices such as giving out land and so on for the development of the Churches in various areas. There is, however, a second generation of practitioners of traditional religion to whom we shall turn.

Backsliders to non-Christian religions in Africa

There are those who have converted to African Traditional Religion at later stages of their lives. Their conversions have often not been as a result of any reading of literature of their new religions or any form of direct spiritual experiences derived from sermons or so. The key to conversion tends to be protest against Christianity as an organised religion. This protest usually follows bitter experiences with Christianity or the West by the new converts. Many are scholars who travelled to the west and came back disillusioned by the lack of Church attendance in the west, immorality and seeming ungodliness, racism, other forms of discrimination or some other reasons based on personal experiences. They then claim that Christianity was a masquerade deployed by the west in its colonisation mission to Africa. Since colonisation cost us so much in human life, economy and culture, the only way to redeem ourselves is to go back to our roots and abandon foreign religions, they argue. We can recall here the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ife, Professor Abimbola, who claims he is an Ifa High Priest, the late Fr. Damuah of Ghana who renounced Christianity and founded what he called the Africanian Religion, or Fr. Bede Onuohah who left the Catholic priesthood and joined what they now call Godianism as a truly African religion of our ancestors. These men and women in various ways hope to restore Africa's power and glory through the spirits of our African ancestors. For them, African problems can only be solved by African gods.

Foreign non-African religions in Africa

Again under this banner are some fractions and factions of the elite and semi-elites of Africa. Some of the founders may have travelled while their acolytes may not necessarily have travelled out themselves. These religions enjoy converts from various segments of African society and the reasons are also varied. But we can hazard a guess as follows:

There are those converted as those above, by frustration with Christianity's inability to answer their urgent questions in personal life and African life. Some of them do not wish to go back to African religions as such, but they find in Oriental religions an attraction that approximates third world spiritual solidarity as against western imposition. Some are attracted by the semi-magical powers of occultism and orientalism. These religions indulge in semi-occult practices. This is the message of those who call themselves perfect masters! Hare Krishna and the leader Guru Maharaji who promises his followers all kinds of power as he himself is the perfect master, would come under this.

There are those however who see non-Christian religions as other added appellations. They develop an ecumenical approach to religion and argue that in Africa, the more the better (whether children or wives), and they do not wish to be weighed down by the stringent practices of Christianity. In any case, some argue, these are not new religions, just new ways of conceptualising the modern world. This is what Abdu Rushin's Grail Movement is talking about. Members claim that they have not renounced Christianity as such, but that the Grail Movement is not in itself a religion. It is more of an experience and a new knowledge that arises from the eternal light that comes from knowledge of the eternal light. Their claims hover between religion and philosophy. The Rosicrucians make similar claims. However, for all intents and purposes, it is clear that for the modern African, membership in these para-religious organisations is part and parcel of efforts at access to power within the bureaucracy, political and economic systems.

Finally, there are those who believe that one religion is as good as the other anyway and that life and its problems are so complex, you need to learn more than one language to get by. As such, there are those who claim a mish-mash of religious identities. One often hears Nigerians talk of being MusliChrist. They are like the advertiser's ware which says: "For this corner, dem day there, for that corner, dem dey there." And in any case, you do not know what problem you will face at any time. It is therefore better to have standby gods. As the problems of life come, they argue, you need to confront them with the various gods according to what language they may be called upon to speak.

Challenges of the non-Christian religions in the new millennium

It is evident that religion has become one of the greatest sources of power in our day. From the role of religion in the fall of the Soviet Union to its role in the Islamic revolution in Iran, the signals are the same everywhere. The rise in the tone of religious fundamentalism now shows that whether Christians like it or not, they are going to be confronted from two opposite directions. First of all, internally, Christianity will face the challenge of its restless adherents who are bound to ask, "If such and such a religion has done such and such for its adherents in their quest for power, how come our own religion cannot do it for us?" Priests and religious may be sheltered from the vagaries of politics, but the same cannot be said of those who seek extra milage because of religion. We must find answers for our people in their struggles to remain faithful to their Christian ideals in an angry world characterised by vengeance, corruption and injustice.

On the external level, there is the increasing belief within Islamic circles that with the fall of Communism, Islam is destined to rule the word now. This explains the aggressive action of say, the members of the Talaban Movement in Afghanistan who insist on subjecting every little territory and its people whom they conquer to immediate Islamic rule by Sharî`a. As a result, we shall conclude our observations by raising some few salient points which should guide our deliberations.

First of all, what is the future of a secular state today? Rabid fundamentalists believe that there is nothing like a secular state and that the only relationship between a secular state and a theocratic state is a permanent state of war with those they consider to be infidels. Violence has become their signature in their misguided quest. Unfortunately for us, the new attitudes towards morality and freedom expressed in the upsurge of skewed moral behaviour raises great challenges as to what we perceive to be freedom of religious expression. We have Afghanistan, Iran and Algeria to show. All states seeking democracy must find ways of insulating religion from the rabid fanaticism that threatens to undermine the integrity of the religions which these fanatics pretend to represent.

Secondly and almost as a corollary, there is the need to understand that unless members of both major religions get together very seriously and urgently, they run the risk of leaving the moral high ground as an open play field for all kinds of dubious religious claims and quests.

As the magic year 2,000 approaches, we are going to continue to witness endless claims of miracles and so on. The resurrection of such terrifying experiences as we had with Jim Jones and his Jonestown in 1980 across the United States, Japan and Europe should warn us that the endless quest for new things that characterises modern life threatens to take the world to a dangerous precipice. We dreamt of housing, education, food and health for all by the year 2,000. None of that shows any signs of coming to being. Instead, our people are getting increasingly devious and corrupt in all ways, shapes and forms. It is therefore understandable though not acceptable to us that many minds are seeking ways of expressing this search in a season of moral anomie. The minds of men and women will remain open battle fields for all kinds of new ideas for a long long time.

There is the added problem of youth, who are the most vulnerable. In fact, for the Catholic Church in particular, there is need for us to become much more conscious of our duty and programmes for our youth. We have largely left them unattended, especially at the level of their tertiary education. We must not forget that this is the most crucial state of their growth. The Holy Father's concern for world youth, their dreams and aspirations are constantly being restated in his bi-annual meetings with youth. We may recall that to a large extent Nigeria has not been very well represented in these meetings. Our youth programmes must become more imaginative. The programme currently being pursued by the National Secretary of the Lay Apostolate Department in collaboration with Muslim Youth is to be encouraged indeed. We need to clarify our thoughts, restate more vigorously the Catholic Church's social teachings and so on.

There is the increasing effort to make the new religious movements look like threats to Christianity. We need not see them so. We must renew our belief in freedom of religion and remain open to the challenges and dynamic of these new movements. From them we can learn a few things such as commitment and sacrifice. Rather than to see new ideas as threats or enemies to be destroyed, we must renew our commitment to our own beliefs. Sometimes our quest to imitate others makes us run the risk of being very poor copies in the end. Our religions have long histories of failures, but we must not forget that there have been and there will be more triumphs ahead for our Faith. That is the meaning of the Resurrection, dying and rising. In the end, like good old Gamaliel who warned that if teachings are from God they cannot be stopped, but if they are human ingenuities, they will wither with time on their own. Caution is necessary to avoid us fighting God (Acts 5:30).


Rev. Fr. E.I. Ikenga-Metuh, "Inculturating values in African Traditional Religion"

Pentecostals and Evangelicals reject ATR and inculturation and yet attract youth for various reasons. One is the prestige and authority that literacy and the Bible give. Also Pentecostalism offers spiritual power as a means of success in this life. It also provides good music, dance and trance. Thus they inculturate through the back door.

There is need to distinguish between authentic ATR values and deviations from these; thus Bolaji Idowu maintained that monogamy is the true African tradition.

Some Catholic teachings, such as the Communion of Saints, are hardly preached on, but could have deep meaning for our people, especially on the occasion of deaths and their anniversaries.

The question was also raised why people fear what is sacred to ATR, but have no fear of robbing priests etc. Are we failing to preach God's justice, or do we fail to present the mysteries of the Faith as something sacred?

Attention with discernment are needed when it comes to deliverance from evil spirits.

Rev. Fr. Paul Bekye, "African Traditional Religion in Church documents"

Literature on ATR, especially Church documents, should be made available to the AECAWA Commission and their message disseminated among the people. They should be armed both against a totally negative attitude to ATR and against an uncritcal involvement in ATR practices.

Considerable debate revolved around the proposition that ATR has been in some way a divinely provided means of salvation.

Rev. Fr. Matthew H. Kuka, "Non-Christian religions in Africa: hope and impediments"

Several non-Christian or semi-Christian movements have sprung up in recent times which have had particular attraction among the influential in our society, who are seeking power, holiness or spiritual enlightenment. We should study these movements, educate our Christians about them, and present a Christian spirituality that satisfies the legitimate aspirations of those fascinated by these movements.

We should be careful with the word "cult", realizing that it can be applied to the organisation of Traditional Religious as well as new anti-social organisations.


As part of the preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000, the Inter-Religious Dialogue Commission of the Association of Episcopal Conferences of Anglophone West Africa (AECAWA), meeting at the O.L.A. conference Centre, Maryland, Lagos, from the 8th to the 11th of October 1996, reflected on the theme "Dialogue with African Traditional Religion and the new non-Christian religious movements". Papers were presented and discussed in workshop sessions.

Against the background of the new awareness gained about the Church's teaching on the activity of the Spirit in non-Christian religions, and the values inherent in African Traditional Religion, we hereby make the following recommendations:

1. As the Popes have urged, we should try to appreciate African Traditional Religion as an expression of legitimate religious aspirations. Effort should be made to avoid total condemnation of African Traditional Religion and the negative stance of the past and seek to dialogue with it.

2. To achieve this end, the Church should promote research into African Traditional Religion. Particular areas to be explored as meeting points with Christian faith expression are:

3. Recognising that God has used African Traditional Religion as a providential means of his self-communication, we recommend the development of an inculturated theology of revelation.

4. In our general pastoral approach, while avoiding negative features of African Traditional Religions, we should utilise those positive values that this religion has to offer.

5. A balance should be sought in communicating the authentic Gospel in a way to satisfy the yearnings of the people for traditional values as well as their taste for modern or foreign things.

6. New non-Christian religious movements should be studies and an appropriate pastoral approach developed. However, aware that these movements are eager to be recognised, we should be cautious in dialoguing with them. Their sometimes fantastic claims must be challenged through constant preaching and media contact, through which channels they spread these ideas.


1See, for instance, Paul K. Bekye, Divine Revelation and Traditional Religions, with particular reference to the Dagaaba of West Africa (Rome: Leberit Press, 1991), pp. 46-88.

2 Paul VI, Africae Terrarum, October 29, AAS (1967), pp. 1076-7. See Raymond Hickey, Modern Missionary Documents and African, (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1982), p. 179. Italics ours.

Paul VI, ibid., R. Hickey, ibid., p. 179.


Paul VI, ibid.; R. Hickey, ibid., p. 180.

6Abbot, W., (ed), The Documents of Vatican II (New York: America Press, 1966), p. 662, footnote 9.

7See Austin Flannery, "Nostra Aetate" #2, in Vatican II (New York: Costello Publishing Company, 1987), p. 739.

8 P.K. Knitter, No Other Name: A Critical Survey of Christian Atitudes Toward the World Religions (New York: Orbis Books, 1986), p. 124. See Nostra Aetate, 2.

9Paul VI, Kampala address, AAS 61 (1969), p. 557; Hickey, ibid., p. 204.

10See a collection of these addresses in John Paul II, Africa, Addresses (Bologna: Editrice Missionaria Italiana, 1981).

11John Paul II, The Church in Africa: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation "Ecclesia in Africa", (Nairobi: Pauline Publication, 1995), p. 33.

12Ibid., p. 51.

13See AFER 30 (June 1988).

14 See Bulletin, 1996, 2, Pro Dialogo, Plenary Assembly, 20-24 November 1995.

15See R. Hickey, Modern missionary documents and Africa, pp. 142-143.

16See Epistola 76, PL 77, 1215-1216; also J. Neuner and J. Dupuis (eds.), The Christian faith (London: Collins, 1986), p. 304.

17See Collectanea Sacrae Congregationis de Propaganda Fide (Rome, 1907), 1, 42-43; also Neuner & Dupuis, op. cit., p. 309.

18 See Shorter, Toward a theology of inculturation, pp. 158-159.

19Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus, AAS 31 (1939), pp. 413 ff.; also Neuner & Dupuis, op. cit., p. 315.

20Pius XII, Address to the directors of Pontifical mission works, AAS 36 (1944), p. 210; Neuner & Dupuis, op. cit., p. 317.

21Pius XII, Evangelii Praecones: On promoting Catholic missions, 2 June 1951, AAS 18 (1951), pp. 521-522; Hickiey, Modern missionary documents and Africa, p. 97.

22Pius XII, ibid., p. 522; Hickey, ibid., p. 73.

23Pius XII, ibid., p. 523; Hickey, ibid., p. 99; compare Nostra aetate 2.

24Hickey, ibid., p. 27.

25Benedict XV, Maximum illud: On the propagation of the Faith throughout the world, 30 November 1919, AAS 11 (1919), p. 442; Hickey, Modern missionary documents and Africa, p. 42.

26Benedict XV, ibid., p. 442; Hickey, ibid., p. 42.

27Benedict XV, ibid., p. 446; Hickey, ibid., p. 37.

28Benedict XV, ibid., p. 453; Hickey, ibid., p. 44.

29Benedict XV, ibid., p. 451; Hickey, ibid., p. 42.

30Pius XI, Rerum Ecclesiae: On promoting the sacred missions, 28 February 1926; AAS 18 (1926), p. 66; Hickey, Modern missionary documents and Africa, p. 51.

31Pius XI, ibid., p. 66; Hickey, ibid., p. 51.

32Pius XI, ibid., p. 67; Hickey, ibid., p. 52.

33Pius XI, ibid., p. 67; Hickey, ibid., p. 52.

34Pius XI, ibid., p. 67; Hickey ibid., p. 53.

35Pius XI, ibid., p. 71; Hickey, ibid., p. 55.

36Benedict XV, Maximum illus, p. 450; Hickey, ibid.

37Walbert Bühlmann reports that "from the 18th century there was a 'doctrine', now known to be completely nonsense both ethnologically and exegetically, that they (Africans) were the accursed sons of Ham, (and thast even) at Vatican I, a group of missionary bishops proposed to compose prayers for black Africa, beseeching God to free that continent at last from the curse of Ham". The cursed children of Canaan (cf. Gen 9:18-27), descendants of Ham were thus identified with black Africans. See The coming of the Third Church (New York: Orbis Books, 1978), p. 151.

38Pius, XI, Rerum Ecclesiae, AAS (1926), p. 65; Hickey, ibid., p. 51.

39Pius XI, ibid., p. 70; Hickey, ibid., p. 55.

40Pius XI, ibid.

41Pius XI, ibid., p. 77; Hickey, ibid., p. 64.

42Benedict XV, Maximum illud, p. 446; Hickey, ibid., p. 36.

43See Bühlmann, The missions on trial (New York: Orbis, 1979), p. 74.

44Hickey, Modern missionary docuemnts and Africa, p. 70.

45Blomjous, cited by Bühlmann, The missions on trial, p. 75.

46See Bühlmann, ibid., p. 75.

47Westerlund, African religion in African scholarship (Stockholm: Almquvist & Wiksell International, 1985), p. 50.

48Pius XII, Evangelii Praecones, AAS (1951), pp. 521-522.

49See A. Shorter, Toward a theology of inculturation (London: Geoffrey Chapman).

50Ibid., p. 6.

51A. Shorter, African Christian theology (New York: Orbis, 1977), p. 9.

52A. Shorter, Toward a theology of inculturation, pp. 172 and 165.

53Pius XII, Evangelii Praecones, p. 523; Hickey, ibid.