After last year’s infamous dustup when German Cardinal Walter Kasper dissed the African bishops present in the Vatican synod, the Germans have once again gone after the Church in Africa as poor, ignorant, and socially backward.
A year ago, Cardinal Kasper found himself in the midst of a firestorm when he suggested that the African bishops participating in the Vatican synod on marriage shouldn’t be dictating the topics of the synod discussion, noting textually “They should not tell us too much what we have to do.”
In an interview, Kasper said that “Africa is totally different from the West.” Referring especially to the topic of gays, Kasper said, “You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo.”
And he added that “The questions of Africa we cannot solve.”
Liberal publications rushed to Kasper’s defense, with Commonweal declaring in a headline, “No, Cardinal Kasper is not a Racist.”
Fast forward just over a year, and the German Church is back at it again, this time in reference to Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic.
On the official Catholic website katholisch.de, in an article titled “The Poor, Romantic Church,” author Björn Odendahl offers a series of thoroughly offensive and misbegotten criticisms of the Church in Africa, basically saying that the Church is growing there for all the wrong reasons.
“Of course the Church is growing in Africa,” he writes dismissively. “It is growing because the people are socially dependent and often have nothing but their faith. It is growing because the educational situation there is, on average, rather low and people accept simple answers to difficult problems of faith. Answers like those given by Cardinal Sarah of Guinea [a known opponent of Cardinal Kasper].”
The article comes hard on the heels of a powerful address by Pope Francis in which he calls the German bishops to task for the miserable state of the Church in Germany, so clearly in contrast to the vibrancy of the African Church.
In that speech, Francis suggested that much of the work of the Church in Germany in social work and education needs to be more “Catholic,” and not merely secularly professional.
More importantly, Francis noted there has been “a drastic drop in Sunday Mass attendance” and in the whole of Catholic sacramental life in Germany, especially in traditionally Catholic areas. “Whereas in the 1960s wherever you went almost every Catholic participated in Sunday Mass,” he said, “nowadays it’s often less than ten percent. Fewer and fewer receive the sacraments and the Sacrament of Penance [confession] has all but disappeared.”
“Fewer and fewer Catholics receive the Sacrament of Confirmation or get married in church,” he added, “and the number of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life is severely diminished.”
In 2014, the Catholic Church in Germany lost a greater number of faithful than in any previous year in its history for which there are records: 218,000 people, or 39,000 more than the previous year.
“When we take all these facts into account,” Francis said, “we can speak of a true erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany.”
In the article from the German Catholic website, the author attempts to explain this erosion by contrast to the Africans, whose growing and active communities result from the poor state of African society.
“Even the growing number of priests do not only come from a missionary impulse,” we read, “but also from the fact that the priesthood is one of the few ways to have some social security on the black continent.”
Such seemingly arrogant criticism will not win the Germans many friends among those who look to the growth of Christianity in Africa as a sign of hope, and see its decline in the Old World as a mark not of enlightenment and progress, but of decay.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome