26. Africa, a Continent without Evangelicals

Africa has a central place on the Roman Catholic global map. Contrary to negative trends in the West, Africa is a continent where the RC Church is growing in terms of adherents and vocations to priesthood and religious life. In all its contradictions and in the midst of deep social problems, the “African religious soul” seems to be a fertile soil for the Church. It is not by chance that the RC Church has been increasingly reflecting on Africa over the last twenty years and is apparently investing much energy in trying to foster the RC presence there.

In 1994 John Paul II convened a Synod of bishops on Africa which was followed by the 1995 Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa (i.e. The Church in Africa). The then Pope brought together insights and proposals that would encourage the church’s engagement in the continent. His many trips to Africa testified the same concern. During Benedict XVI’s reign, another Synod of bishops was assembled in 2009. Then, as part of his recent visit to Benin (19th November 2011), Pope Ratzinger signed the Post-Synodal Exhortation Africae Munus (i.e. Africa’s Commitment) which collects and comments upon different issues that were discussed in the Synod.

Africa’s two-fold face

The text is full of praises for the “exceptional ecclesial vitality” of the African church. The soul of Africa is “a spiritual lung for a humanity that appears to be in crisis of faith and hope” (n. 13). Unlike other parts of the world, religion matters in Africa and spirituality is daily bread for most of its peoples. The RC Church is being called to build on this religious sentiment as “Mother and Teacher” drawing upon several sources: “sacred Scripture, Tradition and the sacramental life” which are all combined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 95). In particular, the RC Church is being encouraged to keep on investing in education, protection of life (e.g. health care) and inculturation of the Gospel.

Yet the document does not hide the fact that Africa is also a place where an “anthropological crisis” is taking place with devastating consequences. The age-old foundations of social life are shaken by the allures of modernity. The outcomes of such a culture shock are producing trauma and conflicts everywhere. Benedict XVI therefore is calling the Church to be an agent of reconciliation, justice, and peace.

According to Pope Ratzinger, Africa presents a two-fold face: on the one hand it’s flourishing as far as the pervasive role of religion is concerned, on the other it’s worrying as far as the severe contradictions of its present-day situation are concerned.

A defective religious landscape

What is also interesting in the document is the mapping of the African religious landscape. Benedict XVI describes opportunities and challenges of interreligious dialogue, especially with traditional African religions and with Islam. In this respect, the Pope recalls the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that urged the RC Church “to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions” (n. 92).

            When it comes to surveying the ecumenical dialogue with non-Catholic Christians in Africa, Pope Ratzinger mentions the on-going relationships with the Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist communities (n. 89). These groups seem to be the “good” ecumenical partners of the RC Church.

Then, reference is made to “non-Catholic communities, sometimes known as African Independent Churches” that are “an offshoot of traditional Christian churches and ecclesial communities” (n. 90). We are told that they adopt various elements of traditional African cultures and that they are new in the ecumenical field. Are Evangelical churches in this group? We are not told. If yes, why not qualify them as Evangelicals, which is a widely accepted term? Why refer to them only as “independent” and not in a more theological and historical way? If not, then according to the Pope Evangelicals belong to the last group, i.e. different “syncretistic movements” generally rallied around a leader claiming exceptional gifts that exploits people’s credulity. They are based on “a variety of heterodox, non-Christian beliefs”.

In the Pope’s spectrum on Africa, Evangelicals are missing. In his perception there are the ecumenically minded Christians, the African independent churches, and various local cults. This is curious to say the least. For example, the Association of African Evangelicals (AAE) is part of the World Evangelical Alliance and represents more than 100 million African Evangelicals comprising 36 National Evangelical Fellowships that are made up of numerous local churches. They do not seem to be on the Vatican radar.

The Pope keeps on beating Evangelicals on their heads. In his 2007 visit to Brazil, he did not distinguish between Evangelicals and dangerous “cults” and called them a “sect”. In his September 2011 visit to Germany, he called them a new form of Christianity with little rationality and little dogmatic content. Now, in Africa he ignores them all together. Perhaps Benedict XVI has a problem with Evangelical Christianity.

Leonardo De Chirico


Rome, 30th November 2011

25. The Vatican and the claims of Photoshop

Benedict XVI and Ahmed Tayeb photoshop-kiss

Images can turn the world and large portions of its population upside down. In 2005 a satirical vignette which pictured the prophet Mohammed having a bomb on his head instead of a turban caused outrage in the Muslim world. Millions of Muslims felt offended and thousands of them responded with street demonstrations around the globe. Protests went as far as bombing Danish embassies and pronouncing a fatwa against the cartoonist. An international controversy was aroused over free-speech rights, self-censorship and the respect of religious sensitivities. In the West the general orientation of public opinion perceived the Muslim reaction as grossly overstated and hitting one of the indispensable capstones of Western civilization. However it became clear that the final word could not be said on the issue. The power of images challenges a simple black and white approach. A new case will cause many to further reflect on it.


A Papal kiss to fight hatred?

On November 16th, a huge banner was displayed on Castel Sant’Angelo’s bridge in Rome, right in front of Vatican City. The picture is very impacting and somewhat shocking. In it Pope Ratzinger is kissing an imam who happens to be Ahmed al-Tayyeb, imam of the mosque Al Ahzar in Cairo. The picture is part of an advertisement campaign by Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani on behalf of the fashion industry United Colors of Benetton, whose aim is to fight against the culture of hatred by promoting friendship amongst peoples, cultures and faiths. The campaign will also feature passionate kisses between President Obama and the Chinese President Hu Jintao, between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President Sarkozy, and between Israeli Prime minister Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Abu Mazen. But the religious kiss between the Pope and al-Tayyeb was meant to be the first and perhaps most shocking one of the series.

The Vatican has immediately expressed its indignation for violating the image of the pope, desecrating his dignity, and offending the religious sensitivity of millions of Roman Catholics around the world. The banner was immediately removed but copies of the picture went out around the world, soon becoming one the most clicked on photos of the day. The following day the Vatican announced that Benetton will be sued both nationally and internationally.


Freedom in the era of Photoshop

Controversies over the limits of freedom of expression will undoubtedly rise again. The Vatican has not only appealed against the attack on the individual image of the Pope, but also to the alleged and public scorn and disgust caused to the faithful who recognize the Pope as their leader. While the former criterion is more neatly identifiable, the latter is more difficult to define. It is certainly contrary to the Pope’s dignity to manipulate a picture in which he, a confessed celibate, is pictured as kissing another man, thus indicating a homosexual relationship. If he had agreed to its use, this would have given United Colors of Benetton the right to exploit it. Since this is not the case, it is clearly not right to grossly caricature a man for publicity and business purposes without consent. Moreover, since the picture is counterfeit in sensitive and significant ways, permission is even more necessary, so to speak.

The other argument by the Vatican appears to be weaker and potentially dangerous. In any given matter/situation (i.e. sports, religion, politics) one can always find someone who gets offended by the language used, opinions expressed, or the media employed. Is “offensiveness” a proper legal category that entitles someone to sue someone else? Homosexuals can be “offended” by the Evangelical preacher who publicly reads Romans 1. Secularists can be “offended” by someone speaking of “the creation of the world”. Evangelicals can be “offended” by the Pope referring to them as a cult. The list goes on and on. The legal protection of one’s own dignity is one thing, respecting the “feelings” and “emotions” of different people is another. The former can potentially become a legal case, the latter is better addressed in terms of appropriateness (or lack of it).

The world of Photoshop is a brave new world. Christian ethics must pave a way forward in these difficult, yet unavoidable issues.


Leonardo De Chirico



Rome, 19th November 2011





24. The Vatican and the New Strategy for Impacting the Biotech World

The Vatican is a global player in bioethical debates. Its magisterium has been addressing bioethical issues since the birth of this discipline in the Sixties. Encyclicals like Humanae Vitae (“[The Transmission of] Human Life”, 1968) dealt with contraception in the context of changing sexual habits; Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”, 1993) defended the teaching of the authority of the Church in an age of moral relativism; Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”, 1995) underlined the inviolability of human life in the context of thorny debates about abortion, euthanasia, and medical research involving human embryos.

From the institutional point of view, the Pontifical Academy for Life was established in 1994 as the Vatican department whose mission is defending and promoting the views of the Church in academic and public debates around the world.

Theologically and ethically, Roman Catholic bioethics has been majoring on categories like “nature” (understood rather philosophically and statically), “the sacredness of life” (verging towards the absoluteness of what is a created and transient gift), “person” (conceived in rather monolithic terms and not adequately distinguishing human biology and human biography). More than exploring and developing Biblically supported reasoning, Catholic bioethics has preferred locking itself in natural law and the finality of being.

If secular bioethics has elevated the “ego” as its idol (i.e. whatever the individual decides, that’s fine), Catholic bioethics has tended towards elevating the “bios” as its idol (i.e. the decisive point is wherever and whenever biological life is found). The complexity of life is therefore flattened in both approaches and the Biblical realism about life is left aside.


A New Phase of Bioethical Engagement

Catholic bioethics has become synonymous with ethical conservatism and frequently mocked in public debate dominated by secularist trends. It has always been defending something and has developed a defensive attitude. However, things may change.

A recent move by the Pontifical Council for Culture (another important Vatican department) calls for attention. For the first time ever, the Vatican has signed a contract with a US biotech company (NeoStem) to stir research on adult stem cells. NeoStem is working in the field of regenerative medicine in order to develop cell therapies for autoimmune disorders (e.g. diabetes), heart diseases, and orthopedic ailments. Regenerative medicine using adult stem cells does not destroy human embryos and is therefore ethically legitimate for those who are in the pro-life front.

The Vatican financial investment amounts to 1 million US dollars. Not a big deal, but not an insignificant figure either. An international conference at the Vatican on “Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture” (November, 9-11) hosted the launching of the joint-venture in the biotech industry and the new Vatican engagement in the bioethical arena. The great promises of the use of adult stem cells were highlighted as far as the reduction of human suffering is concerned as well as their full ethical viability. Participants were also granted an audience with Benedict XVI who delivered a speech reinforcing the morality of using adult stem cells over against the immorality of destroying embryo stem cells.



The Two-fold Strategy

The Vatican is well aware that the bioethical debate is very polarized. In the area of regenerative medicine, the embryo stem cells versus adult stem cells debate has taken a very ideological turn. It is more often a clash of opposing worldviews than an informed scientific and moral discussion.

So far the Vatican has tended to embody and support the conservative side of the debate offering philosophical and moral arguments against embryo destruction and for the use of adult stem cells on the basis of Catholic moral theology. The partnership with NeoStem amounts perhaps to a paradigm shift or at least to a broadening of scope. The regenerative medicine battle will not be won by arguments, principles, and values alone. Those who discover sustainable cures first will win the day. So the Vatican, in investing in the adult stem cells industry, shows its willingness to run the race by financing research on adult stem cells with the expectation that it will deliver what it promises before the embryo stem cells industry gets to it. First come, first served.

Of course the Vatican will continue to play its role in the battle by way of its traditional contribution, e.g. through encyclicals, documents, conferences, moral suasion, etc. It will keep on employing its philosophical and theological expertise in order to support its moral framework. It will continue to let its voice be heard through its institutions. Yet this is not enough. For a global player like the Vatican, the bioethical challenges of our day require a new two-fold strategy as a moral reference point and as a financial investor. The Vatican seems to have the know-how and the resources to do both.

Leonardo De Chirico



Rome, 14th November 2011

23. A Year of Faith to commemorate Vatican II and to launch the New Evangelization

Motu proprio (i.e. “on his own impulse”) is a document that comes directly from the initiative of the Pope and which is binding for the Roman Catholic Church. Popes scarcely use motu proprio pronouncements and when they do, its utility underlines the importance of certain decisions they make. Benedict XVI has already employed it in making provisions for the Tridentine Mass to be celebrated everywhere there is a demand for it (2007) and in the prevention of illegal financial activities (2010). The first move was meant to meet the requests of traditionalists whereas the second one was intended to counter wrong practices in Vatican financial affairs. On 11th October 2011, Pope Ratzinger issued another Motu proprio to announce a Year of Faith beginning on 11th October 2012 and ending on 24th November 2013.

A special Year … another one

Roman Catholicism has a unique ability to mark time: holy years (i.e. jubilee years), Marian years, Pauline years, years of faith, etc. all express the willingness to shape time with symbols, themes, events that evoke the “sacredness” of time. The same is true with regard to days, weeks, seasons, etc. The church calendar is stuffed in such a way that it reflects a pervasive worldview which traces time as church-focused and church-centered. In the last Motu proprio, Benedict XVI recalls his predecessor Paul VI who announced a Year of Faith in 1967 when severe criticism mounted against the traditionalist positions of the RC magisterium on sexual ethics. That Holy Year was meant to calm the nerves down and to call for more respectful relationships within the RC church. The coming Holy Year will have a threefold goal: remembering Vatican II, appreciating the Catechism and launching the New Evangelization. By looking backward to Vatican II, the Pope wants to lead forward to the New Evangelization by way of stressing the Church’s well established teaching. These themes will be echoed in the Pope’s catechesis and in special events that will take place during the year.

From Vatican II …

The Year of Faith will commence exactly 50 years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Anniversaries are very important for a historical institution like the RC Church. After half a century the interpretation of Vatican II is still disputed in RC circles. Benedict XVI has already stressed the need to apply a “proper” hermeneutic which underlines both the continuity and the discontinuity brought by Vatican II, striking a “catholic” balance between the two and actually showing the inner dynamics and stability of Rome. The two polarizing trends of reformist (left-wing) and traditionalist (right-wing) readings will be shown totally inadequate to come to terms with the legacy of the Council. “Reformation-in-continuity” will be the buzzword of the Year of Faith. However, will Benedict XVI be able to settle the dispute through the Year of Faith?

… through the Catechism of the Catholic Church …

The second event that the Year of Faith will celebrate is the 20th anniversary of the publishing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It was Cardinal Ratzinger himself who was behind the project as Prefect of the Congregation for Sacred Doctrine and it is Benedict XVI who is reinforcing its value. The Catechism was meant to provide a universal, comprehensive and authoritative tool for RC teaching.

The overlap of anniversaries between Vatican II and the Catechism is no coincidence. The Pope is saying that the Catechism is the “right” reception and application of Vatican II. All those who tend to pull Vatican II on their side should take the Catechism as the already given fidei depositum (i.e. the deposit of faith) for its right appreciation. There is no Vatican II without the Catechism. Joining together the 1962 and 1992 celebrations in the Year of Faith symbolizes the inherent reciprocity between the two.

… to the New Evangelization

Benedict XVI’s intention in announcing the Year of Faith is both backward and forward looking. At the beginning of the Year in 2012, the Pope has called a Synod of Bishops to discuss the New Evangelization, i.e. the project aimed at reaching the baptized who are far from the Church in order to call them back to the fold. In 2010 he set up a new Pontifical Council entirely devoted to this task and now is encouraging the whole body of bishops to embrace it as a world-wide agenda. The idea is that one of the mature fruits of Vatican II is the New Evangelization and that the theological resource for the New Evangelization is given by the Catechism. This is how the economy of RC tradition works: past events become present-day resources in order to foster the on-going agenda of the Church. The Year of Faith will show what it means for RC to be a living tradition.

Leonardo De Chirico


Rome, 3rd November 2011

22. The “spirit” of Assisi 2011

At the beginning of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was going to convene a world meeting in Assisi (Italy) to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1986 day of prayer for peace, launched by his predecessor John Paul II. That event saw representatives of various faith communities gathering together to pray on their own, and also in joint prayer sessions. For many observers, both Evangelicals and more traditional Catholics, Assisi 1986 was a sign of unbiblical universalism and syncretism whereby people of different faith-communities prayed (whatever prayer may mean in an inter-religious context) together under the leadership of the Pope. Critics, many of whom are also in Roman Catholic circles, argued that it is one thing to join forces to promote peace in the world, but a completely different thing to join prayers in common multi-faith petition the way it was done in 1986.


Assisi 2011

After 25 years, Benedict XVI will again invite religious leaders to come to Assisi to pray for peace and justice. Actually, the new official heading of the event is “Day of reflection, dialogue and prayer,” and it will take place on 27th October 2011. The variety of those who have confirmed their participation is impressive:

  • 176 representatives of non-Christian religions (48 Muslims, 67 Buddhists, 7 Hindus, 5 Sikhs, 4 people of traditional African religions, etc.);
  • 31 official delegations from Christian churches and communions (e.g. the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Anglican Communion, the World Council of Churches);
  • Representatives of world Judaism;
  • Several secular intellectuals;
  • Diplomatic delegations (a constant reminder that the Vatican is also a sovereign state with official diplomatic relationships with all the other states of the world).


Ratzinger’s assertive influence is clearly visible in the title of the event. Following criticism that Assisi 1986 encouraged syncretism, the emphasis of the 2011 meeting will be more on common reflection and dialogue between people of different religions and cultures. Prayer only comes as the final marker of the event, but it still there.

The program does not entail a common, public prayer session, but each delegation will pray or reflect (there will also be agnostic participants!) in separate rooms in St. Francis’ convent according to their beliefs and traditions. Moreover, as already indicated, Benedict XVI wanted non-believers, both agnostic and atheist, to be part of the event, involving them in the search for truth and peace. Assisi 2011, therefore, will still be an inter-religious gathering, but the scope of the meeting is larger so as to include people of good will, but not necessarily religious ones. The theme is thus expanded and the audience enlarged.

The day will include sessions with brief speeches by different participants, concluded by a short pilgrimage across the streets of Assisi by the Pope himself. This will represent a final commitment to peace symbolized by the lightening of candles, and a time for meditation in front of St. Francis’s tomb. As for the other sessions, the program will be ended by the Pope who is the convener, host and primary actor of the day. Words, languages, gestures, acts and symbols reflect the richness of the Catholic way of conceiving and implementing inter-religious gatherings which retain the centrality of the RC institution.


Continuity, discontinuity or catholicity?

Will Assisi 2011 be different than its 1986 precedent? It is likely that the measures taken by Benedict XVI will avoid overtly syncretistic practices that characterized the first event. It is certain that many words will be used to explain that each participant retains his own religious identity so as to prevent any misunderstandings.

Yet the beatification of John Paul II (celebrated on 1st May this year) will set the emotional context of the 2011 event, and major points of continuity between 1986 and 2011 will be stressed. The “spirit of Assisi”, with its “what unites us is bigger than what divides us” language, will prevail, especially for the media and public opinion. There will be little room for change in the way the event will be perceived by most people. The “spirit of Assisi” will be possibly confirmed as the only way forward as far as inter-religious relationships are concerned: i.e. setting aside differences, celebrating unity, searching for truth together, appreciating different perspectives on truth, welcoming each other as “brothers and sisters”. This appears to be the “message” of Assisi. Assisi 2011, therefore, will be both in continuity and discontinuity with Assisi 1986, but the overarching combination between 1986 and 2011 will be the expanded catholicity of Roman Catholicism: its ability to think and act globally while retaining its particularity, its ability to join people of all backgrounds without losing its profile, its ability to be center-stage in the relationship between religions and the modern world.

The goal of promoting peace and justice in the world is good and urgent. Yet is inter-religious prayer (in whatever form it takes place) a biblically viable option? Is the religious universalist bent the only way of dealing with different religious traditions? Is the Assisi-type event the best Biblically warranted way to foster peace and justice? The Roman Catholic Church can respond “yes” to all three questions. What about Evangelicals?


Leonardo De Chirico



Rome, 19st October 2011