Academic journal article Theological Studies

African Moral Theology

Academic journal article Theological Studies

African Moral Theology

Article excerpt

[This third section of Notes on Moral Theology is devoted to recent developments in Africa, particularly regarding themes that emerged from the Synod of Africa (1994). The author provides a brief methodological preface before discussing first the role of inculturation in African moral theology. He then analyzes the ethical implications of an inculturated theology of marriage and family life. The third section addresses issues of justice, peace, and social reconciliation. The Note concludes with an assessment of the implications of his study for Western moral theology.]

IF THE CHURCH in the modern world is truly to be a world church,(1) it must, says Elochukwu Uzukwu, have "large ears."(2) This section of the Notes on Moral Theology is devoted to soundings by African moral theologians in the local "sense of the faith" (sensus fidei)(3)--a supernatural reality that Karl Rahner called the "`instinct' of the faithful."(4) After a brief, methodological preface, I consider, in particular, interpretations of motifs recurring in the historic Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops: inculturation with respect to African marriage and family life; and then issues relating to justice, peace, and reconciliation.


Many years ago, the Ugandan poet and scholar Okot p'Bitek warned us against the hubris of trimming African wisdom to fit Western scholarly prejudices, e.g. the "myth of the `primitive'."(5) p'Bitek's critique reminds us that the sense or meaning of ethical behavior is never given tout court, but derives from the complex patterns of belief encoded in our cultural practices.(6) In moral theology, as in the human sciences generally, understanding is always a "knowing of the known."(7) A non-African interpreter must then proceed with even greater modesty, for he or she is implicated in a "triple hermeneutic" of interpreting African theologians' interpretations of the lived sensus fidei.(8) I have accordingly limited the purview of my present inquiry to a set of themes emerging from the local church and prominent in the interpretation of African theologians.(9) And since such a triple hermeneutic engages the interpreter, I conclude the essay by assessing the implications of African moral theology for Western moral-theological scholarship. In listening to the wisdom of the African Church, we are, in effect, reversing the hermeneutical flow of Western scholarly influence: Were our ears a bit larger, what might we learn?


On the feast of the Epiphany (January 6, 1989), John Paul II announced an African Synod on the theme of "The Church in Africa and Her Evangelizing Mission Towards the Year 2000: `You Shall Be My Witnesses' (Acts 1:8)."(10) After local consultation, the preparatory lineamenta (first draft) was promulgated at the ninth General Assembly of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) in Lome, Togo, on July 25, 1990, and the concluding instrumentum laboris (working paper) issued by the pope in Kampala, Uganda, on February 9, 1993. The Synod was convened in Rome on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 10, 1994, and completed its work on May 8.

Of the major synodal topics, only the issue of justice and peace emerged with greater frequency than that of inculturation.(11) Originally a theological term of art, inculturation signifies, in the bishops' words, the "incarnation of the christian life and message in a particular context."(12) The bishops affirm that "the Gospel itself becomes the principle that purifies, guides, animates and elevates the culture, transforming it in such a way that here is a new creation."(13) Such a "synthesis between culture and faith"(14) is "a demand of evangelization ... the fruit of listening, welcoming, or reflecting on and assimilating the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." As a "movement toward full evangelization," the process of inculturation "embraces the whole life of the church and the whole process of evangelization. …

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