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Pope Paul VI And African Traditional Religion

The very first magisterial document to make mention of the religious traditions of African peoples, and in a positive light for that matter, is Africae Terrarum of Pope Paul V1, issued on October 29, 1967. In this document Paul V1 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 V1's optimistic view of African religious tradition in Africae 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 V1 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 religions at the end of the last century".(3)

In the Pope's view, African traditional religious expression constitutes rather "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 central to this, continues the Pope, is the "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 analysed, 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 V1 calls for an exchange of meaning between Christianity and African religious tradition.

The great significance of Paul V1'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 11 with its theological openness towards non-Christian peoples in general, and non- Christian religions in particular.

By his pronouncement Paul V1 went a great step forward in making explicit and solemn what the Council itself seemed to have refrained from pronouncing on. The Second Vatican Council, in spite of its positive appraisal of other religions besides Christianity, did not make any explicit statement on African traditional religious culture. It would seem that due to inadequate studies on ATR at the time of the Council, it was not considered opportune to say anything on the religion. Instead, the Council limited itself to making explicit comment only on the traditionally so-called five great religions of the world. The following received a special mention: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. For the others, the Council made a generic statement: "Other religions which 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".(6)

In any case, even if African Traditional Religion was not the subject of direct and explicit mention by the Council, there was a general open attitude towards non- Christian religions. This recognition in itself was 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".(7) Undoubtedly, Vatican 11'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 of other religions.

Paul V1's recognition of the reality of the African religious heritage was therefore not only in the spirit of the Second Vatican , but it indicated radically changed times. And as if to give a concrete demonstration of his positive appraisal of African culture and religion, Paul V1, 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..."(8)

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