Monday, January 23, 2023

Mythbusting: “African Catholicism is a Vatican II Success Story”

Bishop Gregory Ochiagha, of Orlu Diocese in Nigeria, offering pontifical Mass in the old rite
In a recent episode of “Word on Fire,” Bishop Barron responds to Ross Douthat’s two NYT pieces on Vatican II and its failure, by making two arguments:

Argument #1: To blame the collapse of Catholicism in the West on Vatican II is a “post hoc propter hoc” fallacy.

Argument #2: The growth of the Church in Africa since Vatican II is entirely thanks to The Council.

It hardly requires pointing out that he has fallen into the same fallacy of which he accuses Douthat and others.

Nevertheless, this oft-repeated claim about Africa really deserves to be examined more closely, as it is one of the great myths of our time.

A certain “MrCasey” on Twitter noted:

In Africa, touted most frequently as a “Vatican II success,” the number of Catholics receiving the sacraments per 1000 also collapsed after Vatican II, as this chart indicates (source; interestingly, it seems that CARA has removed the study from their own website, without explanation, although it was reported on widely at the time): 

MrCasey continued:
In 1900 Catholics were 2% of the total African population. By Vatican II, that had ↑ to 13%. After Vatican II, the number's been nearly stagnant: ~16%, paling in comparison to Prots, whose % doubled during that time, 15% → 29%. The “Catholics” ↑ = b/c the population tripled. (source) “But that [post-Vatican II] growth is primarily due to a higher birth rate, ‘not to conversion or evangelization,’ observed Fr. Thomas Reese, social scientist & columnist for NCR.” (source) “CARA: the growth can be attributed to high fertility rates...” (source)
Another interesting graph shared by MrCasey:

A reader pointed out to me this graph (click to enlarge):

His comment:
The 600% increase in Catholics in Africa to 1970 has been followed by a 50% increase since. What, I wonder, caused the inflection in the graph? Oh right: the counterfactual that it would have been worse had the Council never....
George Neumayr, the investigative journalist whose death in Africa last week shocked the Catholic world, was in Ivory Coast working on a book on the state of the local Church. One can read on his Twitter feed, from December 26 to January 15, some initial impressions. For example, concerning this photo—

—he comments: “Here is a picture of the 9am Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Abidjan. I spoke to the presiding priest before Mass. He was in complete denial about the crisis and said that Islam is only stronger than Christians because of ‘immigrants.’”

On January 13, he tweeted: “As the Freemasons got stronger and stronger on the Ivory Coast, they were condemned not by Catholic bishops but by Pentecoastal preachers. The bishops only weakly criticized them out of embarrassment after it came out that the head of a Masonic lodge had been receiving Communion.”

In recent weeks he has published a series of articles at The American Spectator, enlightening though depressing, about the downfall of Catholicism in Côte d’Ivoire, with many parallels to other parts of postconciliar Africa:
In their article-series at Church Life Journal, Drs. Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy commit the error of “African exceptionalism” when they write: “Across the continent of Africa, for example, celebrations of the Mass that are both vibrant and reverent attract thousands of people to the Church.”

The assessment of Mass in Africa as “vibrant and reverent” seems to be true as far as it goes, but why should this be attributed to the celebrations rather than to Christ Himself who draws people to the Church? After all, before the imposition of the Novus Ordo, it was the traditional Latin Mass that served marvelously to convert Africans to Catholicism in the first place. I suspect anyone visiting their Masses then would also have found them full of reverence and joy.

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was a missionary in Africa from 1932–1959 and oversaw an astonishing spread of Catholicism in the regions of Africa for which he was responsible, which came to include twelve archdioceses, thirty-six dioceses, and thirteen Italian Apostolic Prefectures.

Just like everyone else on the globe, Africans, too, have been denied something that had already been an appreciated part of their Catholic heritage. The several flourishing TLM parishes currently in Africa, especially in Nigeria and Gabon, suggest that African Catholics, like so many in the West, might flock to the TLM were it made more available to them. The lack of its availability can hardly then be used as an argument against its appeal or power of attraction.

Here it is not inopportune to mention that the notion of an “inculturated” African-style liturgy was not the work of Africans themselves but of European experts who imagined in their classrooms how their southern brethren might best be served. (For a thorough treatment of this question, see “Inculturation: A Wrong Turn” by a Nigerian Catholic, published in parts at New Liturgical Movement in August and September 2022 and available as a single PDF here.)

As we have seen, any honest examination of the state of Catholicism in the “global south” must include reference to the fact that, while Catholicism is growing in absolute numbers due to population growth, Protestant and Pentecostal sects are experiencing much higher rates of growth — and tragically, attracting fallen-away Catholics into their numbers. This does not sound like an unmitigated “success story.”

Notably, the growth rate of Catholicism in Africa was proportionately much higher prior to 1970 — that is, at the tail end of the much-maligned “Tridentine” period. (See the Pew Research Center, “Overview: Pentecostalism in Africa.” For further considerations on the question of missionary expansion, see my article “Did the Reformed Liturgical Rites Cause a Boom in Missionary Lands?” from July 6, 2020.) In short, the African Church is growing simply because the population is growing (since Africans largely want to have families, unlike the trend in Western nations), so there are more Catholics in absolute numbers than sixty years ago; but the rate of growth is dramatically less today than it was prior to the Council. The conclusion is unavoidable: if Vatican II was supposed to be not just about maintaining the status quo of the 1950s but about launching a new evangelistic and missionary expansion, it failed in Africa, as it did everywhere else, compared to the old-fashioned approach followed over the preceding century.

* * *

What we are seeing with claims of African exceptionalism, a myth called into question by the facts, is very similar to what we see in nearly every discussion of the glories or successes of Vatican II or of the liturgical reform that followed it: namely, a willingness either to ignore evidence or, possibly, even to twist the truth for ideological reasons.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: