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The Catholic Church In Africa


The Catholic Church is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world. The Church also faces unique challenges in Africa, where poverty, AIDS, political corruption, and violence plague countries. We'll talk with Ugandan Catholic priest Emmanuel Katongole about the future of the the Catholic Church in Africa.

Father Katongole is in San Diego for the Point Loma Nazarene University Writer's Symposium, which runs Wednesday through Saturday. You can learn more about the symposium and the writers who are in town to speak at the Point Loma website.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The Roman Catholic Church has been suffering a decline in membership and clergy in most areas of the world, except on the continent of Africa. There, the church has gained a stronghold. The nation of Nigeria is now home to the world's largest Catholic seminary. As African nations gain in numbers and influence within the church, it is likely African priests and bishops will begin shaping the message of the church. And one priest who has raised his voice in that effort is my guest. Father Emmanuel Katongole is from Kampala Archdiocese in Uganda. He is a professor of theology and world Christianity at Duke Divinity School. Father Katongole is in San Diego for the Point Loma Nazarene University Writers Symposium, where he’ll be speaking about his book, "Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith After Genocide in Rwanda." And Father Katongole, welcome to These Days.

FATHER EMMANUEL KATONGOLE (Catholic Priest): Well, thank you, Maureen. It’s so nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: All this week and last week Pope Benedict has been in the news and he’s been apologizing for sex abuses by Catholic priests in Europe. And I wonder if you could share with us what is the response in Africa to the sexual abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church?

FR. KATONGOLE: Well, I haven’t been following, Maureen, what has been going on in the Catholic Church in Africa in response to what is going on globally with the sexual abuse cases. I suspect though that there isn’t a whole lot of response because one reason that there is so many other urgent issues as well that the church is attending to in Africa. There’s so many wars going on, there’s so much violence. The number of countries in east Africa alone, Burundi, Southern Sudan, Uganda, they are gearing up for elections. And, as you know, these kind of events, temperatures rise. There’s a lot of, you know, preparations that are needed, so there is quite a lot of other issues that are calling for the attention of the church so I wouldn’t be surprised that they actually – the issues going on globally haven’t received as much attention as they are receiving out here.

CAVANAUGH: So in other areas of the world, there’s a feeling that somehow these scandals have lessened the moral authority that the church has but you don’t feel that that’s a problem among African nations.

FR. KATONGOLE: No, I don’t think that the moral authority of the church has been lessened by these recent developments. And part of it is because of the other issues that are going on and because of the moral voice that the church is in many of these countries in the context of war, of violence, of disasters. The church has provided, in many cases, the voice that stands on behalf of the voiceless. As you know, most of African politics has been brutal, repressive, little dictatorships and so forth, so the moral voice of the church has been strong in some cases but also in other areas where – like in Rwanda, the church’s only response and position the genocide has meant that that presence in – through the social history of Uganda, Rwanda, East Africa, the whole region has been tied to all these sociopolitical developments going on.

CAVANAUGH: Now I wonder, Father Katongole, you’ve been here for a while in the United States, in the west, and, of course, you grew up in Africa and became a priest in Africa. How do you think – or put it this way, do you think the Catholic Church is different in Africa than it is in the west?

FR. KATONGOLE: Yes, it is different and the same at the same time. It is the same Catholic Church, it is the same mass. A year ago when I had a pilgrimage of – a group of pilgrimage from North Carolina here in Uganda, one of the surprising things for some of the pilgrims was that we are standing in this local village in Africa and we are celebrating the Eucharist, of course in Ugandan, not in English, but in a way it’s the same Eucharist that we’re able to celebrate different language, of course, different character expression, but it’s the same. So the sense of being at home for many of these people coming far away from America finding themselves in Uganda then feeling the same. But on the other hand, it is – it’s just different, the expression is different, the expressives – the energy. What has here expressing in Catholicism might look more and more as Sunday the region or more and more as a spiritual internal thing, a private thing between one and one’s God. In African, in many ways, it is a kind of social movement. It is out there and it’s lively expression. But also it’s connected not only with matters that here would be religious matters but also with issues of economics and development and politics and education and health. It’s all kind of pretty connected with all these other forms of life going on.

CAVANAUGH: So would you say actually the Catholic Church in many African nations is more political than it is here?

FR. KATONGOLE: I would say – Well, yeah, I guess one would say it is political. I don’t know if more political and so forth because the Catholic Church here is also political and with ideas in the way that it responds to the decrees from Washington or whether in ways it does not respond, that are really political, whether to respond or not respond. But there in Africa, the church’s presence is more visible. We see – with the realities of everyday life, it is – it’s more visible. You drive through the countryside, you stop by a church and then you see hospitals and clinics and education and – and meetings of leaders, village leaders in the evening who are talking not only about what are the coffee prices but also talking about who is going to be presented in the Parliament or in the local council. So it’s kind of like more visibly present in the everyday practices of people’s lives.

CAVANAUGH: Now you spoke about the conflicts that are taking place in – between various nations in Africa and the other violence that somehow – that afflicts nations in Africa. And I’m wondering, are – does the church in Africa see these as challenges or are they threats to the church at all? Or is it something that the church can address and help with?

FR. KATONGOLE: Of course the church sees these as challenges. When war breaks out with the fighting or with the refugees, the church sees it as a threat. And there are two types of threats. I think there, in some ways where the church sees this as a threat its own institution, as its own institutional existence and maybe it’s direct attacks, for example, if a Bishop speaks up or if a priest speaks up and then the government or the rebel forces come back and attack that institution. So that kind of directly connected to the church’s own institution. But most of the time they are threats because they are threats to the people, the people of God, especially the voiceless and that’s where you see that the church’s presence, the prophetic presence of the church, is so much more connected with trying to be a voice of the voiceless. Many institutions in Africa have been repressive, have not allowed the voices of the poor to be heard, and many institutions in a way work against the voices of the poor. So usually it is the church or a church leader that stands up to defend those voices of the poor. It’s not so much as the church’s institution is threatened but the very lives of the poor are threatened. And so I think kind of finding this refuge of inside of the poor is what making charge with ideas in Southern Sudan or in the Congo really pattern pass of the struggle for life, for a new future in these countries (sic).

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Father Emmanuel Katongole. He is in San Diego because he’s speaking at the Point Loma Nazarene University Writers Symposium. Father Katongole, the Rwandan genocide, which your book addresses, “Mirror to the Church,” it took place back in 1994. Let’s remind listeners of what that devastation was like during the genocide.

FR. KATONGOLE: Well, 1994, it was in the spring of 1994, during Easter week, when the genocide started that within 100 days almost a million people in Rwanda were killed and killed by federal Rwandans because of – for ethnicity. The way Rwanda and to some extent Burundi but it was kind of like the mirror image, the opposite, these two ethnicities of Hutu and Tutsi, who are part of the social structures within Rwanda in a way, in 1994 in Rwanda the majority Hutus trying to eliminate the minority Tutsi. You see, it is no doubt a complex history of how that came to be. Part of it, of course, is connected with the way these groups, Hutu and Tutsi, even though the categories existed in precolonial times but due to colonialism and the period after colonialism, they took on a distinctive political identity on how they operated to the exclusion of one against the other. And so what we see in 1994 is the majority Hutu, the hand of the Hutu extremists, trying to eliminate the minority Tutsi. And so the 100 days of genocide leading to almost close to a million people killed in Rwanda, that’s what the 1994 genocide is about.

CAVANAUGH: And, as I say, your book addresses it. It’s called “Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith After Genocide in Rwanda.” What is the church’s role in the aftermath of that terrible outburst of violence?

FR. KATONGOLE: Well, I think addressing the church’s role might be too big because I don’t think it is one way of being church. I think the churches have responded in different ways. First of all, there is the church that – the section of the church that realizes that the church’s members were involved and, for example, parishioners killing other parishioners, and different priests being participants in the genocide and so forth. So there is a church – a part of the church that doesn’t even know how to go on in view of that. There is a church that feels – a part of – a section of the church that feels, well, what happened in 1994 is not part of our story and usually this is connected with the newer churches that have come into Rwanda after 1994, so kind of saying that that was then; we are the new people in town. We bring a new game and so what happened is not part of our story. And on the other hand, there is also a church that has been humbled by these events, that you can see a specter of it in terms of confessing, for example, participation in the genocide but also in kind of reaching out and trying to bring together communities that have been estranged with ideas they – the people who are now living in Rwanda who survived the genocide and those who in prison who participated, hospital ministries, where you can see something like attempts to bring together these two communities.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, Father, in terms of individuals because I’m led here by the title of your book “Resurrecting Faith,” how do people regain their faith after witnessing such violence as the Rwandan genocide?

FR. KATONGOLE: Well, again, individuals, I think, are a key to help people regain their faith. This morning in the chapel I’ve been talking about the story of Maggie Barankitse who is not from Rwanda but is from Burundi. But her story is also very impressive. She survived a genocide in 1993, witnessed the killing of 72 people in front of her at the Bishop’s residence and they left her. And she, out of that, actually an amazing story out of that amazing story, how her own life began to take on a new meaning discovering that Burundi—and that’s true of Rwanda and many African countries—is living a lie, a lie of the story of hatred, of hatred that pits one group against the other, Hutu, Tutsi and ethnicity. How ethnicity is a lie, that our true identity is that we are children of God, the lovely children of God, and the kind of – imagine out of that, she has set about discovering, administering a mission that her mission is to raise up the children that have been orphaned and other children into a new story of love, to kind of really say no to war, say no to ethnicity, and to killing. And out of that, she’s built an incredible ministry called Maison Shalom, House of God, that has not only taken care of over 30,000 orphans but sets up homes and farms and businesses but her ministry is not so much about these programs but about the vision, about the vision of a new story, a new story of love where we can live as God’s children. It’s just amazing how she comes out of that background of surviving genocide and then discovers a new identity of love and a new story.

CAVANAUGH: I want to speak about you and your background, if I may, Father, for a moment. You were born and raised in Uganda but your parents are from Rwanda. Tell us about them.

FR. KATONGOLE: Well, my parents are from Rwanda and Northern Rwanda and (unintelligible) and by the ethnic categories of Rwanda, my mother’s Hutu, my father is Tutsi, was Tutsi, I’m sorry, he died in 1972. And actually my father was my mother’s family because my father came from a poor family and my mother’s family was an established family, an established Hutu family. My grandfather on my mother’s side, actually it was him who also give a plot of land to where a church was built. So he was very close to the missionaries and so my father, coming from a poor Tutsi background worked for some, for my grandfather and then left to come to Uganda to find employment in the 1940s. And then he had told one of the gawas (sic) in my mother’s family that he would come back to marry her. And he came back to get – marry her but, of course, my father did – my grandfather didn’t think that it would have the necessary dowry or cows to marry her and he did come back with some cows, not many, but some cows and said, well, I’m here to marry Magdalene, that’s my mother. But the final question that my grandfather asked, he said, if he was a Christian because he wouldn’t allow him to marry my mother because my grandfather’s family on my other side was very Christian. And so my father thought that that was a small test and he said, where should I go to register to get – to become a Christian and get married. And so that’s how it happened and…

CAVANAUGH: That’s – it’s a great love story.

FR. KATONGOLE: It’s a great love story, yeah, and she’s a very beautiful woman and so I think she’s – she earned the heart and all the requirements from my father.

CAVANAUGH: So it sounds as if your family must have been rather overjoyed when you became a priest.

FR. KATONGOLE: Yeah, actually really overjoyed and that way it’s not only me. We have two priests in my family. My elder brother Joseph, he’s a priest, and so I’m also a priest. Yeah, the saddest thing is that my father, who, as I mentioned, became a Christian at a later age, a convert to Christianity, was not around when that happened. He had died. He died young in 1972. But he and my mother really brought us up and carried us into deep commitment and a kind of real evangelical form of Christianity that we practiced in my family. So wish that my father had been around when I became a priest in 1997.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Father Emmanuel Katongole and thank you for sharing your family story with us. That was really wonderful to hear. I want to go back to talking about some of the issues that are facing the Catholic Church and the nations of Africa, and that’s the AIDS pandemic. There has been a lot made of the fact that the official Roman Catholic Church policy towards controlling the AIDS pandemic does not allow the use of condoms. And I’m wondering, do you think that there might be a way in which this life-preserving and life-saving medical device could be introduced and – into the fight against AIDS and get the okay from the Catholic Church?

FR. KATONGOLE: I don’t know, Maureen. I’m not a doctor. I don’t know about the life-saving device and so forth. I think all life-saving devices need serious attention but I’m not a medical doctor and I’m only – Yeah, I hope also in this kind of a discussion with ideas of poverty, of war, of AIDS, I hope we don’t get hung up on kind of one solution, kind of one mind mentality and said this is it and a certain kind of fundamentalism that says either you do it this way or there is no other way to approach this situation. And at times I feel this discussion about should people use a condom or should not people use a condom, for me they kind of also stifle the imagination. It’s as if it is one way to address this AIDS issue and so forth. AIDS is a very complex and a much-layered issue in Africa. It is not just a sexually transmitted – it is a sexually transmitted disease but the reason why, for example, Africa becomes so heavily infected with the AIDS and so forth is not that Africans are more promiscuous than other people so all these other factors in a way contribute to make the age of AIDS as widespread as it is in Africa. I think it takes more than just supplying a condom for people to use. I think that’s what should be pointed to, that’s the discussion that I think is interesting, far more interesting than should people use a condom, should they not use a condom. I hope that’s what the Catholic – official Catholic Church is gesturing to when it says wait, wait a minute, I think the issues are far more complex and let’s not get kind of bottlenecked into just one solution mentality in addition to AIDS.

CAVANAUGH: I’m going to press this just one more time, though, if I may. If indeed you take that full circle look, that wide look, about the whole complex issue of AIDS in Africa, is one part of that solution to try to stem the epidemic by the use of a condom so that one partner does not spread the disease to the other?

FR. KATONGOLE: It might be. It might be. Clearly, Uganda has been in the news recently, more recently in terms of the AIDS because of what is called the ABC approach that’s – Uganda has adopted. The ABC refers to, A, abstain, B, be faithful, and, C, condom, where there is a whole package like that and so forth. But it’s interesting to see those discussion of they developed within the context of Uganda and who, for example, is suggesting all these abstentious measures and remain faithful. I think it’s a whole package, and I think I would like even to extend the package beyond the fighting of AIDS as a sexual disease to looking at AIDS as a social reality and a social disease that is connected with all the issues of impoverishment, of poverty, of lack of education, of the way, for example, men and women relate and the lack of opportunities. Recently there was something in the papers in Uganda about, for example, overpopulation and the one minister made the point and say, you know, the reason of overpopulation in Africa, especially in the little villages because there is no electricity and in the evening people don’t have anything to do so they go to bed early and then they make children. So we need to provide the possibilities and opportunities, that we provide alternative ways of entertainment, that sort of thing. So I think this kind of is the sort of multi-layered approach that one needs when they look at – look to AIDS in Africa.

CAVANAUGH: One last question, if I may, the Catholic Church actually is having a very hard time recruiting priests but they aren’t having that hard of a time recruiting priests in Africa. What are your thoughts about this?

FR. KATONGOLE: You’re right, Maureen. They are not having a hard time recruiting priests in Africa. The opposite is the case. They are having, in Africa, trouble finding enough room in the seminaries to house all the men who want to become priests. I think there is – part of it might be that this is the age for Africa in terms of vocations. This is the springtime for Africa in terms of vocations. At one time, most of the vocations are coming from Ireland, at other time most of the vocations are coming from even Holland and all these places. I think Africa, this is the springtime of Africa. And for me, the challenge that I see or the opportunity that I see, the global Catholic Church careers, instead of saying, okay, is Africa having many priests, the west doesn’t have many priests and Holland has priests, Iran doesn’t have, this is – these are the gifts of the church global. And how to make this the gift that it is for the entire church? If we kind of tribalize the church, the Catholic Church in terms of nation or in terms of region, this is an African issue and this – and then the west, we have our own issue, this – then change becomes very tribal community and so forth when, in fact, what it means to be Catholic, Catholic whole global, is precisely that, that is a new community that transcends borders and boundaries, that can kind of create new forms of relationship and of communion that goes beyond these narrow identities. How to live into that given the fact, for example, that in Africa right at this moment there are a number of priests and in the west there are not so many priests. How to claim that story together and begin to see what God is saying to the church at this time?

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.

FR. KATONGOLE: Well, thank you, Maureen, so nice to be here and thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Father Emmanuel Katongole. He is from the Kampala Archdiocese in Uganda. He is in San Diego speaking at the Point Loma Nazarene University Writers Symposium. The Writers Symposium runs through Saturday. You can learn more about the symposium and the writers who are in town at And if you’d like to comment about what you’ve heard during this segment on These Days, You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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