National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
?Signup Here For  Weekly E-mail

   1Archives  | 

 Global Perspective

June 8, 2005
Vol. 3, No. 6

Joseph Adero Ngala
Joseph Adero Ngala is an African journalist based in Kenya. In 1995 he won the German Shalom Prize for reporting in Rwanda and Sudan.



"The fact is that the vast majority of Catholics don't practice the strict line their church lays down, and if Benedict XVI sticks to character and hardens that line, their lives will go on as before."

Open Letters to the New Pope:

Africa knows the church's good works, not its doctrine

By Joseph Adero Ngala

(Editor's Note: Global Perspective is featuring commentators from across the globe writing open letters to the new pope, Benedict XVI.)

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Papa Ratzi, what the irreverent here call Pope Benedict XVI, "baba" being Swahili for "pope," is being pigeon-holed as a doctrinal hardliner. It has all been made to sound like very scary stuff.

Read more letters to the pope
  • Jesuit Fr. Francis Gonsalves from Chennai, India: Wilkommen, Welcome, Swagatham!.
  • Joseph Adero Ngala from Nairobi, Kenya: Africa knows the church's good works, not its doctrine.
  • Geraldine Hawkes from Adelaide, Australia: In the right hands, a garden can flourish.
  • Janina Gomes from Mumbai, India: Churchgoers must confront some tough questions.
  • Michael Gillgannon from La Paz, Bolivia: We can, must learn from our errors.
  • Antonio D. Sison from the Philippines: The musings of a Filipino Catholic.
  • Dominic Emmanuel from New Delhi: Building bridges to other religions doesn't compromise Catholic identity.
  • Virginia Saldanha from Mumbai, India: Asian women request a true dialogue.
  • Greg Lopez from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: How much is too much?.
  • From my humble house in Dagoreti on the outskirts of Kenya's capital Nairobi, I certainly would be the last person to utter disrespect to Benedict XVI, and I wonder if the storyline of him as dogmatic has been overplayed. The Catholic church I know is not all about doctrines and harsh edicts on condoms and sex. As a matter of fact, for most ordinary people like me, the Catholic church is known as a very different institution from the doctrinal stuff we read about.

    What we know about the Catholic church is that its institutions have given countless Kenyans and many others throughout the world a crucial first start in life.

    The Catholic church is an institution that quietly beavers away, building and running health clinics in the remote and jungle areas of Africa from the north to south. Because of the church, even nomadic shepherds can find a dispensary. Catholic Relief Services and Caritas International are some of the biggest humanitarian organizations in the world, and they certainly do not confine their activities to Catholic countries or Catholic people.

    Every year when the ministry of education releases its list of top performing schools in national examinations, it is a sure bet that a disproportionate number of those schools are Catholic-run.

    I can attest to the fact that most of these schools and universities are not in the business of spreading church dogma of the sort with which the new pope has been tagged. Leave that to the seminaries. If anything, the schools and universities offer as liberal an education as you will find anywhere. The only difference is the discipline, which parents adore.

    As a young boy, I spent some of my early days in Catholic schools. I remember Sr. Janice McLaughlin, a tall Maryknoll sister, and Fr. Joseph Healey, a Maryknoll priest. Both were great journalists and writers. Both took me under their wings and I grew attached to them nearly as to my father and mother.

    Share NCR with your Friends
    Mass was mandatory. The bit about passing on moral values, of course, was there, but I remember other things as well: fables like Jack and the Beanstalk and goodies from Father Christmas.

    The pope and his homilies were remote from our experiences, as he is to many of us even today.

    Sr. McLaughlin now lives in Zimbabwe and Fr. Healey in Tanzania, but I know they still have a passion for me even though I came from a "pagan" family. I want to believe the new regime at the Vatican will carry similar compassion for the wayward and not just enforce a set of rules.

    The fact is that the vast majority of Catholics don't practice the strict line their church lays down, and if Benedict XVI sticks to character and hardens that line, their lives will go on as before. They will continue practicing contraception, divorcing when they are forced, and even indulging in an adulterous fling or two. Certainly on the personal level, they will revere the pope. But he is sure to be ignored by his followers just as Pope John Paul II was when it came to pronouncements about morals that people on this continent found impossible to uphold.

    Still -- and this is the nub -- parents of all faiths will continue sending their children to Catholic schools and kindergartens. Catholic-run clinics and dispensaries will not register any reduction in traffic merely because the new pope has decreed that priests should not marry. Catholic agencies won't stop sinking wells in the African bushes just because the locals there have no clue what Mass is. In a word, the church will remain a central player in the battle against poverty and physical suffering no matter what doctrines are in vogue in the Vatican.

    E-mail Alerts
          To receive an e-mail notice when Global Perspective is posted every week, sign up here.
          Click on the link at the top right of this page to send the column to a friend or colleague.
    True enough, religion is a very personal matter. Yet the non-spiritual dimension of churches matters a great deal.

    Pentecostals and evangelicals may indeed be attracting frenzied crowds in converted cinema halls and on open grounds in many African cities where a lot of money is invariably raised. There is no question, however, about who holds the candle when it comes to concrete good works like taking care of the sick, taking your daughter through her ABCs and generally recognizing the dictum that the law is made for people not people for the law.

    Top of Page   | Home
    Copyright © 2005 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
    TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280