Agbonkhianmeghe E. OROBATOR, editor. The Church We Want: African Catholics Look to Vatican III. Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 2016. pp. 256. $35 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-203-1. Reviewed by Randall WOODARD, Saint Leo University.
Orobator has brilliantly gathered 19 essays from outstanding scholars with expertise in a variety of fields of African Catholic thought into a unified, yet diverse collection of essays that take readers into a critical dialogue about the past, present and future of the Catholic Church in Africa. Having the great fortune of working with the editor and several of the authors through the International Journal of African Catholicism, I was familiar with many of the outstanding minds gathered together in the present volume which is divided into three sections: reflection on the current papacy of Pope Francis and what they call the “Francis effect” and its impact on Africa, a series of essays engaging and critiquing the theological method and ecclesiological assumptions and practices in Africa, and finally a section on the future of the African church or as Joe Healey inquires, what will the African church look like when it comes time for the great Council of Nairobi I (Vatican III).
The text is unified as the authors write from the context of the Year of Mercy, and the contributions of the Synod on the Family, the Year of Consecrated Life and the Papacy of Francis. Orobator explains that the purpose of the work is to “introduce elements of current theological scholarship in Africa to a global audience” so that readers can “appreciate the richness and diversity of perspectives characteristic of the theological enterprise in Africa and discover connections and convergences across and range of issues and ways in which the theological scholarship in various regions of the world could be mutually enriching” (xxviii). This goal is clearly achieved in the wide variety of voices gathered together to critically examine the African context in a way that does not oversimplify the varied experiences, regions and concerns of men and women across the continent. Of particular note is the welcome gender diversity as well as the inclusion of both clergy and lay people. One of the strongest elements of the book is the very practical focus of the essays. Authors offer insightful examinations of theoretical questions and problems, but mainly analyze very practical, pressing and real world concerns that pull readers from vague abstractions into real life. Katongole, for example refuses to articulate pressing “moral challenges” in order to offer prophetic critiques of poverty, the place of women, failed leadership, and ecological issues (164). Likewise, Beattie proffers a stirring assessment of the silencing of women’s voices and experiences in respect to poverty, disease and maternal health. Additionally, the work begins powerfully with the work of Bishop Kevin Dowling on what it truly means to be a leader in the church under the leadership of Pope Francis. Dowling, like each of the other contributors offers a very insightful analysis and raises difficult questions so that those in the African church (and beyond) can consider critically their place in the church of the present and future.
The book will be of interest to a wide audience. In my own experience, students and faculty tend to know quite a bit about their own context, but frequently know little of other places and people. This book offers a great introduction into pressing questions for the African church and essays like that of Nader Michael offer exceptional brief histories of particular regions. The essays will be of particular interest for those in ecclesiology as many of the questions of leadership, authority, the place of women are certainly not limited to the African church. Those in the fields of ethics and social justice will also be pleasantly surprised by the insight gained into African Catholic thought as well as the relevance for any reader in the Americas or Europe. The African Catholic church is not to be ignored any longer. The text, because of the powerful voices and great diversity of contributors, will be a welcome addition to readers seeking an increased knowledge of the pressing social, economic, moral and ecclesiological questions of the African context.