By Emefie Ikenga-Metuh
Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka.

The Special synod of Bishops for Africa has come and gone. It remains for experts in various fields  to explore how the teachings and decisions of the synod touch on their various disciplines. The Special Synod of Bishops for Africa, which Pope John Paul 11 proposed on the 6th of June 1989, took place in Rome from the 10th of April to 8th of May 1994. It took  over five years to prepare. Present at the synod, were 242 members, 46 observers, 20 experts, and 7 Fraternal delegates. The opening celebration was presided over by Pope John Paul 11 himself with 35 Cardinals, one Patriarch, 39 Archbishops, 146 Bishops, and 90 priests. It was indeed a historic occasion to celebrate an African church about to come of age and take her place in the universal church alongside other sister churches.  It was an opportunity for the young African church to review the faith bequeathed to her by the missionaries, streamline her teachings and take some decisions on some issues of pastoral  concern. One of these issues is the important issue of dialogue with African traditional religion.
 The  theme of the synod was; the Church in Africa and her Evangelizing Mission Towards the Year 2000. The success of the synod was the fruit of the long period of careful preparation which passed through a number of phases . The first study-document was the Lineamenta, Outlines, a sort of introductory text accompanied by some questionnaires. From the responses to the questionnaires was prepared the Instrumentum Laboris,  -Agenda. The reports sent in by the different Episcopal Conferences and other groups after studies of the agenda, were collated  in a document, the   Relatio Ante Disceptationem; and read in the Hall of the synod  by the rapporteur general  of the synod, Cardinal Thiandoum of Burkina Faso before discussions began. Then, followed free discussions, comments  and observations by the Fathers of the synod, and other participants. The revision of the text in the light of these discussions gave birth to the Relatio Post Disceptationem, Report after discussion.   The participants then went into group discussions - 5 English speaking groups, 5 French speaking, 1 Portuguese speaking group. Subsequently, the rapporteur General assisted by the secretaries of the discussion groups compiled the Elenchus Finalis Propositionum, which contained 64 propositions . These were then presented to the Pope for his approval and promulgation . They covered the five major aspects of the theme of the Synod :-    Proclamation, Inculturation, Dialogue, Justice and Peace, and Means of Social Communication. Finally the Pope visited Africa and promulgated the teachings and decision of the synod in sept. 14 1995, in Yaounde, Cameroon, in a Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia In Africa .2  Thus the teaching of the synod  represents the most researched, discussed and authoritative pronouncement made by the Catholic church  on any subject as it concerns the African church in the present time.

This paper will study the teaching of the Special Synod on Africa on Dialogue  between the Catholic church and African Traditional Religion (ATR), as contained in the six documents published by the synod itself :-  the Lineamenta( hereafter quoted as Lineam.), the Instrumentum Laboris (Instru Lab.), Relatio ante Disceptationem (Rel. Ant. Disc.),  Relatio Post Disceptationem (Rel. Post. Disc.), Message of the synod (Nuntius), and Ecclesia in Africa (Eccl. In Afr.. ).


Dialogue, as mentioned above, is one of the five major sub-themes of the synod. So, each of the six documents has a lot to say about dialogue. The arrangements of the synodal reflections on dialogue was contained in the Relatio Post Disceptationem which also follows the general outline of other preceding synodal documents, as follows :-  Dialogue in General, Dialogue within the church, Dialogue with other Christian Churches (ecumenical dialogue), Dialogue with Islam, Dialogue with African Traditional Religion, Dialogue with New Religious movements.  So, African Traditional Religion in only one of the five groups with which the Catholic church plans to engage in an interreligious dialogue . Thus this paper we shall limit itself to only what the synod has to say on dialogue with African Traditional  Religion. It will however be useful to review what the synod has to say about dialogue in general.

Dialogue is a frank discussion between two or more parties, aimed at reaching a better understanding of each other's point of view, and working out a compromise acceptable to all sides. It is a habit of the mind , an attitude of respect and friendship towards those who have a different point of view or faith from our own . It is flexibility and openness to truth no matter from which side it comes. So that the search for truth may be free, the person in dialogue seeks to eliminate every prejudice , intolerance and unnecessary misunderstanding. Dialogue shows openness to the activity of the spirit in each person and each religion or group, and hence a readiness to accept the dept of the religious experience of others and to collaborate with them for the good of the religion and society. Thus a working definition of dialogue could  be given as a   frank exchange of view-points between two or more persons with the scope of enriching each other, leading to increase in the knowledge about each others beliefs and convictions, and the removal of ignorance and\or prejudice about the same. (5) The synod, however, does give the ultimate aim and purpose of inter-religious dialogue. "to bring all believers to the realisation that we are all children of the same father God". (Rel, Ante Discep. N19, par.2)

African Traditional Religion (ATR)

 African Traditional Religion (ATR) is the religious and cultural tradition indigenous to Africa.  The synod therefore tries to give some information about  it which will both argue the necessity of dialogue with it, and be useful for those who may want to engage it in a dialogue.   According to the synod, there seem to be sufficient common features in traditional religion in Africa to justify the usage  of the appellation "African Traditional Religion", in the singular. It points out that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish in this religion what pertains to religion and what pertains to culture. The same vernacular term often covers the two. It is a religion which involves the totality of life. For this reason observes the synod , in concrete situations, one has to deal with the various forms and expressions of the religion in the different traditional societies and ethnic groups (Instrum. Lab. N.19).

The synod notes that ATR is the religious and cultural background from which most African Christians come and in which they live. In the majority of African countries, ATR is still the all pervasive determinant of the life and culture. It is part and parcel of the cultural heritage, and determines the spontaneous and subconscious reactions of the people and their interpretation of reality. In some places,  ATR as an organised system  is still the dominant religion and is practised as a public  organised system. While in other places, neo-pagan intellectuals are returning to this religion and are reorganising according to modern principles. This situation makes dialogue with ATR and its adherents socially and pastorally an urgent necessity.

The Necessity of Dialogue With African Traditional Religion.

       The synod gives a number of solid reasons why the church must dialogue with adherents of ATR. . As a general rule, it observes that , as with all men and women of good will irrespective of the religious faith to which they belong, the church must dialogue with adherents of ATR, since the Living  God , Creator of heaven and earth, and Lord of history, is the Father of the one great human family to which we all belong. As such, he wants us to bear witness to him through our respect for the values and religious traditions of each person, work together with them for human progress and development at all levels  (Ecclesia In Africa, N.66).

2. In view of the above remark, the  synod regrets that ATR has not been given the recognition it deserves as a valid partner in dialogue, nor the attention it should receive on a pastoral level. Rather, it has been seen almost exclusively as a deposit for prospective converts.

However, responding to the question of what could be done in the mean time, the synod itself  responds by suggesting that one could begin by according ATR the due respect and recognition to its qualified experts and leaders. The Holy Father Pope John Paul 11, it argues has given a good example in this regard when he invited some leaders of some ATR groups along with other leaders of other religious groups from all over the world to pray for world peace. The synod then invites the Catholic hierarchies to plan for a follow up of the Pope's gesture in their various countries and areas of jurisdiction.

3. Dialogue with ATR is very important because ATR is still very strong and widely practised in many places. For example the AMECEA (Association of Members of Episcopal Conferences In East Africa) in its report to  the consultation organised by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious dialogue (PCID), Rome, held at Kumasi, Ghana, in Jan 1998, reported that over 23 million people are still adherents of ATR in its area. In Benin republic, about 64% of the population are adherents of ATR. and it is held quasi as a state religion in the country. About 12% in Nigeria, or about 12.6 million and 29.1% of the population in Ghana are still followers of ATR. The church cannot afford to marginalize these.( see Reports given by national and regional representatives to the Consultation on Interreligious dialogue organised by PCID in Kumasi Ghana, Jan 1998) .

4. Dialogue with ATR reveals the many values which are common to both Christianity and ATR which can serve as a "praeparatio Evangelica", as stepping stones for introducing African adherents of ATR into the full acceptance of the Christian faith. This however, should not be the immediate purpose of dialogue. Nor should this possible outcome  be positively excluded. However, the value common to both religions  unveiled through dialogue are indispensable for inculturation. For says the synod, "there can be no serious inculturation without dialogue with ATR where our (African traditional) religious values have their natural habitat. The Christian church itself gains from this, for inculturation helps the African Christians to live an integrated life which is truly Christian and truly African. The persistence of uninculturated Christianity in Africa has among other factors, led many Africans to live double lives with one foot in Christianity and one foot in ATR. They however, fall back to practices of the ATR in times of crisis because they offer the more familiar cultural solutions to their immediate problems. Thus the synod considers inculturation an urgent priority in the life of the particular churches  for it promises a firm rooting of the gospel in Africa. It is thus a path towards full evangelization , and one of the greatest challenges for the church on the continent on the eve of the Third Millennium.( Eccl. In Africa. N.59)

Obstacles to dialogue With ATR.

The greatest obstacle to dialogue with ATR is the wall of prejudice which separates the Christian and his proposed ATR adherent partner in dialogue . Missionary catechesis for decades has taught the African converts to hold ATR in great disdain and its adherents in great contempt. This is very evident in the number of derogatory terms and appellations used for ART and its devotees. African Christians today still refer to ATR as Paganism, Animism, Fetishism, Idolatory, Polytheism, Heathenism . Its adherents are correspondingly called pagans, animists, heathens, and idol worshippers, and so forth. Christian catechesis in Africa still sustains its polemics that it is stupid to be an adherent of ATR. which it sees as the citadel of the Satan, and its ministers disdainfully called Juju priests, fetish priests, witchdoctors, as agents of the devil.  Christianity in Africa having anchored itself on modern European culture, has engendered in its adherents a superiority complex, which sees  ATR and African cultural values which it upholds as primitive and unprogressive . Even the booklet Meeting African Religions,  published by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 1986 still refers to ART adherents as "animists" and Neo-animists (pp.133 - 134), even though it wisely advised that, "a whole mentality must therefore change . Christians  must be encouraged ……. especially catechists, the organisers, to  treat non-Christians with friendship." (p.148).

One must say that none of these derogatory language is found anywhere in the synodal documents. This is a significant progress. Ecclesia In Africa in fact directs that  "the adherents of African Traditional religion should therefore, be treated with respect and esteem, and all inaccurate and disrespectful language should be avoided. For this purpose , suitable courses  in  ATR. should be given in houses of formation for priest and religious" (N.67).

One objection usually raised about dialogue with non-Christian religions generally is that it would impede conversions from these religions, and therefore impede evangelisation itself. To this objection, the synod responds with theological certainty and firmness that ;

"Dialogue is an important aspect of the church's mission of evangelisation". "Authentic dialogue becomes witness, and a true evangelisation is accompanied by respecting and listening to one another." ( Instrum. Lab. N.77) Thus dialogue is not an alternative for proclamation nor a substitute for it, one implies the other. Both are different aspects of  the same mission of preaching the gospel and bearing witness to Christ which is incumbent  on every Christian.

Another strong objections often made are that dialoguing with ATR which the church had hitherto condemned in such strong terms, would look like now endorsing it. Besides, it is not easy to listen to others with respect , charity and patience without running the risk of watering down ones own faith. The synod accepts that dialogue is a risky business, but it is a risk the church has to take if she has to accomplish her mission. Without a dialogue of faith and love with those to whom the good news is addressed, the church cannot proclaim the Good News to all creation" (Mk. 16:16)  and proclaim the Good News that "God in Christ is reconciling the world to Himself"(1Cor.5:19).Thus a true Christian dialogue can never exclude nor be indifferent to the aims of evangelisation. Even, when in dialogue with others, a Christian must always be true to the name, bearing  the obligation to witness to Christ. Only the firmly committed Christian can truly dialogue with others (Lineamenta N.55) .There is therefore need for caution, prayers, and patience.  Especially, in this regard the wise guidelines of the church must be followed as a safeguard against possible risks. Instrum. Lab. N.79).

Some would still argue that dialogue with ATR is an exercise in futility. They would ask, why dialogue with a faith which is almost dying out. With the young people abandoning ATR in large numbers, its demise is a matter of time. Dialogue in this circumstance, would appear to be propping up an institution whose demise would benefit  Christianity. The synod has very convincing answers to these objections. It is not altogether true that ATR is fast dying out. In many places ATR is still very strong and widely practised. In the reports submitted by various groups to the Consultation organised by the Pontifical Commission for Interreligious  Dialogue mentioned earlier, it was astonishing to note the high percentage of  the population which still practice ATR in many parts of Africa.  This challenges the church to dialogue with its adherents. (Relatio Post Disc. N. 28) Besides, many cultural nationalists after national independence are returning to ATR as their ancestral religion as a form of neo-nationalist movement, and would present Christianity as the importation of the of the colonial powers . More importantly, dialogue with ATR reveals the common values of the African cultures  which could serve as a "praeparatio Evangelica", a preparation for the Gospel, because they contain precious "semina Verbi ", which can lead as already happened in the past , a great number of people to be open to the fullness of the revelation in Jesus Christ through the proclamation of the Gospel. (Eccl. In Afr. N.67.) Such a dialogue is even necessary to protect Catholics from negative influences which condition the lives of many of them who live in daily contact with and in interaction with ATR members and those of other faiths, by clarifying the catholic position in many matters.

Finally, dialogue with ATR reveals the common values  of the African culture which often  serve as a bridge between Christians and Islam as well as ecumenical dialogue within the Christian fold. The synod concludes with the rather strong affirmation that ; "there can be serious inculturation without dialogue  with ATR where our religious values have their natural habitat. The Christian church itself gains  from this," (Rel. Post Discep. N.28)

There is often a loud complaint that it is not easy to find competent people to dialogue with since most leaders of ATR are illiterate. This may be true if one considers dialogue only as an abstract theological exercise requiring literacy and systematic reasoning. Others expect to find experts who are educated religious leaders and are spokesmen of large groups of national and\or international followerships. The fact however is that Christian missionaries and local pastors have been dialoguing with leaders of ATR communities, chiefs, priests, clan heads, prophets, diviners over matters which touch on traditional religious beliefs like converting former shrine sites into Christian mission sites, on aspects of traditional festivals, initiation rites, different types of taboos, with varying degrees of success. Through dialogue they have in some places prayed and taken joint action to broker peace, organise the education and medical services for the community. It is therefore surprising to hear the complaints from the same Christian leaders that there are no leaders of ATR  to dialogue with. ATR is an ethnic community based religion. The same community leaders with whom one discusses other matters would also be partners in dialogue over traditional beliefs. Hence the synod notes that dialogue takes various forms;

Dialogue is not merely doctrinal discussions involving experts only, it includes also spiritual sharing, active collaboration in life situations, and especially the sharing of life's experience by simple ordinary adherents of ATR and Christians.

Attempts in some countries to dialogue with only leaders of neo-nationalist religious movements under the pretext that they are the authentic representatives of ATR is simply not true to facts. In Nigeria, today many leaders and adherents of ATR now are educated men and women, and could be partners in dialogue who could speak for genuine ATR community of believers.

Types of Dialogue and Issues For Dialogue with ATR.

The synod affirms that the church is not free with respect to dialogue nor does she enter it with ulterior motives. The church should strive to be continuously docile to the Holy Spirit, who to a certain extent is also active in other churches and ecclesial communities as well as other religions of the world, and this calls for dialogue and mutual exchanges with them. (Instrum. Lab. N.76).

As a specific activity, dialogue  may be expressed in four ways  - dialogue of life , dialogue of deeds, dialogue of specialists, and dialogue of religious experience. The synod suggests that some people could take up dialogue as a specific activity. It notes however, that ordinary adherents of the different religions could engage in very useful sharing of experiences and collaboration in life. In this sense, dialogue is not limited to setting up of structures of  discussion and debates of experts as noted above. For dialogue implies a will to greater collaboration for the good of humanity and the triumph of truths and the greater glory of God. (Instum. Lab. N.78). This could be called the  dialogue of life and  of deeds. Because of the situation in which the church finds herself in Africa, this type of dialogue is particularly important and necessary because, the catholic church in Africa is only 13% of the total population, and members of the church are literally surrounded by others among whom they must live, witness to and work for the kingdom of God. Most often religious pluralism cuts across national , tribal, and at times even family lines. In Nigeria, for example, people belonging to different faiths ( ATR, Islam, and Christianity)  in the same village, town , or live in the same compounds or bloc of flats  in the urban areas and even in the same family. They meet at family meetings, birth, marriage and funeral   celebrations , village meetings. They work side by side in the same offices, schools, factories. So that a situation for dialogue a sort of imposes itself on the people who find themselves in such situations. The synod warns that only a genuine spirit of dialogue by all concerned can prevent such differences from issuing in conflict and discord. The other danger in this, could be one of a dialogue of convenience, by which the parties who may not be prepared, and may not even be aware of being consciously engaged in a dialogue in the sense proposed by the synod, just work out a modus vivendi, without regard to how it touches on their religious beliefs. They are not often well instructed or committed to their faiths,  and so, sometimes reach compromises that go against their faith, often without intending to do so. Their immediate aim is to work out workable compromises for coexistence  and cooperation which often paper over their religious differences.

Dialogue of Experts

The synod is optimistic that the Catholic church in Africa, as elsewhere, is well equipped to play a leadership role in dialogue because she has very positive guidelines as well as clearly articulated policies and programmes for such dialogue. And she expresses herself ready to undertake this challenging mission. However, to be equal to this challenge, the Catholic church must train many more specialists and more of her committed adherents, in the principles and techniques of Religious dialogue.

The synod then goes on to direct that dialogue with ATR should not be left to chance or interest. Adequate and effective structures and programmes should be designed to promote it in a systematic way. Ecumenical collaboration in such projects can be of special advantage. In fact, the synod is of the view that cooperation in dialogue with ATR and consequent inculturation, can promote dialogue and collaboration among adherents of different religions within the same cultural area and ethnic group e.g. between Muslims and Christians who share common cultural roots. (Instrum Lab. N107).

It advises that such projects of dialogue would normally involve research and publication experts assigned to the task . (Rel. Post Disc. N.28  par.6.). To cultivate the spirit and skills for  dialogue with ATR, the synod further directs that suitable courses in ATR should be given in houses of formation for priests and religious (Eccl. In Africa. N.67 par.2).

The Higher theological Institutes in Africa like Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA), and Catholic University of East Africa (CUWA) should continue to do research in dialogue with ATR and inculturation and make proposals to the bishops.

This is a more delicate aspect of dialogue with ATR. In the past, individuals who have organised or shared religious experiences with adherents of ATR were labeled backsliders or syncretists, and have often times been excommunicated. And, accredited church authorities have not dialogued or worked out how Christians could take part in some rites which may involve Christians and ATR adherents. In this regard, some thorny issues which require urgent resolution remain. How would a   Christian perform the funeral ceremony of a parent who is an adherent of ATR? Could he give money to the ATR community to organise a befitting traditional funeral for his father or mother? How could a Christian be conferred with a well merited traditional title? How could a Christian who becomes the chief or the head of the family perform the traditional cultural duties attaching to the office some of which touch on religious rites?

These would involve entering into a dialogue with ATR community at the highest levels to  work out a formula of rites that would respect the religious beliefs of both parties. How would Christians and ATR adherents pray for peace in the country or community? How would they share in the rites of oath, covenant- taking, or rite of reconciliation? This is the area in which the millions of Christians in Africa want their hierarchy which are now almost completely African, to have the pastoral will to give them much required leadership. The synod does not give any definite directives on this matter. It merely invites the African church leaders to follow the example and gestures of the Holy Father in Assisi .

"At the Assisi Prayer for Peace and on some of his pastoral visits to Africa, the Holy Father made powerful gestures of recognition of and dialogue with our traditional religion. How can we follow up such gestures without giving the wrong signals to our people seeking the light of the Gospel". (Rel Ant Discp. N.20 par.3)

This is only a way of saying that the African church leaders should no longer be afraid to take the necessary initiative in organising or authorizing an interreligious experience now that the Pope has given the lead in the matter.


The teaching of the synod on ATR is revolutionary . It is not indeed the first time that the Catholic church made pronouncements on dialogue with ATR. The Pontifical Commission for Interreligious Dialogue already in 1968 in a its book Meeting African Religions, proposed a dialogue with ATR. and suggested ways of entering into dialogue with it. The documents of the African synod  not only updated the information contained in the book, but also gave the theological, pastoral and missionary  basis for dialogue . Theologically, dialogue is a way of fulfilling our obligation to bear witness to God as Father of the one great human family to which we all belong irrespective of the our different faiths commitments. Dialogue should lead us to respect the values and religious traditions of each person, and work together with them for human progress and development. For this reason, ATR should be recongnised and given the respect it deserves, a thing which the synod admits the Catholic church had not done in the past. All derogatory terms often used for ATR in Christian catechesis should cease.  Its accredited leaders deserve due recognition and respect. And more, following the example of the Holy Father, competent local church authorities should dialogue and work with them not only to promote social and cultural values but also to share common religious experiences like prayer . Dialogue is not only not an impediment to evangelisation, but is itself an essential part of evangelisation. For, the church cannot fulfill her mandate to proclaim the gospel to all creatures without engaging all men in a true and sincere dialogue. However, those who engage in dialogue must be fully committed Christians, and must exercise caution, and need a lot of prayers and patience. They need to be trained, and must be guided by the wise guidelines worked out by the church as safeguards against possible errors.

Dialogue is not merely discussion involving experts only, It includes also spiritual sharing and active collaboration in life situations, especially sharing in life experiences by the simple ordinary adherents of both faiths. To facilitate this, church leaders should work out modalities that would permit Catholics to participate in some traditional cultural activities which may have religious overtones like title-taking, the cultural roles of the Chief and family heads, initiation rites, some traditional marriage rites, oath and covenant making, some traditional festivals. Failure to participate in these traditional activities that cut across the religious affiliation of Africans, leave the Christians marginalised in their various communities. For effective dialogue, some structures for dialogue must be put in place at regional,  national, provincial diocesan, and parish levels. Commission for interreligious dialogue  should be  set up at these levels . A panel of experts should be set up to carry out research on dialogue with ATR and advise the bishops and the Christian community on the way forward in the matter. Higher theological institutes should make dialogue with ATR and inculturation the focus of their constant study. The church's teaching on dialogue and courses on ATR should form part of the formation of candidates for the priesthood and religious life, and integrated in the catechesis for the ordinary Christian. This will enable them have a unified vision of  life, and to live a fully integrated life that is truly Christian and truly African.


i. Secretariat Special Synod of Bishops on Africa; Lineamenta , Liberia Editrice,Vaticana, Citta    Vaticano, 1989.

ii. Secretariat Special Synod of Bishops on Africa; Instrumentum Laboris; Libreria Editrice Vaticana Citta Vaticano,1991.

iii. Secretariat Special Synod of Bishops on Africa; Relatio Ante Relationum, and Relatio Post Desceptationum, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Citta, Vaticano, 1994.

iv. Secretariat Special Synod of Bishops on Africa: Elenchus Propositionum, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Citta Vaticano, 1994.

v. John Paul 11, Ecclesia In Africa, Post-synodal apostolic Exhortation , Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Citta Vatiacana, 1995.