African thought can show the West how to put aside individualism

Kudos to Crux for publishing an excellent interview with the African theologian Fr Paulinus Odozor, who was born in Nigeria and teaches at Notre Dame. I have always enjoyed Fr Odozor’s works, and his latest remarks, on Communion for the divorced and remarried, touch on some crucial issues for the whole Church.

Fr Odozor says straightforwardly, when asked whether remarried Catholics can receive Communion (without endeavouring to live in complete continence): “We settled that long ago. They can’t.” He adds that “Everyone’s OK with it,” including the divorced and remarried themselves: “If you go to the ordinary parishes in most of Africa, you will find that people who are in the situation you’re talking about would not present themselves for Communion because they already accept that these are the rules. It’s not an issue.”

This represents clear and forthright speech (what is called parrhesia), which makes a refreshing change from some of the confusing things we have heard on the same subject.

But Fr Odozor says something else on this point about Communion, which suggests that the whole People of God can learn from the African experience:

The problem with the West is that it narrows things down, stripping down a text like that to one or two issues. Reading Amoris Laetitia again, and I was reading it as I came over on the plane, I was struck by its incredible richness. We in Africa sometimes wonder at the way Catholicism in the West takes just one issue and runs with it, without looking at the whole context. It’s terrible, and it can be nauseating

Having some familiarity with the African theological tradition, I think I know what Fr Odozor means. In the West, our idea of morality (what is good and what is the right thing to do) follows Kant. We ask, “What must I do?” and “What is good for me?”

In Africa, however, the question about the good is never asked in the singular, because the person asking never sees him or herself as a radically atomised individual, but as a member of a family, a village, a tribe and a nation. The African person, formed by living the communal African experience, asks “What must we do?” and “What is good for us?” In other words, what form of behaviour will ensure the prosperity and flourishing of the community?

It is assumed that what benefits the community will benefit the community’s members. To see the hopes, aspirations and needs of the individual as somehow in competition with those of the community is impossible. The individual only exists as a member of the community, and the community is the only setting in which the good is sought, found and enjoyed.

In other words, African thought can show us how to put aside individualism as the universal prism through which one examines moral questions. In the African, communitarian vision, moral questions look very different. In particular the question over Communion for the divorced and remarried takes on a completely different aspect. If one considers one’s own “needs” – the need to be validated as an individual, the need to feel included, the need to feel that God somehow approves of one’s behaviour – then to be excluded from Communion is intolerable. But if one sees the needs of the community as paramount and the upholding of the marriage bond as essential to the well-being of the community, then the exclusion of the divorced and remarried from Communion makes perfect sense: not only is it theologically sound, but it helps to safeguard the integrity of the community.

When it comes to marriage there are two communities that need safeguarding. The first is the human community, the whole human family. There has never been a civilisation that has flourished without marriage. To undermine marriage is to undermine any possibility of human flourishing. Societies that have failed to uphold marriage have not been good societies. So for the good of all we need to protect marriage.

The second community whose welfare is at stake is the Church. If we admit those living in irregular unions to Communion, we do something that is incoherent with the rest of Christian doctrine, which has the effect of undermining the entire Magisterium. It is hard to see the Church flourishing without an effective Magisterium.

As I have said many a time before now, we need to listen to Africa. I spent four years there, teaching. I did a lot of teaching; but I hope I learned a lot too! Conversely, if we want to see the path that we should not take, then we need to go to countries where the Church is in steep decline, and where atomised individuals and their idolised personal needs have sought to remould Christian doctrine to their own warped liking.