ON THE fourth Sunday in Lent, gospel hymns radiate down quiet streets along Ghana’s coast. A five-piece band welcomes the incense-bearing priest to the altar in a simple Catholic church on a hill above the Atlantic. The band aside, the mass is traditional. Hymns alternate with readings from the Book of Joshua. The parishioners look on intently, occasionally roused to their feet for a brief burst of singing and clapping.
Here in Cape Coast Peter Turkson cut his teeth two decades ago as a church leader. Now a cardinal, the 64-year-old had been fancied as a potential pope, underlining the church’s rapid rise in Africa. According to the Vatican, Africa has 186m Catholics, 16% of the global flock, a more than sixfold increase in number from half a century ago.
The African church’s vitality is marked not only by its size but by the devotion of its faithful. “The African is incurably religious,” explains the Archbishop of Accra, Charles Palmer-Buckle. A 2010 survey by the Pew Research Centre in Washington ranks sub-Saharan Africa as the most religious part of the world. Though Christianity has displaced traditional African religions, the zeal of former animistic rituals has been passed on.
Less well known are Catholicism’s deep roots on the continent. North Africa produced at least three early popes. Portuguese settlers of present-day Ghana introduced the faith to west Africa more than 500 years ago. The church has long sponsored a network of schools and clinics.
Catholicism’s growth in Africa has accelerated in recent decades. There was a groundswell after the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, which authorised the use of vernacular at mass and delegated more power to locals. The church’s indigenisation proceeded. African song and dance were incorporated into services. Young African priests, not European missionaries, took charge.
Though the church in Africa thrives, it has had its share of controversy. How far should church leaders go in appealing to local tastes in worship? Should the church in Africa seek even greater autonomy from Rome to pursue its own social agenda? It faces strong competition from evangelicals, especially among the young. In Ghana they have twice as many members as the Catholic church does. The influence of swashbuckling charismatics is inescapable on the streets of Accra, the capital. Photographs of dapper pastors, often styled “prophets”, appear on billboards and leaflets. The avuncular Archbishop Palmer-Buckle says his competitors poach Catholics by offering “the crown without the cross”—salvation without sacrifice. Many explicitly promise earthly riches.
The church must also overcome other hurdles. Last month Cardinal Turkson caused a stir when he claimed the African church knows no sexual abuse in its ranks because homosexuality is so rare on the continent. More broadly, critics decry a lack of openness in church affairs. Corruption is a serious problem. Nonetheless, Archbishop Palmer-Buckle is upbeat. Older parishioners who left the church—perhaps to find riches or a miracle cure—are, he says, slipping back into his pews.
Boomtown church The Vatican franchise is going strong, despite fierce competition – The Economist