Africans hold the line on Catholic doctrine as Vatican's family synod ends

From his spacious apartment overlooking St. Peter's Square, Cardinal Francis Arinze has something of a privileged view of the theater unfolding behind closed doors in the Vatican, as bishops from around the world wrap up a three-week meeting on how to better minister to today's Catholic families.

Once touted as the leading candidate for an African pope, the retired 82-year-old Arinze remains something of the eminence grise of the African prelates who have made their mark at this synod by holding fast to Catholic doctrine, and rejecting attempts by more liberal prelates to introduce wiggle room in Catholic ministry to gays and divorcees.

Just how successful the Africans have been will become clear on Saturday when the 270 bishops from around the world vote on a final document to be given to Pope Francis. The document is expected to cover everything from better marriage preparation, to sex education for children to whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion.

In Africa, though, such issues that can make headlines in Europe and the U.S. matter little to families struggling to square Catholic marriage with the practice of polygamy, and to survive amid crushing poverty, war and violent, religious extremism.

"Most people in continental Europe or even North America, when they hear of a synod they think immediately of divorce-remarriage and will they receive Holy Communion. And they even mention homosexual unions," Arinze said in an interview. "Africans say 'Lord help us! Is that what you understand by family? This synod is on the fa-mi-ly.'"

Heading into the final hours of the deeply contested synod, it would appear the Africans and their conservative colleagues from eastern Europe and the Americas have succeeded: One of the cardinals drafting the final document, Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias, said the synod would likely kick the Communion question for remarried Catholics to further study. And another, Canadian Cardinal Gerarld Lacroix, said he didn't know if gay ministry would even be included in the final document.

St. John Paul II brought Arinze, then the archbishop of Onitsha, Nigeria, to the Vatican in 1985 to head the office for relations with other faiths. In 2002, John Paul promoted him to head one of the major congregations at the Vatican, overseeing liturgy and sacraments. He became one of the highest-ranking Africans at the Holy See.

Arinze retired in 2008. And at age 82, he is not taking part in the synod. But he remains a point of reference for the 44 bishops sent from Africa to attend, and he wrote the preface to a book published on the eve of the synod, "Christ's New Homeland — Africa," in which a dozen Africa prelates make their case for traditional church teaching on family and marriage.

Church teaching holds that marriage is an indissoluble union between man and woman. Catholics who divorce and remarry civilly without getting an annulment are considered to be adulterers, and are forbidden from receiving the sacraments of Penance and Communion.

Progressive prelates led by German-speaking bishops have sought to balance doctrine with mercy and look at each couple on a case-by-case basis, accompanying them on a path of reconciliation that could lead to them eventually receiving the sacraments.

Speaking from his comfortable living room as the sun set over St. Peter's, Arinze had a very clear answer to the proposal. He said Christ himself expressed what he thinks about someone who takes up with another partner after a valid marriage has been celebrated.

"Christ has one word for that action: He says 'adultury,'" Arinze said. "And Christ is meek and humble of heart. Are we going to be wiser than Christ or more merciful than Christ?"

Arinze also made clear that he supports Nigeria's criminalization of homosexuality, albeit not the mandatory prison term. And he condemned attempts by the West to impose its liberal ideas about gay rights as a condition of development aid. Pope Francis himself has condemned this type of "ideological colonization" on the developing world.

"I do not support this imprisonment," Arinze said. "But that the government or parliament would show non-acceptance of homosexual activity? I don't think we should find fault with a parliament that finds it against what they want and what is in line with their culture. In the case of Nigeria, both the Christians and the Muslims say this is not acceptable."

Regardless of how the synod votes, the decision on what direction the church should take on these issues rests ultimately with Francis, who can use the final synod document as the basis for a future document of his own, or ignore it.

On the eve of the synod's vote, Francis sent a signal Friday about his views.

"Times change and we Christians must continually change," he said in his morning homily. "We must change firm in the faith in Jesus Christ, firm in the truth of the Gospel, but our attitude must continually move according to the signs of the times."


Follow Nicole Winfield at