Competing Catholicisms

The Jesuits, the Vatican & the Making of Postcolonial French Africa


Welcome to the African Griot! Can you please begin by providing a brief overview of your book Competing Catholicisms?

I am grateful for the unique opportunity James Currey gave me to publish this book, and to participate in the African Griot. Competing Catholicisms is an evolution of my doctoral thesis at Boston University (2018), thus my gratitude to my mentors Dana Robert and John Thornton. The thesis focused primarily on the process of Africanisation of the church through a historical and institutional analysis of the creation of the Jesuit Vice-Province of West Africa. The summary on the cover of the book is very well done, and I will invite you to read it. However, I would like to emphasize that the evolution from the thesis to the book added two dimensions to the initial project. The first element is the idea of competition and the second is an effort of a global reading of this history that seems rather local, regional at best. 

The concept of competition in sports as in the market economy is generally perceived as a source of better performance, product improvement, and a source of growth. Such a concept, however, is suspicious in an organization like the Catholic Church. Roman Catholicism is very concerned with its unity, and competition seems to work against it and against the celebrated virtue of humility. It creates a fear of division. I therefore take a risk here which, in fact, is also a fait accompli. The historical and localized analysis of the transition from the European-led missionary church to the African-led church has been effectively marked by a competition between various agendas aiming at the one evangelization. What I mean is that a French Jesuit, a Cameroonian Jesuit, or even the Roman Curia of the Jesuits might belong to the same religious corporation and aim at the same goal of spreading the gospel for the salvation of the souls. 

However, in the implementation of the mission, this unique agenda was fragmented in West French Africa, and other parts of the world. The different historical backgrounds of the members and their specific personalities, local politics, religious and cultural realities, as well as global events effectively lead to the rise of different agendas sometimes in contentious competition with each other. Because this competition was experienced first and foremost as a conflict, it left some negative traces in the institutional history of the church in Africa in the 1970s. 

I argue here that it was in fact this competition, often overlooked, that led to the current numerical growth of African Christianity. Here, too, the global dimension matters. It allows us, not only to show that what was happening in this region of Africa was actually part of global shifts in religion and politics, also, by making this regional history global, I reframe the debate at the local level, and thus revisit this period in our history in a cathartic way. Paul Ricœur inspires this cathartic function of history.

What led you to begin this research? Has the Jesuit missions and Christianity in postcolonial French Africa always interested you?

I am a Jesuit, with a training in history. It is logical to have an interest in Jesuit missions and Christianity in post-colonial Africa. The immediate moment that motivated the publication of the book, however, was the political context in the world by the time I was defending my dissertation. It coincided with the start of Donald Trump’s administration in the United States where I was living, especially the ban on entry to the United States from a number of countries. Surprisingly, Chad was in that list while, on the ground in Africa, it was at the forefront of the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. 

I realized then how little was known about the strategic importance of this region, even among the great analysts who appeared on television screens. It is an amazing discovery from this book that, from the 1930s, the Jesuits, at the beginning of their mission in Chad, which they initially considered part of the Middle East, already understood that the stability of Chad was of paramount importance for the rest of the region and had national (for France) as well as global implications. Their mission was therefore to serve as a stabilizing force. 

From the 1940s, Chad had become a microcosm of the world’s most pressing strategic issues, and that’s still the case today. The Jesuits, I repeat, understood this in the 1930s and invested enormous resources in creating a Church able to cohabit with Islam while fighting its most extreme aspects in the same way as atheist materialism and, to some extent, Americanism. In their effort to evangelize Chad, they established a solid Christianity in the country, helped protect churches in the region, and contributed to the growth of Christianity.

What does ‘the making’ in your subtitle (The Jesuits, the Vatican & the Making of Postcolonial French Africa) mean?

More than a concept, I mean a historical and institutional process. Postcolony has often been treated primarily as an ideology with political and economic implications. I insist, in this book, that it was a slow institutional process which, in fact, had its roots in the history of the church in French Africa. The idea of granting independence while remaining in the union was a Catholic idea before it became Gaullist. In the Catholic Church, it meant promoting an indigenous church, rooted in African cultures and with African leaders, but never separated from Rome. This idea was implemented by the Church in Africa since the end of the First World War with missionary encyclicals such as Maximum Iliud (1919), Rerum Ecclesiae (1926), Evangelii Praecones (1951) and Fidei Donum (1957). It could have inspired the French Union promoted by Charles de Gaulle. 

De Gaulle was not only Catholic, but also close to the Jesuits, as was his lieutenant in Central Africa, Philippe Leclerc, whose wife was the main sponsor for the construction of the Cathedral of N’djamena (Chad). Jacques Maritain, Ambassador of France to the Holy See, helped plan the Chad mission from Rome. All these Catholic leaders designed France’s African politics in preparation of the period after independence. 

Curiously, according to Elizabeth Foster, the hand behind Fidei Donum was Marcel Lefèbvre. While he was Vicar Apostolic of Dakar in Senegal, Lefèbvre also served as papal Legate throughout French Africa and the de facto leader of an ecclesiastical regional organization that inspired political and economic regional organizations of this part of Africa. The sub-regional organizations of the AOF and the AEF during the colonial period, which today constitute the ECOWAS and CEMAC blocs, existed initially as regional ecclesiastical organizations.

What is significant about the time frame your book investigates, 1946-1978?

Of course, I could have chosen another time frame. But, I settled with 1946 and 1978. The year 1946 represents the official recognition of the Jesuit mission in Chad, with the creation of Chad’s Apostolic Prefecture a year later, in 1947. It was in the aftermath of the Second World War, which marked the beginning of the process of political decolonization, and accelerated the Africanisation of the clergy. In contrast, 1978 corresponds to a publication by the Cameroonian Jesuit Engelbert Mveng, “De la sous-mission à la succession” (From sub-mission to succession), and therefore marks an important step in this process of Africanisation, and African scholars’ response to and appropriation of it.

Your book traces the rapid expansion of Christianity in Central and Western French Africa during the second half of the twentieth century, why was this expansion so rapid at this time?

The CARA Report of 2015 gives evidence of a real boom in African Roman Catholicism since the 1980s, with up to 257% of growth in the membership of the church and 118% in religious vocations among Africans. This boom in the membership coincided with the Africanisation of the Church in the second half of the 20th century. The works of Jean Paul Messina and Charlotte Saïd-Walker on Central Cameroon have shown how laymen and women maintained and even grew the church in Cameroon after the departure of German missionaries following World War I. Even as Rome was sending more European missionaries to Africa, with the implementation of Fidei Donum in the 1960s, it acknowledged substantial gains in terms of Africanisation and the need for help and support towards African churches because there were already signs of a booming Christianity that came along with its own challenges. In the 1970s, and with renewed works of translations and vernacularization, the participation of the faithful increased, the membership steadily grew alongside religious vocations, which is reflected in the CARA Report and similar data from the World Christian Database.

What I found interesting is that, where Protestant churches were similarly booming through what David Barrett called Schism and Renewal, the Catholic Church, in contrast, obtained similar results through greater institutional control combined with relative flexibility and unreported inter and intra-congregational competition in the mission field. The Roman Catholic Church easily embraced changes in clerical Africanisation, translations, and liturgical adaptations. It, however, also skillfully isolated what it saw as extreme or radical without serious damage to its standing in Africa. Not only did the church isolate people like Marcel Lefèbvre whose schism had limited impact on Africa’s Roman Catholicism, it also ostracized other radical thinkers among the African clergy as evidenced in this book with the lives of Mveng, Eboussi, and to certain extent Hebga. This was happening as European, from Pope Paul VI to Pedro Arrupe, and missionaries like Eric de Rosny embraced Africanisation as the legitimate policy for successful evangelization. The same controlled flexibility is palpable in the acceptance of what Ludovic Lado has called Catholic Pentecostalism, embraced by thousands of Africa’s Catholics today.

Your cover is great! What does it represent?

Thank you for this question. The image is the sixth station on Engelbert Mveng’s Way of the Cross. It represents the encounter of Jesus during his passion with Veronica, who wipes the face of her Lord. It is therefore an essentially good, evangelical encounter in the sense that Veronica comes to the aid of a suffering person regardless of the risk for her own life. It is a model of what the life of the Christian should be.

This image thus confirms a thesis contained in the conclusion of this book about Mveng’s survival through his works. But the image goes further to sum up the central idea of the book. What struck me first about this image, however, was the look of the two main protagonists. The gaze of Veronica and that of Christ seem to dominate the scene to the point of reflecting a certain mistrust, however unjustified in view of what is happening in this scene. These defiant glances are the symbol of the competition described in the book. All Africans and Europeans, in their respective positions in the narrative of the book, were disciples of this suffering Christ carrying his cross. They shared the desire to do good to the expense of their own lives. Not only did they try to follow Christ as he gave his life for those he loved, but also, they followed the example of Veronica who is coming to the rescue of a suffering person. This is the essence of the vocation of all missionaries. They are all indelibly marked, I dare to believe, like the Holy Shroud in the center of the image, by the face of Christ printed in their hearts. This justifies their religious and missionary commitment. 

Unfortunately, what sometimes seems more visible in the historiography of the devolution of missions is this defiant look, that of the “dé-mission” of Eboussi and its unfair interpretations, The Emancipation of the churches of Hebga, and “de la sous-mission à la succession” of Mveng. These African pioneers also suffered from discrimination, sometimes racism. Yet, in the middle of that competition and perceived distrust, and this was the most important thing for them and for us, there was a Veronica in each one of them. They all served under the banner of the one cross of Christ (was not the African Simon of Cyrene the one who helped Jesus to carry the said cross?), but their eyes (missionary strategies, personal characters, nationalist, geostrategic and ideological interests) seemed to pull them apart. This encounter was sometimes very painful, yet unavoidable for a transition like that which I address in this book, and which was necessary for the growth of Christianity.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Two things actually. First, my previous comment on the book cover is where I would like to leave my reader. It concludes a history of competition and conflict with a spiritual note. This might anger some professional historians, who might condemn this clerical interference with the science of their discipline. Yet, I prefer, stubbornly, to ask the question, whether it is legitimate to study an institution which, though human and social in many respects, claims primarily to be spiritual in its foundation, motivations, and work. This is the question I had the first day I attended a class on the history of Christianity at the State University of Yaoundé I: whether it is scientifically accurate to study the history of such institutions as the church or a religious congregation while overlooking the spirituality that justifies its existence, and might have motivated its main actors. 

Second, the theme of Africanisation, which is widely covered in this book, has taken an interesting turn in recent weeks. One candidate, in the final days of the French Presidential Campaign explained his theory of the “Grand Déplacement” (Great Displacement) as a dangerous Africanisation of France, led by Muslims, and that must be stopped at all costs. As cynical and terrifying as it may seem, it is worth noting that in mission studies, the concept of “reverse mission” has been around for almost two decades in the West. The idea of France becoming a receiving mission territory was raised in 1943, in the middle of the war in which Africans were fighting for the liberation of France. In the case of “reverse mission,” the re-Christianization of France coincides with France political Right to “liberate” France (from secularism for the church, and Islamism for the political Right) by a return to its Christian values. Paradoxically, this return to France Christian root would be led by the Africans that the same Right forcefully rejects.

Competing Catholicisms


Hardcover, 9781847012715, May 2022

324 pp., 1 b/w, 18 line illustration

£65.00 / $95.00

Religion in Transforming Africa

James Currey



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JEAN LUC ENYEGUE, SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Historical Institute in Africa, Nairobi. He also lectures on church history at Hekima University College, Catholic University of Eastern Africa.