By Neil Dhingra

Should we think of the church as a family?

Tolstoy famously wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and the line also seems to apply to the church: ecclesial failure can come from several different factors. I’m unfamiliar with theological use — Roman Catholic, Anglican, or otherwise — of the “Anna Karenina principle,” but both the strengths and the challenges of thinking of the church as family are evident in the inculturation of Vatican II in Africa, in which the model remains prominent, as Father Idara Otu, MSP, shows in a fascinating book. If we consider the church to be a (happy) family, though, we must first ask what sort of family and how it relates to outsiders.

The 1960s saw many firsts for African Catholicism, from the first indigenous African cardinal (Laurean Rugambwa, 1960) to the first modern papal visit to Africa (Paul VI, 1969). The decade’s most significant Catholic event, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) included the participation of 276 African bishops, but only 6 indigenous African bishops and a single native-born African theologian. Nevertheless, the idea of communio as an interpretive key for the council, which envisions the church as “a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Lumen Gentium), so that, as John Paul II would later write, communion between Christians “immediately flows” from their participation in trinitarian life, could go along with an African vision of social communion.


Idara Otu recognizes the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s famous appeal to ubuntu, which replaces “I think, therefore I am,” with “I am human because I belong. I participate. I share.” This deep sense of communality can be imagined as familial. Thus, decades after the Council, the final message of the First African Synod (1994) would declare, “The Church as Family has its origin in the Blessed Trinity at the depths of which the Holy Spirit is the bond of communion” (my emphasis).

Of course, families can be dangerously narrow and authoritarian. Describing the First African Synod’s claim that the image of the church as “Household of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22) is “particularly relevant for Africa,” Otu notes that St. Paul tells believers that they “are no longer stranger and aliens,” so the church must transcend blood and natural ties in its common Father and shared baptism. The Synod pronounced the church “a single family” with new consanguinity, as “the same blood flows in our veins, and it is the blood of Christ.” The embodiment of the new family often would be small Christian communities of ten to twenty families that crossed tribal and other boundaries. Notably, the Rwandan bishops were not able to attend the Synod; news of the Rwandan genocide came during the synod itself and influenced its proceedings.

The Synod also emphasized that in “a truly African family, joys, difficulties, and trials are shared in a trusting dialogue.” Nevertheless, especially regarding this, Otu avoids romanticism: he recognizes the dangers of oppressive and patriarchal familial structures in Africa, which had led the late theologian John Mary Waliggo to call the model of “Church-as family,” “a double-edged sword.” Oppressive and patriarchal familial structures, along with the legacy of mission houses often run as quasi-theocracies by clergy, can lead to clericalism.

Against that danger, Otu points out that African families also solve conflicts through the “family palaver,” which involves practices of intense mutual listening. The palaver redefines authority from domination to the enabling of participation. Here, Otu draws on Elochukwu Uzukwu’s “Manja paradigm: “The Manja underline listening as the most dominant characteristic of the chief. His ‘large ears’ bring him close to God, ancestors, and divinities and close to the conversation taking place in the community.” Likewise, the Jesuit theologian Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator has noted the scene in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where a murder required subsequent gathering and conversation: “In all the nine villages of Umuofia a town crier with his ogene [gong] asked every man to be present tomorrow morning…. In the morning the marketplace was full.”

Leadership is not monopoly, and wisdom is not distant and esoteric authority but the ability to speak a word that “holds the community together.” As an Ethiopian proverb says, “When spider webs unite, they can tie up the lion.” Still, Orobator acknowledges, in Achebe’s description, the women were excluded. Otu recognizes that the First African Synod never rigorously analyzes clericalism but merely commends an “authority in love.” However, he maintains that any familial vision grounded in trinitarian communion cannot countenance inequality and domination foreign to the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Otu also notes of the First African Synod, “Except for scanty references to African Traditional Religion and Islam, the First African Synod is silent on the existence of other faith traditions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.” This shows, Otu ventures, that “interfaith dialogue is still at its infancy in the continent of Africa.” Furthermore, “The First African Synod gives minimal emphasis to mutual dialogue between church and society,” so that the tone of its synodal documents suggests a “one-way dialogue.” There remained room for further theological development.

After the First African Synod, pastoral letters were released with names like “The Church in Africa, a Church-family,” and “Christ is our Peace: the Church-Family of God: Place and Sacrament of Pardon, Reconciliation, and Peace in Africa.” The Second African Synod met fifteen years later in 2009 and emphasized social mission, with the church envisioned as “salt of the earth” by virtue of being the Family of God. If the Second African Synod never fully articulated a trinitarian-based social mission, it defined justice in neither individualistic nor rationalistic terms but as the restoration of right relationships, to God and humans. This restoration requires mercy that echoes God’s offering of a new chance to sinners, so reconciliation leads to justice and, finally, peace.

If social justice requires a sense of mutual dependence with others, grounded in solidarity with God who created the world for all to share in right relationship, acts of communion with God are consequential for a just Africa. As Pope Benedict writes in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Africae Munus, the Eucharist becomes the “source and summit for reconciliation” and “holiness is the most effective way of building up a society of reconciliation, justice, and peace.” The Eucharist leads to a going forth; the Church as Family of God becomes generative in creating a society directed towards a common good in which all, including women, participate. J.J. Carney has described an example of this in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in which a settlement between two families quarreling over fishing rights was completed by the local bishop’s celebration of the Eucharist. (Otu notes that critics, including Orobator, register the lack of any concrete pastoral plan for an education for social justice to foster this, however.)

Regarding those others largely unmentioned by the First African Synod, in Africae Munus, Pope Benedict writes, “In her social apostolate, the Church does not make religious distinctions. She comes to the help of those in need, be they Christian, Muslim or animist.” He asks followers of other religions to “practice reciprocity” in this. Nevertheless, following John Dadosky, Otu asks whether communio ecclesiology — and, presumably, the familial ecclesiologies drawn from it, still presuppose a one-way relationship between the church and the world, and if it needs to be complemented by an ecclesiology of friendship. Likewise, African theologians like Teddy Sakupapa have noted, “The notions of clan typically reinforce a preoccupation with internal relations amongst members to the detriment of the ‘world’ outside.” Paul Sankey, on whom Sakupapa draws, claims that a clan may “welcome the odd stranger,” but is unlikely to try to incorporate as many members as possible.

Dadosky says that Vatican II discouraged seeing the church as over and against the world, not least as its Decree on Mission, Ad Gentes, recognized the “Holy Spirit was already at work in the world before Christ was glorified.” To Dadosky, even a generous communio ecclesiology inclines to either rejecting the world or imagining an “implicit mystical communion with the Other” — that the Other is already “enfold[ed] into the mystery which the church explicitly manifests.” Whether the church sees itself as competitive to the Other or positions itself as immediately open to the Other, however inauthentic, the church loses the ability to genuinely receive from the Other. The model of friendship, however, lets the church engage in relationships with secular culture and other religions that involve not only charity and enrichment but also — and necessarily — challenge.

Should we think of the church as a family? The answer might depend on whether we can imagine authority figures in the family having “large ears,” especially for those marginalized, and if the family’s distinctive warmth preempts or fosters friendships with those outside of its household. In any case, as Idara Otu’s book clearly shows, our answer should involve looking at African Christianity, particularly its ecclesiology. If “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” having a happy family requires as much ecclesial discernment as possible.

Neil Dhingra is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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