The Conceptualisation of Africa in the Catholic Church

Luca Bussoti, CEI-IUL researcher, recently published a paper, in co-authorship with Laura António Nhaueleque, entitled “The Conceptualisation of Africa in the Catholic Church. Comparing Historically the Thought of Daniele Comboni and Adalberto da Postioma“.


This article aims to analyse how the Catholic Church dealt with the “African question”. This is made through the analysis of two symbolic figures who lived in different cultural, sociological and theological contexts, the Italian missionaries Daniele Comboni and Adalberto da Postioma. The article reveals the transformations, resistances and continuities of Catholic missionary work in Africa in the last two centuries. The analysis presented here is limited and determined by the two above mentioned figures who represent the focus of this research. In chronological terms, it intends to consider the missionary activity of the Catholic Church in the 19th and 20th centuries. Geographically, the study privileges the areas in which Comboni and Postioma operated as missionaries: Central Africa and namely Sudan for Comboni and Angola for Postioma. The study presented here distinguishes between missionary theology (and philosophy, especially in the case of Postioma) and missionary practice, trying to point out the different perspectives of these two dimensions.

Comboni and Postioma are two figures who have similarities but also great differences: the similarities are in their dedication to discovering African culture and the need to evangelise African people. The differences are basically historical, due to the two different periods in which they lived, and their ideas about how to deal with Africa within the context of Catholic missionary work. Comboni belonged to a “fighting church”, in which to evangelise meant “to civilise” or “to Europeanise”, while Postioma was part of a heterogeneous strand which aimed to balance Christianity with traditional African beliefs, promoting a culture of evangelisation, but as part of a missionary work based on dialogue and respect for the different cultures. The comparison of these two figures offers a way to understand the path that Catholic missionary thought followed for about one hundred years of its relationship with Africa and also to point out how the “Africanism” accepted by the Catholic Church encountered fluid but definite limits. Unlike Comboni, Postioma probably went beyond these limits, with the result that his work has remained marginalised until the present day.

He applied the ideals of the Second Vatican Council and Africae Terrarum. However, it seems that he clashed with the ambiguous position of the Catholic Church on political issues related to the ‘Angolan question’. In Postioma’s thought, Christianity and Western civilisation went through a separation. Unlike Comboni, Postioma emphasised that Christianity should be rooted in universal principles and concepts that go beyond relationship ties with a specifically European culture. Such a conceptualisation was not easily accepted within the Catholic Church. Despite the Second Vatican Council, the Church remained highly conservative, especially in Portugal and among the clergy present in the African colonies, even though there were exceptions. When the discourse shifted from the religious to the political, the situation got worse. Postioma did not stop talking, especially when he went to Angola. He reflected, taught, and wrote about a condition that seemed to him simply scandalous. This fact can probably explain why he was neglected after he left Angola for political reasons. Postioma continued to write, however, although his contributions have been consistently ignored. His main contribution remains the formulation of a radical theory of intercultural relationships between Christianity and African culture, before this notion was officially recognized by the Catholic institution, in the 1950s.

Journal: Paper on Social Sciences and Missions, 32 (2019), pp. 148-176

Authors: Laura António Nhaueleque (Universidade Aberta de Lisboa) & Luca Bussotti (Investigador CEI-ISCTE IUL/Professor Visitante UFPE)

Photo: Church in Huambo, Angola / CC BY-SA 2.0

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Luca Bussotti

Researcher at CEI-IUL. PhD in Development Sociology (Univ. degli Studi di Pisa). Scientific Coordinator of the research program “Media e violações dos Direitos Humanos na África Lusófona”, funded by CODESRIA. Research interests: development, Italy and Lusophone Africa, Mozambique. Previously: lecturer at the Department of Social Sciences, Univ. degli Studi di Pisa) and coordinator of the Master program in Comunication and Development Cooperation of the UEM.

Leave a Reply