Africa’s Catholic Churches Face Competition and a Troubled Legacy as They Grow

Joseph Hellweg

Pope Francis has completed his seven-day tour of three African countries: Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius. It was a significant trip for a number of reasons.

During his visit, the pope spoke on issues of peace and ecological sustainability that these countries are facing. Mozambique recently signed a peace accord with longtime rebels, and the country is still recovering from the cyclone earlier this year that killed over 1,000 people. Madagascar faces severe deforestation, and Mauritius too faces risks from climate change.

Africa has the world’s third largest Catholic population, after the Americas and Europe. Nearly 1 out of every 5 Africans – 19.2% – is Catholic. The Pew Research Center expects the number of African Christians south of the Sahara, including Catholics, to double by 2050.

From my perspective as a scholar of African religions, however, the pope’s visit needs to be understood against the background of the church’s longer history in Africa and the current challenges Catholicism faces in the continent.

Early Catholic hHstory in Africa

Although Catholicism in Africa expanded dramatically under European colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the church’s roots in Africa go back to its earliest days.

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