There was an interesting coincidence of Pope Francis travelling to troubled places in Africa at the very time when interfaith institutions held a virtual conference linking participants in Asia, North America, and Africa organised by Harmony Institute and Tangaza University in Nairobi. In three panels over two days, interfaith participants addressed pressing concerns such as Religion and Politics, Environment, and Human Development. Those three themes were anchored on papal encyclicals which Pope Paul VI and Pope Francis had issued over time. These were Pope Paul VI’s 1966 Populorum Progressio, and Pope Francis’ 2015 Laudato Si, and 2020 Fratelli Tutti. The two events, Francis travelling to trouble ridden areas in Africa and the virtual conference tended to reinforce each other.
Francis issues statements that attract attention beyond the Catholic world because they involve all humanity rather than the propagation of a particular faith. This is similar to Fethullah Gulen, leader of the globally growing Hezmet Movement, appealing to interfaith understanding in tackling inequities, environment, and need for human cooperation. Francis was in Congo where he addressed what is often ignored as he called for big powers to stop exploiting the Congolese. The tendency is for commentators to talk of warring Congolese factions but not the extra-continental imperial predators that fuel the fighting. Ignoring the critical role that predators play in the never ending instability in the Great Lakes is a way of prolonging the instability.
The entire mess in Congo is more externally engineered than a consequence of domestic differences. In the late 19th Century, Congo was the focus of intense European rivalry and competition for raw materials and territories. The Europeans settled their rivalries at the Berlin Conference on the Partition of Africa in 1884-85 and achieved three things. They shared the Congo, with Leopold receiving the biggest chunk; decided on the rules of grabbing territories in the rest of the continent, and agreed not to kill each other in Africa. They did not, however, agree not to kill Africans or make Africans kill each other. Instead, through the doctrine of effective occupation, they internalised Emmanuel Kant’s suggestion of ‘thrashing’ Africans into separation. Since then, they have been ‘thrashing’ the Congolese into killing each other as they loot the wealth for over 130 years. It was this reality that Pope Francis confronted when he visited Congo and addressed extra-continental predators. Previously, Francis had issued two encyclicals, Laudato Si in 2015 and Fratelli Tutti in 2020, in which he had focused on the pressing global challenges of the time. Before Francis, Pope Paul VI had issued his 1966 Populorum Progressio on the challenge of poverty and inequality at the individual and even country levels. The three encyclicals showed papal concern for integral threats to human development.
Each of the encyclical arose out of particular context in time and attitude and each called for change in attitude toward poverty, environment, and senses of exclusivity. For Paul VI, the 1960s were times of hope and despair. There was hope because it was the period of decolonisation but also global despair because of upheavals and wars, the growing poverty gap, and perceived neglect of the weak. There was need to address poverty and therefore for everyone to get involved in uplifting the weak, closing the individual and collective poverty gap, encouraging participatory everything including democracy, and showing serious concern for humanity. It was in the 1960s that the notion of ‘liberation theology’ took root stressing the fact that the poor need more than good preaching. People needed liberation from socio-religious as well as economic and political oppressive conditions. Paul was calling for a change of attitude on the issue of individual and collective poverty within countries and internationally.
If poverty was a pressing global issue in the 1960s, environmental degradation loomed large in 2015 when Francis issued Laudato Si to warn about the global threat to humanity arising from Climate Change partly due to human recklessness that was destroying the environment. Environmental preservation was the responsibility of every person and country and cannot be left to one individual or country. People needed to change attitude from the negative implied in the ‘tragedy of the commons’ to the positive inherent in collective cooperation in confronting the then clear danger to the earth. Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s Nobel Environmental champion had issued the same warning, that nature could be very cruel if it was mistreated. Those who ignored the warnings and had denied the reality of environmental threats witness unprecedentedly destructive floods, droughts, and fires that are worse than if one country declared war on another. Since no country, irrespective of its amount of purported wealth and military hardware and technology, can escape the wrath of the environment, there now is much talk and conferencing about climate change by many who had ignored danger signs. They have been hit, and hit hard.
The environment has invaded the humans partly because the humans have forgotten how to be human as they neglect the rule of both natural and manmade laws. Since people engage in destructive nationalism and refuse to treat each other as brothers and sisters, Francis issued his 2020 Fratelli Tutti encyclical to tackle the tendency to increase suffering through senses of exclusivity which protects the notion of ‘garden’ in Europe and North America from immigrants and refugees escaping created political and economic misery in the purported African and the Middle East ‘jungle’. With Josep Borell, EU minister for foreign affairs, as the champion of the ‘garden’ mentality, racism has intensified and there is decreased sense of world brotherhood. To deal with this devastating anti-brotherly Western ‘garden-jungle’ mentality, Francis was at painto advance brotherly inclusion as a way of lessening human suffering. His visit to war torn Congo and South Sudan to call for predator accountability was in line with the integral spirit of the three papal encyclicals.
Pope Francis’ visit to Africa coincided with the Harmony Institute-Tangaza University Tri-Continental conference on the import of papal encyclicals which implied a positive convergence of seriousness on looming global dangers. While Francis promoted peace agenda and addressed the essence of continuing war and destruction in the Great Lakes, the Harmony-Tangaza web conference assessed the meaning and global impact of the three papal encyclicals. There is, therefore, global need to act on poverty, environment, contriving of peace, and treating others with brotherly respect. Francis is the living symbol of the warnings and the promise inherent in the three encyclicals whose ultimate objective is to promote world ‘harmony’.