Making the Church Universal: Alioune Diop, Africa, and Vatican II

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:30 PM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Elizabeth A. Foster, Tufts University
This paper explores how the demise of European empires and the rise of vocal Catholic constituencies in Europe’s former colonies shaped the new departures of Vatican II by looking at the example of French Africa. It relates to the conference theme of “loyalties” by showing how devout Catholic Africans sought to bring the Catholic faith, practices, and institutions into line with their identities as Africans and make the church and the faith truly catholic and universal, as opposed to European. Many leading francophone African intellectuals were Catholics, and there was an important Catholic strand of the negritude movement, which has been almost completely ignored by scholars, that worked toward this end. Their leader was Alioune Diop, the largely unsung hero of the movement who founded and edited its journal Présence africaine and ran a publishing house by the same name that published the work of fellow radical African Catholic activists. Diop was a devout Senegalese Muslim convert to Catholicism who sat at the epicenter of overlapping French, African, and Catholic intellectual circles and brokered contact between them. He founded the Society of African Culture, which prepared a volume on African expectations of the Vatican Council and installed an unofficial lobby in Rome for its duration. Diop also spoke on Vatican Radio and had the ear of John XXIII, who uttered phrases regarding Africa that seemed to come directly from Diop’s writings and speeches. In his editorials in Présence africaine and in the books put out by his press, Diope maintained that Africa and its diaspora had particular contributions to make to the universal church, such as tolerance vis-à-vis Islam. This was echoed by the francophone African bishops who attended the council and it is quite clear that forces in the Vatican heard their message and heeded it in the 1960s.
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