National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Posted: September 17, 2004

Interview with Msgr. Joseph Obunga,
Secretary General, Uganda Episcopal Conference

September 11, 2004

By John L. Allen, Jr.
Kampala, Uganda

NCR Rome Correspondent John L. Allen Jr. traveled to Africa in early September. While there, he interviewed Msgr. Joseph Obunga, the secretary general of the Ugandan bishops' conference. Allen's report on his African trip can be found here: A journey to Africa: confronting AIDS, relations among religions, and the challenges of poverty .

NCR: What are the main challenges facing the Catholic Church in Uganda?
Msgr. Joseph Obunga:
Personally, I would say secularism. We are losing the identity of Catholicity. That is to say, people used to be very proud of being Catholics. They were very concerned with Catholic ethics. They understood that it is sin if I do something wrong. But today, we find that even someone who calls him or herself a committed Catholic, he or she goes along with the trend of the present day, what I call secularism. Here in Uganda, for example, we have the problem of corruption. This is not only among the non-Catholics, even the Catholics are involved. We have got the problem of pornography. Catholics too are involved, because of money, which leads us back to corruption. We’re after money, we’re just like others who have lost their sense of identity. We have lost our Catholicity, the sense of Catholicity. So deep Christianity is losing root.

To what do you attribute this secularism?
The truth is that the evangelization of Africa did not go deep. It came as a kind of manifestation; once I’m baptized and I attach myself to the Catholic Church, I have joined the religion of the Europeans, I have left my pagan ways in name and outlook. Whereas real Christianity should touch someone’s heart.

Where is the pressure coming from?
The general sexuality – for example, example, pornography. Now, you are in Uganda. I don’t know if you have read the recent news about people going to the lakes to join what you call in Europe ‘devil worship.’ Devil worship has come here. The majority are confessed Christians. Then there are the sects, such as the so-called ‘saved.’ Again, there are confessed Catholics. In general, pornography, promiscuity … Catholics are involved. When we go to Catholic schools, they’re not performing any better than the others at resisting the temptations. Some are eating the money of the students [stealing it]. Stealing exams, bringing the exams to the students before the exam time comes to sell them to the students. Such practices. The sects have come, and the Catholics go, especially our youth.

What are the most prominent sects?
Generally, the Pentecostals. The ‘saved.’ But anybody can come up with the name of a church, and he will get grants. They spread rapidly.

Why are they growing?
Because they have got baits, the riches. They say if you come, we shall give you money. They entice the members with free scholarships, clothing. Some people here are very poor. If you come, they will give you something. Most of these sects come from America, and the Americans give them money, they give them things, and they bring them here. They can attract people cheaply.

Do they deliver on those promises?
Some, yes. They have come and opened up some cheap schools. Here, the schools, education, has not been cheap at all, because we pay equally in the government schools as in the private schools. Now they are coming with subsidized kinds of schools, and they are attracting young people. Now with the scourge of AIDS, they help with the orphans. But of course they take the orphans and indoctrinate them, and then put them in schools that are a bit cheaper.

So the orphanages are a way of generating new converts?
Some, not all of them. Some are intentionally aiming at that, especially in the villages, though also some in the city.

What is the pastoral strategy of the bishops in Uganda to respond to the challenge posed by the sects?
Catechesis. The bishops are planning to evaluate the methods used in catechesis, the original catechesis, and the on-going catechesis.

What does that mean concretely?
First of all, the first catechesis. We are planning to come up with a method that is not only informational, but formational. That is, forming somebody who grows in the spirit of the Catholic Church. We are now printing a book I have written on the small Christian communities. First of all, I have put it in Ugandan, and it will come in English. I am writing on deepening the faith by building the small Christian communities.

Are there a number of small Christian communities already in existence?
Sure, yes. I don’t know how many. It depends on each diocese. In some dioceses, they are so vast they are no longer small communities. In my book, I am putting the principles and the methods of building those small Christian communities. I am emphasizing that the ideal size would be about 15-20 people.

What will they do?
The idea is holistic evangelization for integral development. We want to evangelize the whole person, not only the soul. We want to evangelize his whole life and the environment in which he lives, which means that these people have got to plan the development of their spiritual welfare by discerning and practicing. Secondly, they have to discuss and plan areas that concern their own physical development and social development. For example, the poor families we are aiming at will discuss increasing the family’s income. We are working with the department of Caritas here, which is social development. If we can everywhere instill in church leaders that they are not only spiritual people, but they are for the whole human person, then we will make progress.

This sounds a bit like liberation theology.
I don’t know what your idea of liberation theology is. Every theology is liberative. However, the new evangelization that was declared by Pope John Paul II towards the dawn of the new millennium is holistic. It takes the whole person. You cannot preach the gospel to an empty stomach, and I think that some have this idea. These sects will find that person, who has the empty stomach, and they will feed him and they will take him. Where, don’t ask me. So I feel that at some stage since the beginning of Christianity among the traditional religions, we have lost sight of the physical needs of the human person. We put the emphasis, in accord with the theology of that time, elsewhere. The theology of Trent emphasized prima lex ecclesiae, salus animarum … saving one’s soul. They did not put much emphasis on the needs of the body, the social needs. Now these sects are emphasizing that, capitalizing on the needs of the whole human person.

We need a more integral approach.
Yes, integral.

Is the Catholic Church losing people to the sects?
We don’t have statistics, but some are going, a good number are going, although there is a belief that they go and come back.

Is that true?
Some, not all.

In Latin America, I have heard bishops argue that the people the church is losing to the sects will eventually come back.
Not all of them. I have seen some for whom the sects have done good things for them, while the Catholic Church did nothing.

What do you mean by ‘done good’?
Giving them material things.

I’ve also heard that the sects are good at personal morality, such as getting people off drugs and alcohol.
That is what small Christian communities are geared towards, personal well-being. The overall well-being of the human person. The sects are doing well in that, because they are very intertwined. They are small groups, so they know each other. They are concerned about the overall welfare of their members.

So we have something to learn from the sects?
Oh, sure. We have something to learn. I would call it a challenge.

What is the relationship with Islam here?
The relationship is not bad. Lately we have got what we call the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, a subsidiary of the World Council for Religion and Peace. These days we are engaging in common programs, especially in AIDS, in bringing about peaceful resolution of conflicts, women’s programs, and in poverty eradication. The cooperation is good, generally speaking. At the same time, there is some kind of crusade of ‘Islamization.’ There are signs of that. There is a shrewdness. You hear of Muslims saying, ‘Marry those Christian girls.’ You see Muslims marrying these girls, so they become Muslims and produce Muslim children. That is there. Secondly, they are building schools left and right. At times they are very good, so that many Christians and Catholics take their children to these schools. Now, imagine a child taken at an early age, and he is exposed to the Muslim environment. After he has been there six or eight years, what will he be after those years?

As they used to say of the Jesuits, ‘Give me your child for six years and we’ll have him for life.’
Exactly. So, those are a few of the signs I see. They are aggressive.  They have made crusades, at times attacking Christianity.

Saying what?
Oh, ridiculing the Bible, ridiculing their practices. If you were staying tonight, I would take you out in the evening and you would hear them and see them, out on the street. Muslim preachers will be attacking the Catholic Church.

Is Islam growing here?
I think it is, yes. Not rapidly, slowly. But you never know.

As an African, would you say Islam is the primary challenge facing the church?
It depends on what side you look at it from. We have Islam, we have got HIV, we have the lack of peace. When you look at it today, the countries that don’t have peace are losing their people. What do you say about that? People are dying from the wars in Sudan, in northern Uganda people are dying. We border each other. These are areas affected badly.

Are all these challenges equal?
As I said, it depends on your angle. From a humanistic point of view, you might say it doesn’t matter what happens with Islam. But if you are a Christian, you might see Islam as more dangerous than AIDS. Of course, AIDS is a real danger, even poverty itself is a danger, so we have many dangers.

Is there a danger of the Islamization of Africa?
If I speak as an historian, I have to say yes. You know very well that once upon a time the whole of North Africa was Christian. But today, the story is different. We here are sort of a wall that prevents the spread of Islamization. In this country, we have had the war in northern Uganda. If Uganda had not put up a stiff resistance … Kony, this man Joseph Kony, was being helped by Islamic states. It came through Khartoum … who was behind it, we do not know, but Khartoum was at the forefront. They armed this man for 18, 19 years. Suppose Coyne had won this war. Today all of us might be Muslims, God forbid.

So it’s a real danger?
You ask me as a Christian, I say yes, it’s a real danger.  I am threatened. A simple Ugandan who is not a committed Christian is not concerned.

You mentioned HIV/AIDS. In Europe, we hear that Uganda is a success story. We hear that the government’s ‘ABC’ program has brought down the rate of infection. Is this true?
I don’t know whether the ‘ABC’ program was entirely governmental. At first, the government did not believe in abstinence. Of that I am 100 percent sure. It is the Catholic Church that wrote a pastoral letter in 1983 on the HIV epidemic, and it was propagating abstinence. It started programs of abstinence to save youth from AIDS, ‘Youth Alive.’ These programs were started by the church, in various regions. Those programs have awakened the understanding of young people and made them proud of abstinence. The government was chanting ‘condoms’ and they imported a lot of condoms. I’m sorry, but I think the president has only changed the tactics later when President Bush insisted on the non-use of condoms, or abstinence. I think there were some conditions attached to that, that those countries that do not promote abstinence may be deprived of some funding. Of late, we are happy to hear that the president has changed the language and is insisting on abstinence, but this is the project of the Catholic Church.

But is true that the infection rates have dropped?
The statistics indicate that they have dropped. At one point it was in the thirties, now we are talking of five or six percent.

Do you believe those statistics?
In some areas yes, and in some no. It depends on what part of the country you are talking at. The worst is in the camps in the north. These people are idle, most of them are not exposed to these different ways of stopping the contraction of AIDS. Kampala has got its own problems, the slums. You find that in some areas, things are bad. In some areas of western Uganda, things are okay, maybe also in the east. Those are the areas that were not so much affected.

Are you saying that at least in those areas, people really have changed their behavior?
No, their culture was very strong.

But has the promotion of abstinence changed the way people behave?
It has in some ways, especially in the cities where the facilities that conducted these seminars were more accessible than outside. I wouldn’t say they are more sexually responsible necessarily, because if you move around at night you can see the contrary. Because of the many entertainment places and so on.

So how do you explain the drop in infection rates?
People have become more and more aware. Formerly, you used to find girls and boys drinking together, drinking beer together. Today, if you are to move around, you will find groups of only men or only women, so they are not tempted. That’s a clear indication they figured something out. Second, in the church today we see more church marriages than ever before, which means that people have decided that they’d better stick to their one partner. That is very common. I’ve examined it here around, and it is a common phenomenon.

I’ve heard that polygamy is still a problem.
Yes, it is still a problem. But you know it’s not always really polygamy. Polygamy is when a man is known and his two, three, four wives are known. That’s the polygamous life. But people had decided that a man can go around with unknown women, let them be six or ten. They are not described as his wives, but his mistresses or sex partners. So, somebody would have about six sexual partners, not permanent ones, but on an ad-hoc basis. This lady would also have four or five men. This has gone down a bit.

But you still have a huge population of infected people. What needs to be done?
For us, we put an office here called HIV/AIDS focal point. The main purpose is to collect information and to disseminate it. We need to train other people in the dioceses to get this information and to put into practice the ways and means of preventing the spread of this disease, and the assistance to the victims. For example, now the church in Eastern Africa is preparing a conference on AIDS for next year. It will be here in June, 3-10. Normally we meet every three years, but now we’ll meet to see what we have learned from the whole experience and to come up with a strategic plan.

There has been much discussion about ‘inculturation’ in Africa. What are the ways in which the church in Uganda is dealing with inculturation?
I think one of the most effective ways is to take the church down to the grassroots, where the people live and work. When the religion came here, we built the parishes where the missionaries were on the top of the hill, and that’s what we thought the church was. Mind you, in the ecclesiology of that time, the church was the pope, the bishops, the priests and the religious. Someone was known to be a Christian once he was baptized, and he goes on Sunday to the top of the hill to the church to attend the Mass. So now, a Christian goes to church and then comes back down the hill to the village. The daily life he lives is not Christian. We have to change this. As I said, I’m writing a book on small Christian communities. The center of evangelization is no longer the top of the hill, but it’s among the people here. We can incorporate, ‘Christianize” our culture, not as we read it in the books, but as we live it every day.

So inculturation of the liturgy is not as important as inculturation in daily life?
The inculturation of the liturgy will bear meaning once daily life has been inculturated. It was not out of order [to start with the liturgy], it was an attempt. But now if we start at the village level where we live, I think the spirit will change.

Opus Dei in Uganda is very young. What has the relationship with the bishops’ conference been like?
I wonder whether the Opus Dei has ever addressed itself to the conference. I know them, I am here in Kampala. I know the fathers. But they have never had a platform to talk with the episcopal conference as such, not to my knowledge. I know they have contacted individual bishops. But I must confess, and perhaps I am mistaken, that I don’t think they have come to address the conference as such. Their address is in our directory, it is here, but we have very little contact between the Opus Dei and the conference.

What are your impressions of the work they are doing?
Opus Dei is committed, but it is committed only to the high class. That is my observation. If you ask an ordinary person on the street, ‘What is Opus Dei?’, he is not going to answer you. He may not even know. When Opus Dei came, they first settled near Makerere University, with the professors. Then they are working among the MPs, among the ministers maybe, among people of the high class. But an ordinary Christian or Catholic today in Uganda, you ask them about Opus Dei and they won’t know. That’s my personal observation.

Based on your vision of the pastoral work facing the church, getting down to the grassroots, does Opus Dei fit in?
Opus Dei fits in among the people of that class, the high class. If Opus Dei can have their communities, that’s where their impact will come. They’re doing good work for that class.

You are aware of the controversies that have surrounded Opus Dei in other parts of the world. Does that give you concern?
I must confess that I have not been in touch with it very closely, because of the nature of my work. I am constantly travelling.

Have you heard of these accusations?
When I was in Nairobi, I heard of some of them. One member of parliament told me she was concerned. She told me that she went on an Opus Dei retreat, she is a young woman preparing to get married, and they were told during the retreat that she was not to sleep with a man unless she has the intention of producing a child. The lady turned red, she was really concerned. She said, I thought I could have relations with my husband [without the intent of having a child from that act]. I tried to calm her down, I said I don’t know what they’re preaching because I have never attended one of their retreats. That’s the only occasion I have heard someone speaking about the Opus Dei.

So you have no concerns about Opus Dei expanding in Uganda?
No, as long as they are doing the work of God. To the best of my knowledge, that’s what they’re doing.

When you said they’re committed, what did you mean?
There are people on the campus. I have known them, who are with the Opus Dei. They have regular retreats, I have followed them up. I hear of them. I hear the fathers talking about what they are doing. That gives the impression that they are committed to their work. There is a lot of activity going on.

The Holy Father often talks about the ‘forgotten conflicts’ in Africa. What is the responsibility of the West, especially the United States?
No man is an island. I think America has some work to do to help these growing countries. First of all, I do not know exactly where the arms used in these conflicts are coming from. We are fighting because there are arms. Where do people get money to buy arms? These weapons come from Europe, from Islamic nations, or from America. Much of the money comes from America. Secondly, there is violence because of bad leadership. If I were an American, I would feel concerned not to encourage those Africans to fight amongst themselves. I would do what I can to ensure good governance in Africa. Often America pops up on the side of the wrong leader. This is what happened, for example, if it is true, in the Congo. Then, I would be concerned to develop programs that empower the people to come out of their poverty. Most of these Africans become bad leaders because they are poor, and they want to reach riches overnight.

And the American Catholic Church?
Certainly I think the church in America should help the church in Africa to grow. It does something now, but not directly. I would like to see more direct collaboration, for example in the training of leaders for the church, helping the church to sustain itself. They may not have the personnel to come here, but at least more of our priests could train in America and then come back. When one goes out of here, one gets enlightened a bit, becomes educated. The conference here is struggling to make the seminaries run. We need help. The support we give priests is very low, in the dioceses, also economically.

In America, we sometimes have the impression that rather than us helping you, we need you to help us. We have a priest shortage, and you are generating lots of vocations. This is called the ‘reverse mission.’
It is already in action, it is already working. Two of my nephews are working in the United States as priests, in Pennsylvania. They joined the Congregation  of the Apostles of Jesus.

Do you resent that?
No, I don’t resent it. I am happy to see that they are there. I would like to see more collaboration between the Americans, who have got money, and the Africans, who have got vocations. Many people here cannot obtain the priesthood because they don’t have resources. Young people fail to make it up to priesthood because they can’t afford it. Maybe we could send two or three priests to work in the States, and half of the remuneration could come back to help the seminaries here. There are many ways once we sit down to discuss it.

You’re not worried about the U.S. church poaching your priests?
No, I’m not worried. But I would like more collaboration. The church is one, universal, and Catholic, but we need to see those words put into action.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004

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