This Friday the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, will be heading to Benin for a three-day visit where he is expected to unveil an “important document” relating to the Catholic Church’s role in Africa. What makes this visit distinctive is that Benin is thought to be the birthplace of Vodun (aka Vodou/Voodoo), and it is the third largest religion in that country (after Christianity and Islam). Indeed, the pontiff’s visit will feature a “a speech to non-Christian leaders” which can only mean he will be addressing practitioners of Vodun in some capacity. The Religious News Service speculates that Benedict’s message may not be one of mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation.
Ouidah is also an international center for the indigenous religion of Vodoun, or Voodoo, which is practiced by more than 17 percent of Beninese. Catholicism’s relationship with traditional African religions is of particular concern to Benedict, who has warned against the danger of melding faiths in non-Catholic cultures. Late last month at the Vatican, Benedict lamented to bishops visiting from Angola and Sao Tome and Principe that African converts to Catholicism often persist in “practices that are incompatible with adherence to Christ,” including the “marginalization and even murder of children and elderly people, condemned by the false diktats of witchcraft.”
It is increasingly clear that Benedict is unafraid of using important interfaith moments to engage in triumphalism. At the recent Assisi gathering the Pope made clear that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. It’s also hard to forget that in 2007 Benedict asserted that indigenous populations in South America were “silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizers; does he believe that practitioners of Vodun hold the same longing? Will he publicly comment on the new code of conduct for Christian missionaries approved by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) that calls on Christians to reject all forms of coercive behavior and misrepresentative slurs?
“Christians are called to reject all forms of violence, even psychological or social, including the abuse of power in their witness. They also reject violence, unjust discrimination or repression by any religious or secular authority, including the violation or destruction of places of worship, sacred symbols or texts. [...] Any comment or critical approach should be made in a spirit of mutual respect, making sure not to bear false witness concerning other religions. [...] Christians should avoid misrepresenting the beliefs and practices of people of different religions.“
Finally, while the Pope will get to make a speech to non-Christian leaders, will Vodun leaders get a chance to address Benedict in any format whatsoever? In 1993, during the reign of Pope John Paul II, Vodun leaders voiced their displeasure with the “denigration” of their faith by Catholic missionaries directly to the pontiff.
“Two days into his 10th African tour, Pope John Paul II tacitly acknowledged vodun’s hold tonight, meeting in Cotonou with a group of its practitioners and leaders and telling them that, while they would certainly gain from converting to Christianity, “the church considers freedom of religion to be an inalienable right, a right that brings with it the responsibility to seek the truth.” In response to his proselytization, the vodun leaders made their own point about some members of the church that seemed to reflect strains. “One cannot but bitterly deplore the campaign of systematic denigration to which the practice of vodun is subjected by certain churches and parishes,” said Senou Zannou, a spokesman for the group of 30 senior vodun priests who met the Pope and placed him on a carved wooden throne to address him.”
Since then, some Vodun leaders have become evangelists for their faith, streamlining initiations, in an effort to stem the erosion of their beliefs under constant missionary activity.
So what will the Pope say to Vodun in its birthplace? Will he strike a conciliatory note with non-Christian faiths, or will he use this opportunity to bolster conversion efforts in Benin?