A recent interview by the internationally acclaimed Nigerian author and social reform advocate, Ms. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has sparked an avalanche of reactions on social media. The reactions are based on the report of the interview (or rather a small fragment of it) published in Premium Times on 2nd January 2021. In this report titled “Why I stopped attending the Catholic Church in Nigeria”, Adichie is purported to have taken a shot against the Catholic Church: “Nigerian Catholicism is way too much about money, fundraising, and thanksgiving. Some in the east even look at who’s wearing gold. I think the focus of religion should be things Nigerian Catholicism doesn’t focus on”. The reactions to this report have ranged from a complete applauding to furious ad hominem attacks on Adichie from overzealous Catholics, including priests.
The first problem with these reactions is that, as usual we have proved how easily we can be switched off and on by media reports, without first stopping to ask further questions. A simple search on Google would easily connect one to the full content of the interview, which is available on YouTube, and which will then allow a serious critic to get the perspective and context that will ensure a proper assessment of her statements. Adichie’s interview was granted to BounceRadio and conducted by Ebuka Obi-Uchendu. It was an interview that lasted more than two and half hours, and covered a plethora of topics and issues, including her personal and family life, her childhood in Nsukka and educational background, her views on serious cultural issues, politics etc. One hour into the interview, the issue of religion came up. The interviewer, who himself is also a Catholic, wanted to know whether Adichie’s extensive stories of the life and practices of a catholic family in her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was based on her own personal experience. Adichie answered in the negative but indicated that she could write about Catholics because she comes from a deeply catholic family.
She spoke nostalgically about her childhood and Catholic upbringing, the relevance of the mass, her Catechism classes, her very Catholic father, who attended morning mass every day, and her understanding of how religion (in this case Catholic religion) could be a strong force in shaping a person’s life positively, how Catholic religion for her is more than just a religion but a culture, etc. Asked whether she is still a Catholic, Adichie gave the honest answer, “I guess nominally. I still feel protective about things in the Catholic Church.” Then came the question do you still go to Church? Her answer, “Certainly not in Nigeria.” Why is that? What’s the difference?”, asked the interviewer. She heaved a big sigh, almost like thinking, “how am I to answer this”. One could feel the reluctance of a born and bred Catholic to say the hard truth that may sound critical, but which she felt compelled to say.
With her voice lowered an octave, she said: “I think it’s way too much about money, fundraising and …” to which the interviewer completed “thanksgiving” and she concurred. Then she added: “I think, for me the focus of religion should be things Nigerian Catholicism doesn’t really focus on.” On whether she goes to Church regularly outside of Nigeria, she replied “Certainly not often. There are times when I have gone, when I found a Catholic Church that is progressive.” It is actually this part of the interview and the way it was presented in the article by Premium Times, that sparked off the controversy. I believe the article in Premium Times, when read out of context, can easily misrepresent Adichie. It puts next to one another statements made at different points in the interview, making them seem like one running commentary. It failed to capture the context of her statements.
It dropped the sections where she spoke lovingly and nostalgically about the beauty of the mass, her love for the Pope, and her impatience with anyone who would attack the Catholic Church unreasonably. But at the same time, those who have uncritically gobbled down the story, and took sides pro and con, have not done a good job of it at all. Having analysed the story thus far, I now present my take on the whole matter. The major reason she gave for her not attending Church anymore in Nigeria is that it has become “way too much about money.” The clergy in particular and the ultraconservative Christians are irked by this assertion. For those who want to crucify her for this, let us face the fact, where lies the untruth in her statement? Have our worships in Nigeria (Catholic and non-Catholic for that matter) not become “way too much about money”? How many times does a Sunday Mass (or service or worship) begin and end without additional calls for collections, donations, etc? Those schooled in the art of rhetorics and philosophy can easily twist the argument and point out that money is necessary to run the Church, that it is necessary to call for donations during the festive periods to allow the “abroadians” contribute to the development of the local church.
But apparently, Adichie does not have any problem with Church collections; these have always been part of Church services universally. Her problem is that it is now “way too much.” Most members of the Clergy would argue that they have ongoing building projects, etc. which need money to execute. But can any project ever justify turning almost every occasion for worship into launchings and money-raising opportunities, as is currently the case in many places? Until recently, by which I mean the last fifteen to twenty years, this trend was not there. Yet parishes ran smoothly, built beautiful Church edifices, ran several projects and took care of their priests. So, the question to be asked, is “What changed?” Why do we now claim that it is impossible to run a parish well unless these “way too much” emphasis on money is done. Throughout the history of the Church, lack of money has never resulted in the destruction of the Church anywhere, but I’m afraid that our overly quest for money in the Nigerian Church might be her doom. Chimamanda Adichie may be only the one we are hearing her outcry now because she has a platform.
But there are so many others in our parishes who are crying out quietly, but their voices are not heard. A friend of mine, a good Catholic, said to me, not too long ago, that whenever he is on his way to mass and remembers that there will certainly be calls for extra collections and donations, and knowing his current economic situation, he develops cold feet about continuing. Then he gave a parody of Psalm 122:1 “I was downcast when I heard them say, ‘Let us go to God’s house.’” As a Catholic Priest, whenever I read stories such as that of Chimamanda Adichie, I do not hold it against her, I rather feel pained. While I do not think her excuse for not going to Church is justified, her story calls for a proper introspection, a self-examination, by all well-meaning priests. How possible is it, we should ask ourselves, that our conduct and quest for money in the Church, etc. are causing some people to distance themselves from the Church? Why should our need for money (no matter how necessary we think it is) get to the point where people are afraid to go to church, or murmur as they do so? As a defence someone may argue that no one is forced to give. But that is the problem, because you think that force exists only when you physically compel people to do something.
But in religion, force can and does exist in other forms, spiritually and psychologically, when we make people feel they are offending God unless they respond to our calls for donations, or that they deserve less blessings from God, or when we make them feel socially less in the parish because they do not always come out to give. We should not feel attacked or betrayed by people who point out what has gone wrong. That is another trend I see among priests. It saddens me the extent to which members of the Clergy will go to put up defence whenever a bitter hard truth about us is pointed out, not just regarding money, but about our life in general. Instead of picking the substance of the criticism (which we often know to be true) and resolving to address the issue and making a change, we begin to pick holes in the logic of the person’s presentation. “It is the fallacy of over generalization”, “It is not everybody”, “He committed the fallacy of argumentum this, argumentum that”, etc. Sometimes there is a resort to attacks on the person who raised the issues. We claim they are disgruntled people, who hate us.
Some of us even make light of the critics, with remarks such “Ahia amaghi onye na-abiaghi” (The absence of a single individual does not stop the market from going on). We act as if it is beneath us to be told we have done something wrong. We behave like demigods who cannot stand to be criticised by mere mortals. But that is very wrong. Every criticism, should always call for a re-examination of conscience. If what is said about me is true that I’m behaving wrongly, I should resolve to make a change. If what they say is true, but in my view my actions are in order, I should ask myself why this aspect of me, which I believe is not wrong, is causing scandal to people. If it is false, then I should ask myself why someone out there is perceiving me to be this way. Instead of attacking our critics or making light of the points we should be grateful for the opportunity to call ourselves to order. I believe these critics are not trying to destroy the Church; they are trying to stop us from destroying it ourselves. W
e are in an age in which social media has empowered so many people and given voice to the voiceless. The criticisms are precursors of worse things that will certainly come, if we do not heed them. And finally to the Chimamandas out there, who feel disillusioned with the Church because of our attitudes or actions, please do not distance yourselves anymore. Engage in dialogue with us. The Church is a family. You do not resolve family problems by staying away from home. Let us work together to build a better Church, booming with Christian communities where everyone feels welcome, and a better society.