We know that missionaries had a profound effect on Africa during the colonial period. But what happened after the colonizers left? Tufts University historian Elizabeth Foster looks to explain this in her brilliant new book, “African Catholic: Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church.” I had the opportunity to ask Foster about the ways in which Catholicism, colonial Catholic leaders and African Catholics were affected by decolonization processes in parts of the continent under French control.

Laura Seay: “African Catholic” is in many ways groundbreaking. Why did you choose this topic?

Elizabeth Foster: Many scholars have explored whether European missionaries in Africa prepared the way for colonial rule ⁠ — but few examine what happened to missions at the end of formal empire. It’s a compelling subject because Christianity has expanded rapidly in Africa since the 1960s. Africa now exports clergy to Europe, a striking reversal from colonial times.

I wanted to know how the Catholic Church navigated the upheavals of African independence and made itself more hospitable to Africans. I discovered that devout Africans played key roles in forcing the church to live up to its own claim to be universal (rather than merely European). And I found that decolonization influenced the reorientation of Catholicism as a whole at Vatican II, the ecumenical council in the 1960s that reformed many of the Catholic Church’s practices.

LS: Throughout the book, it’s clear that different constituencies had different visions for what Catholicism’s purpose and role should be in Africa as colonization ended. Catholics in France and Africa couldn’t agree among themselves on a common vision or theology for the future. Why were there such diverse points of view?

EF: Mid-century was indeed a confusing time in what I call the Franco-African Catholic world. The Vichy regime in France during World War II espoused conservative Catholic values, but its policies, including the deportation of Jews, eventually alienated many believers. The war experience cemented a robust Catholic left in France, of which a significant faction subsequently endorsed colonized people’s calls for self-determination.

In the 1950s, radical African Catholics struggled with the fact that their faith, though it claimed to be universal, was closely wedded to European culture and colonialism, and they called on the church to repudiate those ties. Meanwhile, conservative French theologians, backed by Catholic settlers in Algeria and patriotic boosters of the embattled French Army, countered that church teachings supported colonization. In short, Catholic activists existed in all corners of a profoundly divided Franco-African public at mid-century, and they deployed their faith in support of their respective visions of France, Africa and Catholicism itself.

LS: The French often touted their “civilizing mission” in Africa, claiming that their rule uplifted their colonial subjects. How did racism, gender discrimination and other prejudices affect Catholic missionizing and public service provision on the continent?

EF: French missionaries propagated a particular Catholic version of a “civilizing mission,” at times with dramatic outcomes. For example, I describe how clergy mounted a mid-century campaign to “liberate” African women from what Catholic priests often described as slavery. Opposed to polygamy and arranged marriages that wed potential female converts to Muslim or animist men, missionaries steered young African women toward the convent or monogamous Catholic marriage.

Missionaries encouraged girls to flee their families and raised money in France for the church’s efforts by deploying racist tropes about the “savagery” of Africans. This kind of missionary “civilizing” impulse outraged many colonial officials, who would have preferred that missions stop interfering in African family life. Meanwhile, missionaries believed that most administrators did not understand Africa and were not serious about a civilizing mission.

LS: You describe an almost paranoid reaction to American missionaries coming to Francophone Africa. Why were French colonial authorities so afraid of other missionaries?

EF: There was long-standing paranoia about “Anglo-Saxons” encroaching on France’s political, cultural and linguistic influence in Africa. Even the Free French during World War II were concerned that missionaries were the vanguard of an Anglo-Saxon takeover. They worried that rich American missionaries would dazzle Africans with their superior resources, and that France’s African possessions would become “trust territories” that the United States would then control in practice. As a result, the avowedly secular postwar French government channeled more money than ever before to French missionaries, just as the church was trying to distance itself from colonial regimes.

LS: You write about Alioune Diop, a leader of the Negritude movement. I teach Negritude every year, but I’m embarrassed to say that I did not know his work. Why is his role in the movement so underemphasized in most scholarly and popular accounts?

EF: I had barely heard of Diop when I began the project, but he turned out to be ubiquitous in the sources — and an important “influencer” at the Vatican. As the founder of the journal Présence africaine, as well as the publishing house and Parisian bookstore of the same name, and as the planner of the mid-century international congresses of black intellectuals and artists, he was the primary organizer of Negritude. I attribute his relative obscurity to the fact that while he wrote powerful articles and book prefaces, he did not enjoy the lasting literary reputation of Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire or Léon-Gontran Damas. Yet it is hard to imagine the Negritude movement without his work.

LS: Catholicism wasn’t the only option for Africans interested in other faiths. How did the growth of Islam affect African Catholicism?

EF: During the colonial period, Islam and Catholicism were both expanding in French sub-Saharan Africa. To many Africans, Islam proved more attractive, not least because its evangelists were Africans themselves. Many older French missionaries saw Islam as the enemy in a battle for souls. In 1959, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the most important Catholic prelate in French Africa, publicly equated Islam with slavery and communism, igniting a firestorm of controversy on the eve of African independence.

But African Catholics and younger French clergy denounced Lefebvre’s stance, arguing that Muslims were their allies in faith. African Catholic prelates from Muslim regions, including Hyacinthe Thiandoum of Senegal and Luc Sangaré of Mali, promoted interfaith dialogue and mutual respect between Catholics and Muslims ⁠ — which proved an influential argument at Vatican II. Alioune Diop, himself a Catholic convert from Islam, echoed this message of tolerance and solidarity.

Previous posts in this year’s series: