The transformation of Roman Catholicism from a Europe-centered, European-dominated religion into a world religion is one of the most striking long-term changes the church is undergoing. This change is a focal point of discussion at the current World Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops here.
``Yesterday the missionaries Christianized Africa, today the blacks are Africanizing Christianity,'' Joseph Cardinal Malula of Zaire, one of three co-presidents at the synod, once said. The synod, which began Nov. 24, was called by Pope John Paul II to assess the effects of the Second Vatican Council which ushered in dramatic reforms for the church in 1965.
Bishops from third-world countries account for 60 percent of those at this synod. And their numbers are likely to grow in coming decades.
However, the spread of Catholicism to developing countries has been a sometimes painful, always delicate, process of accommodating a fundamentally European religion to cultures with different traditions.
At the current synod Asian, African, and Latin American bishops have often defended ``inculturation'' (changing Catholic rites to fit non-European cultures) and have encouraged the development of new theologies such as liberation theology.
These bishops say they consider the issues of improving education and social justice more pressing than Western Catholics' concerns about birth control, abortion, and marriage for priests.
In Latin America, ``liberation theology'' is perhaps the main, and certainly the most controversial, issue. Liberation theology, as espoused by some laity and clergy in the region, advocates the need for Catholics to become involved in movements for social justice and the desirability, in some cases, of revolution. It also calls for a decentralized and more democratic ``church of the poor.''
Many Latin American Catholics hope the synod will encourage the Vatican to accept liberation theology as valid, despite earlier charges that the theology accepts violence and Marxist ideas.
``Liberation theology is the only theology really valid for being able to escape from the condition of opression we face,'' says the Rev. Irineu Wilges, a Brazilian.
The Vatican has, up to now, expressed deep reservations about the writings of ``liberation theologians'' such as the Rev. Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian Franciscan. Fr. Boff's chief critic has been Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the church's chief teaching office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
But there may be new hope for agreement between the views of Boff and Cardinal Ratzinger, bishops here say. Brazilian Bishop Jos'e Ivo Lorscheiter says he expects the Vatican to issue a new ``more positive'' document on liberation theology ``by Christmas.'' The Vatican has confirmed that such a document, taking note of the ``positive elements'' of liberation theology, is near completion. But the document may not appear before spring, according to one source.
If the issue of chief concern to Latin American bishops is liberation theology, the issue most important to African bishops seems to be ``inculturation'' -- by which the African bishops mean the adaptation of Catholic rituals and teachings to African traditions and beliefs.
The difficulty confronting the church as it attempts to ``inculturate'' Catholicism is in keeping a balance between two extremes: not remaining so Western as to be alien to the Africans, yet not becoming so African as to change essential elements of its Christian faith or morals.
According to Bishop Anselme Titianma Sanon of Burkina Faso, the adaptation of Catholic rites to African cultures should not extend too far. He cites the widespread African custom of male polygamy as an example.
``It is not the exceptions we want to inculturate,'' the bishop says. ``It is the central values of the African tradition.''
Bishop Sanon stresses that those in his country who have not been converted to Catholicism are not simply ``animists.''
``What forms the central core of traditional African religion is a belief in God and in following the traditions of the ancestors with respect,'' Sanon says.
The attempt to adapt Catholicism to certain traditional African rituals, such as the rite of initiation -- when a young person is admitted into the tribe and agrees to follow the ancestral traditions -- is what African Catholics mean by inculturation, Sanon explains.
``One puts this traditional rite together with the Christian rites of baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist,'' Sanon says. ``One puts the two teaching together. We don't keep the exterior form, but we keep the essential heart of the old teaching.''
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity -- that God's nature is three persons in one divine essence -- is interpreted by Africans as reflecting their own communities of family, tribe, and church, Sanon says.
Church statistics show that Catholicism still depends heavily on its traditional European and North American churches for manpower.
But the figures also show that the numbers are climbing in Africa while declining in Western nations. In Nigeria, about 500 women each year swell the ranks of Catholic nuns, while in the United States the number drops by some 1,500 annually.
These figures help explain the church's increasing focus on the third world, particularly Africa, as its hope for the future.
Repeated calls at the synod for a new look at liberation theology and greater emphasis on inculturation have met with apparent Vatican approval. In response, Latin American, African, and Asian bishops seem to have offered their support for the Pope's agenda: a return to traditional church discipline and loyalty to Rome and the papal authority.
Thus, an accommodation seems likely to be struck between the guardians of an ancient, Europe-centered church and its new members in the world's poorer regions.