BECOSA statement on the relationship between
african traditional religious beliefs and practices,
satanism and monastic profession
The following statement arose out of a deep concern that, while many traditional practices and beliefs among the tribes of Southern Africa were admirable, there were also some distressing ‘counter-Christian’ practices. Experience revealed that many professed religious found themselves caught up in traditional practices without fully examining their religious content. It is hoped that the following statement can provide a beginning of a much deeper discussion as to the relationship between Christian belief, monastic profession and traditional beliefs.
We recognize and appreciate many of the traditional religious beliefs and practices that are to be found in the various tribes of Southern Africa; especially a sense of the sacred, the belief in a supreme creator who shares in people’s everyday joys and sorrows, the great emphasis on hospitality, the communion that exists among persons, the respect for the wisdom of the elders and creation in general. We seek, therefore, in this document to refer only to those religious, cultural beliefs and practices that are contrary to our faith in Jesus Christ and monastic profession.
We acknowledge that there are those who, although Christian and members of Benedictine communities, continue to put their trust in beliefs and customs that while outwardly they may appear harmless, are ultimately evil. These practices recognize a power that can cause them and others great disturbance. The scriptures clearly warn against involvement with witchcraft, divination and sorcery (Ex 22.18; Deut 18.10-12; Lev 19.26-31; 20.27). Directly and indirectly these practices, no matter how deeply rooted in cultural tradition, are contrary to our Christian faith and open people to the possibility of demonic influence and can distance them from God, leading to spiritual death.
We note that the boundaries between Christian faith and traditional religious beliefs and practices are not always clear, especially those concerning the ‘spirit world’ and our relationship with deceased ancestors and their particular influence upon human life and well-being. The Decree of the Second Vatican Council, Ad Gentes Divinitus (1965) makes us aware that while we should look for and respect the ‘seed of the Word’ found in the customs of different nations and peoples, we have the obligation to purify and transform them with the light of the Gospel and ‘bring then under the domain of God the saviour’ (AG n9, 11).
With this in mind we need to examine, with great care, traditional African religious ceremonies surrounding birth, illness, family relationships or death etc., as often these can contain beliefs and practices that are counter-Christian. As mentioned above, participation in these customs or attempting to assimilate them into our Christian faith provides an opening through which demonic forces can gain influence and cause deep spiritual harm and confusion.
Rooted in sacred scripture, the desert fathers and mothers and the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, the monastic tradition proclaims the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ and his victory over evil (RB Prol: 14-17; 28). We enter the monastery, in the words of St Benedict, to ‘do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord’ (Prol: 3). As Christians we neither preach superstition, nor give authority, power or attention either to Satan, who is a defeated enemy, nor ancestral spirits. We live as monastic Christians in and under the power of the Cross and while we should always be vigilant as to the reality of Satan (1 Peter 5.8) and his demonic co-workers we should never become preoccupied with him, imagining that he, or the spirit of our deceased ancestors, have an influence or power greater than God (James 4.7-8). Our focus is always on Christ (Heb 12.1-3) who has conquered this enemy (Phil 2.6-11) and has given us the same authority and power to do so (Mt 10.1). In our formation program we need to take time to look seriously at issues surrounding traditional cultural beliefs as well as deepening our awareness of the Christian understanding of the demonic.
Traditional African Religious Beliefs
At the core of traditional African religion is the fundamental belief in the presence of a powerful spirit-world that has a direct impact upon the daily life and well-being of each human person. As a result of this belief, every sickness, problem and misfortune is seen to have a cause rooted in the direct relationship between a person and the ‘spirits’, especially ancestral spirits. People and sometimes animals are thought to be ‘possessed’ by ancestral spirits. Through spells and other practices curses can be put upon individuals and whole families. To bring resolution to these difficulties surrounding illness, marital difficulties or financial instability and curses etc. it is believed that individuals or family members must seek the assistance of either traditional healers, witch-doctors, diviners, or even witches.
From the outset let us be clear what we mean by terms such as traditional herbalists and healers (nanga’s), diviners (sangomas), witchdoctors/witches and sorcerers. There are many misunderstandings surrounding these different terms even among modern day practitioners, where the same person can play a variety of different traditional roles. Though people today readily make use of western medicine and hospitals, there is still a belief that some diseases and misfortunes can only be dealt with through traditional healers. Many of these healers or herbalists are in fact recognized by the governments of their respective countries and they have formed associations. Often these healers use a blend of herbal remedies and western medicine. Some, if not all, claim to be possessed by a ‘healing spirit’. Others have been apprenticed to older and more experienced healers and so gradually learn their skills.
What is clear is the strong belief that each person’s fate is directly determined by their relationship with the ‘spirit world’, for it is the spirits, especially those of the deceased ancestors who are considered to be in total control of the world of the living. While it is undeniable that traditional herbs and plants do indeed have healing properties, the natural concern for a Christian is the idea that it is the ‘spirits’ especially those of the deceased who control the world and who take full responsibility for a person’s welfare, often against their desire and will. The fundamental belief that sickness, bad luck and other misfortunes are directly linked to a person’s harmony with their spirit guardians who control all of life, is contrary to our Christian belief in the supremacy of God.
The ‘diviner’, or sangoma, is thought to have a particular knowledge of the spirit world and is therefore able to help reveal to people why some difficulty is happening to a family or individual member. In serious cases a diviner who is possessed by a ‘healing’ spirit’ is consulted. Diviners differ in the methods that they use to discover the reason for an illness, death or difficulty, the most common however is through spirit-possession and bone-throwing. Sometimes the ‘diviner’ is also called a ‘witch-doctor’, who combines the task of healing, mediating with the spirit world and locating the witches in a community and the evil spirits. The witch-doctor thus has the power to use counter-spells to alleviate the problems caused by the presence of evil, which brings us to a new level of traditional African religious belief and the work of sorcerers.
Sorcerers are considered to have ‘magic’ powers that are derived from the help they receive from ‘evil spirits’. They tend to confine their activity to casting spells and curses which will bring ailments or problems upon their intended victim or even to increase the financial stability of the recipient. Thus sorcerers are considered as dangerous people who use their magic powers for harmful purposes, as do ‘witches’. Witches are always thought to be evil people and are to be feared. In some cultures in Africa ‘witchcraft’ is passed on within particular families or tribes and so in one sense it is an inheritance, a gift one is said to be born with. While at times uttering no spells witches seem to have psychic powers in order to bring about harm to others.
What this brief reflection reveals is that within traditional African religion there is a movement from those who use herbs as a medicine to bring about healing and restore harmony and those who use magical powers, sacrificing of animals, casting of spells and spirit possession to bring harm to people, and their property. At root, however, all these different expressions proclaim a belief in a spirit-world, especially those of the deceased ancestors, and it is here that the clash with Christian faith results.
The dominant and fundamental belief in the power of the unseen spirit-world and its ability to affect and cause harm brings a great deal of anxiety, fear and superstition. It has also provided an opening to the world of the satanic. Many in the western world have chosen to disregard the existence of personified evil that we call the Devil and turned him into a comical figure. The reality is that Witchcraft, Satanism and the Occult have increased throughout the world. Satanism has its own official website which is easily accessed on the internet, and from there one is able to purchase everything needed for black magic spells, satanic curses and rituals of deep evil. Many parts of Africa acknowledge an increased interest and practice of Satanic rituals, often to possess power, position, wealth and influence.
Looking to scripture and the teaching of the Catholic Church we see that belief in the existence of ‘angels’ is a matter of faith (ccc328-350). Angels were created by God at the very beginning of time (Job 38.4, 7) to offer service to and participate in the work of God. Angels are often described in scripture as ‘stars’. God created them with intelligence (reason), consciousness, and will. God created them for Love - therefore Angels have will and freedom, because love is simply not possible without the freedom of choice. Like all of God’s creatures who possess the gift of freedom, these celestial beings were free to reject God and some indeed did and it is these that we refer to as ‘fallen angels’ and are now in opposition to the will and plan of the Holy Trinity.
These ‘fallen angels’ continue to have the qualities and potential that they received at their initial creation by God, though now they use it to undermine the work of God’s salvation. The chief among them is called Satan, or as scripture sometimes says: ‘the prince of this world’, ‘the father of lies’, the Devil’, ‘the evil one’. But Satan was not the only fallen angel, he has lesser angels who went into rebellion with him and these we call ‘demons’ or unclean sprits’ or ‘evil spirits’. The task of these fallen angels is the spiritual destruction of humankind (CCC391).
Evil, therefore is a corruption, degradation, a ‘fall’ of something that first was good. This is why Christianity rejects the belief that God and Satan are on an equal level and one is simply good and holy and the other is bad and unholy. This heresy was condemned by the Church, but it is still around, even among some Christians. God and Satan are not equal. God is the Creator and Satan is a mere creature. The Devil has neither power nor authority. Hence from the beginning of his ministry Jesus reveals that there is a battle between good and evil (Mk 1.12-13; Mt 4.1-11). Having confronted Satan in the desert Jesus then takes on the evil one in the lives of those whom he encounters and commands by his own authority, the demons to depart (Mk 1.21-28). It was to deliver humankind and restore our broken relationship with the Trinity that Jesus became incarnate (Jn 8.44). So to deny the reality of Satan and demonic activity is in fact to deny the saving work of Jesus, especially on the Cross which was the supreme sign of his victory (Phil 2.8).
This ministry of healing and deliverance did not disappear with the ascension of Jesus; He left the authority and power to cast out unclean spirits with his disciples (Mt 10.1-8; Jn 16.7-11). As St Mark reports in his Gospel, one of the key signs that will accompany those who believe in Jesus will be the authority to cast out demons (Mk 16.17). So when the Church asks in the name of Jesus that a person or object be protected against evil forces she does so with great confidence, knowing that this prayer will be heard and is in accord with the will of God. The ministry of deliverance and exorcism is then part of God’s redemptive work.
From the moment of Baptism each Christian shares in this work of redemption and so is engaged in the ‘spiritual warfare’ of which Paul speaks in Ephesians 6.10-20. Yet every baptised believer still experiences a struggle with the powers of evil. As 1 Peter 5.8 says, ‘the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour’. Though we have a natural orientation to goodness, due to our being created in the image and likeness of God and through the regeneration given in baptism, yet we still find ourselves confronting evil in a variety of ways, chief among them being: temptation, oppression and possession.
Daily each one of us is subjected to different forms of temptation, not all of which come from the devil. We find ourselves attracted to basic cravings such as food, pleasure; power and distorted sexual desire etc. and we are attracted to things which we imagine will make us happy. Our dysfunctional emotional maturity and our fallen human nature mean that we can all too easily give way to a false and destructive pattern of behaviour. The Devil, aware of our weaknesses, can play on this and with his seductive suggestions propose actions and choices that do not lead to our ultimate happiness. Indeed it is important to remember that the Devil can only suggest, he cannot read our minds or force us to do what we do not want to do. He can only propose and leave us to make the choice.
A deeper level of struggle is what is called ‘oppression’. This arises when we feel almost overwhelmed or out of control with the things that attract us and our desires seem to drive us even though we know that they are wrong, either for ourselves or others. We are, as Paul writes in Romans 7, ‘slaves to sin’. With oppression people are still in control of their wills and able to reflect on their behaviour. In such cases a ‘minor exorcism’ or prayer of deliverance can be of great spiritual benefit. Such prayers of liberation or deliverance may be offered by any priest. From the ministry of Jesus we can see how the demons react to his presence and obey his direct command to depart. The fathers of the desert often spoke of the ‘demons’ that infest our lives: fear, anxiety, pride, anger or lust etc. Such things become the very points of entry for the power of evil and so set up habits of sin. Likewise, addictions such as drugs, drinking, crime, pornography can dull the consciences of Christians and lead to a sense of being trapped.
The third and final way that we can experience demonic activity is possession. In this situation a part, or even the whole of a person, is under the direct control of the evil one. This can happen because of a life of habitual sin, occult practice or the voluntary surrendering of one’s own personal freedom to evil in exchange for power, money or sex. Possession is rare, but it is a real possibility, especially where people have willingly given themselves to the Devil. Mk 5.1-20 reveals a graphic story of a person who is possessed, a person totally destroyed by the evil powers that consume him and who have been robbed of his dignity. When Jesus drives out this unclean spirit we hear that the name is ‘legion’ because they are so many. This point is well worth noting. Very often there is more than one demon involved in possession.
Two things need always to be held in tension. First Satan is a reality that we must encounter and confront. Second the victory has already been won in Jesus, the Devil is a defeated enemy. Our task as Christians is to apply the medicine of redemption to the wound of evil. While the ‘spiritual warfare’ is real we should always be confident in whom we belong, through baptism and a life of sacramental faith.
A monastic understanding of the spiritual warfare
Having entered willingly into the ‘school of the Lord’s service’ (Prol: 45) and ‘prepared our hearts for the battle of holy obedience’ (Prol: 40). We are ‘clothed with faith, with the Gospel as our guide’ (Prol: 21) and professing our vows we renew the gift of our lives made in baptism. The personal and free choice to live by the Rule of St Benedict, under a Superior and in community, conforms us ever closer to Christ, so that we learn daily to ‘prefer nothing whatever to the love of Christ’ (RB 4:21; 72:11). Our vows are a conscious decision to live out our baptism in a particular way and they amplify the gift we have received in the waters of baptism.
St John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation, Redemptionis Donum (1984) points out:
‘Upon the sacramental basis of Baptism in which it is rooted, religious profession is a new ‘burial in the death of Christ’: new, because it is made with awareness and by choice; new, because of love and vocation; new, by reason of unceasing ‘conversion’.
Through profession of monastic vows we have a second chance to enter into and experience the grace of our baptism. Thus our vows far from being mere intentions or promises, are a ‘covenant relationship’; a covenant of love that we desire to live with integrity, wholeheartedly. The vows take us right to the very core of our relationship with the Trinity, begun in baptism and carried on into the work of redemption.
In this sense the vows reveal who we are, they reveal our identity, but this sadly gets lost and distorted when we fail to live according to the truth of the Christian faith, when we compromise between our faith and traditional beliefs and practices or wander knowingly or unknowingly into the occult. Our vows declare that our vocation is not a career that we choose to pursue, or which can be modified when suited, they manifest the core of my very life, and it is who I am (Evangelii Gaudium n. 273). With these considerations in mind we offer the following guidelines.
1. We seek to grow deeper in our understanding and commitment to the relationship of love that we have entered into through our Baptism and Benedictine vows.
2. We focus on Christ, giving him the first and central place in our hearts, lives and choices. Hence we renew our commitment to Lectio Divina and the sacramental life of the Church as the principle sources for our personal formation in Christ.
3. St Benedict placed great importance on community living (RB 72), therefore we too recognize how the accuser can infiltrate our community causing disharmony, fault-finding and fighting.
4. We recognize and honour the cultures from which we have been called and seek to understand and use what is profitable from them.
5. All culture has to be brought under the Cross of Christ and baptised into Him.
6. While seeing the richness of our culture we appreciate that there are particular practices and beliefs that are not Christian.
7. We affirm that calling upon the ‘spirit of the ancestors’ and inviting them to come upon a person either at birth, sickness, marriage or after death does not conform to our faith in Christ.
8. Visiting witch-doctors and Sangomas in order to obtain ‘special’ medicine, cast spells or seek healing remedies for illness or other problems is not acceptable for a person who has been baptised and is vowed to Christ.
9. We recognize that all witchcraft has the potential to open us up to the demonic.
10. A person who is a Christian and vowed to God cannot allow himself or herself to be initiated into or practice any form of witchcraft, this is a violation of Christian faith and life in vows.
11. Satan is real and we understand that it is the mission of the demons to disturb and cause dissension. It is what the very word ‘demon’ means, to fragment and bring about a lack of harmony.
12. We recognize the reality of Satan while affirming that he and his demonic co-workers are already defeated by Christ. We need never fear evil, simply resist it.
13. In our discernment of vocations we should with care and sensitivity investigate the religious and cultural practices that the inquirer has been exposed to. Should a candidate for religious life be found to be ‘possessed’ this would be a reason to seriously consider deferring their formation.
We will insert into our formation programmes careful consideration of cultural and religious practices which are positive, but also help to increase understanding about the possible conflict areas.
We should understand that, while rare, demon-possession is possible. Anyone whom we suspect of coming into contact with traditional witchcraft or satanic cults should be led through a period of re-conversion and renewal of Baptism promises. They should renounce the past and turn to Christ.
If we suspect a deeper problem and possible possession the person ught first to be medically checked out for physical or mental illness. Likewise the family background should be investigated.
The traditional signs of possession are:
a) An aversion to sacred things, e.g. holy water, crucifix, Blessed Sacrament, images of Our Lady, names of Jesus and Mary etc.
b) Strange behaviour in that they seem to go into a trance and their eyes go up into the top of the head.
c) They speak or understand a language unknown to them.
d) They have a strength that goes beyond their own capacity.
e) They have a knowledge of things that is beyond them.
• Only a priest who has the Bishop’s permission should be invited to carry out an exorcism (Code of Canon Law n.1172:1; n.37).
• This should be carried out in a sacred space with due respect to the dignity of the person and the community (see Praenotanda from De exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam, editio typica 1999, 2004 n.33).
• Exorcism should be carried out only after careful investigation which will involve medical and psychological reports. Praenotanda from De exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam (editio typica 1999, n.1-19).
• No exorcism should be carried out on those in formation without consulting the parents or relatives of the person concerned.
• We should seek above all to build communities of faith rather than create a false and dangerous atmosphere of superstition, rumour and fear. We will take seriously the daily prayers offered by the Church for protection.
 Mk 1:12-13; 5:1-20; 16:17; Mt 4:1-11; 1 Peter 5:8.
 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (1981), Sr. Benedicta Ward SLG, 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 19, 22, 42, 67, 71, 123.
 Justin Martyr writes in his: Dialogue with Trypho: ‘Any demon who is commanded in the name of the Son of God… will be overcome and defeated.’ Irenaeus, writes: ‘By the invoking of the name of Jesus Christ… Satan is driven out of men’. Origen in his work Contra Celsum wrote: ‘the strength of exorcism lies in the name of Jesus’. Tertullian writes: ‘Let a person be brought before the tribunal who is plainly under demonical possession. The wicked spirit, bidden to speak by the followers of Christ will as readily make the truthful confession that he is a demon.’ Apologetical Works Chapter 23. Catechism of the Catholic Church: 328-350; 39, 1-398; 5338-40; 550; see also Lumen Gentium n.48; Gaudium et Spes n.2, 37, Ad Gentes n.3, Sacrosanctum Concilium n.6.
 See following scripture passages referring to various names given to Devil: Rev 12:8-9; 17; Mt 4:3; 26:36-44; John 1:9-10; 8:44;12:31; 14:30; Gen 3:4,13; Col 1:13 etc.
 Perfectae Caritatis n.5.