Prichard on Morier-Genoud, 'Catholicism and the Making of Politics in Central Mozambique, 1940-1986'

Éric Morier-Genoud
Andreana C. Prichard

Éric Morier-Genoud. Catholicism and the Making of Politics in Central Mozambique, 1940-1986. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2019. 279 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-58046-941-8.

Reviewed by Andreana C. Prichard (University of Oklahoma) Published on H-Africa (November, 2019) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Boston University)

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In this nuanced investigation of the Roman Catholic Church in Mozambique, Eric Morier-Genoud makes important arguments about the internal diversity and complexity of an institution often considered monolithic and hierarchical. Unpacking the dynamics at play in the Diocese of Beira in central Mozambique between 1940 and 1986 reveals the different “currents, groups, and organizations” at work in the institution and the way in which they interact “horizontally” as autonomous entities. In shifting from a hierarchical to horizontal understanding of the church’s dynamics, Morier-Genoud illustrates how the institution works on the ground, how its politics developed, and the influence those politics had on the surrounding environment.

Central to Morier-Genoud’s approach is a desire to move literature about religion and politics in Africa away from what he argues is the prevailing “political paradigm.” Following Thomas Kuhn, Morier-Genoud understands a “political paradigm” to be an “explanatory scheme that provides achievements that are sufficiently unprecedented to attract researchers away from competing modes of scientific activity and sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems to resolve” (p. 3). In the case of this literature, the “political paradigm” concerns the question of whether Christianity has historically been located on the side of the empire and colonialism or on the side of Africans and a locally representative church. The question of whose side the church is on is both explicit and implicit in the historiography, Morier-Genoud argues, limiting the questions scholars ask and the lines of inquiry they pursue.

Morier-Genoud concedes that in the last two decades scholars have attempted to move away from this “political paradigm” and toward either a focus on religion or “broader political questions about conversion, intellectual debates, and identity formation” (p. 5). Derek Peterson’s important work on the East African Revival is the solitary example of this literature (with no others cited in footnotes).[1] Yet readers familiar with this historiography will know that there is a rich body of literature that has, in fact, moved away from this paradigm. This elision tempers only slightly the effectiveness of Morier-Genoud’s claims about the innovativeness of this work.

Catholicism and the Making of Politics approaches the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the Diocese of Beira within a single frame—the 1940s to the 1980s—rather than through two separate frames—the colonial and the postcolonial periods. The periodization Morier-Genoud uses is compelling and allows for an examination of the continuities and changes unfolding within the church itself. To do this, Morier-Genoud employs a heuristic device which distinguishes between an “imperial church” and an “African church.” He argues that while the imperial church dominated until independence, the African dimension dominated after independence. Yet throughout the period under consideration, “both existed and worked together … in unequal partnerships” (p. 8).

After a concise introduction, Morier-Genoud presents six chapters (organized chronologically) and an epilogue. Advancing the introduction’s insistence on the complexity of the church-state alliance, chapter 1 looks at the history of the Catholic Church in central Mozambique beginning in 1940. In addition to charting the general activity of the institution during its first two decades, the chapter mines in great detail the theological and political leanings of its first bishop. The author describes Dom Sebastião Soares de Resende’s thinking as “ultramontane, neo-Thomist, and nationalist” and offers in-depth analysis of each of these categorizations (p. 25). For example, similar to earlier missions elsewhere on the continent, Dom Sebastião believed that colonization was “a juridical and a historical right” that “entailed duties, regulating norms, and limits” (p. 27). One such duty was to “bring colonized countries to adulthood and to work for the good of the indigenous people” (p. 27), which he did in part by founding a newspaper and a minor seminary.

Chapter 2 focuses on the dynamics and internal diversities of the church in central Mozambique. Before the 1960s there was no local clergy, so the congregations that sprang up within the Diocese of Beira owed their distinct flavor to several factors, including the religious order that founded the congregation and their reason for missionization, the date the congregation was established, the geographical location they worked in, the congregation’s internal structure and organization, and its “culture.” Culture here is defined as the unique “charism” (inspirational purpose that gives a founding organization its aim and identity), the social and national makeup of each congregation (founded by French, Italian, or Portuguese missionaries, for example), and the pastoral approach adopted within. Dom Sebastião handled this unique diversity through mediation, negotiation, and accommodation.

Morier-Genoud takes up the formation of an African Catholic Church in chapter 3. After a brief overview of the state of the literature, the chapter turns to the three dynamics the author posits as key to understanding the formation of the African Catholic institution in Mozambique: the subtleties of conversion of men and women to Catholicism; the appropriation and reappropriation of the church and its message by local inquirers; and the development of an African clergy. Significant to the latter is the establishment and work of African Catholic female orders, which numbered eleven in the diocese by 1974. Unfortunately, not much is made of their work, though what is there and the broader historiography suggest that this might be a fertile ground for future inquiry.  

The following two chapters examine the effects of two “turning points” on the inner workings of the Diocese of Beira and the Catholic institution in Mozambique more generally. In chapter 4 (1958-69) the “turning point” is the year 1958, which witnessed political tensions in Portugal and the election of Pope John XXIII. Morier-Genoud explores how Vatican II and African nationalism shaped the church and how the congregations and Beira’s bishop positioned themselves in relation to the “tectonic changes unfolding in their territory and in the church” (p. 91). Chapter 5 moves the story to the years 1967-74 and to the “turning point” of 1967-8, which saw longtime bishop Dom Sebastião Soares de Resende’s decline and eventual death. In the same year Frelimo relaunched its liberation war. The subsequent instability led to an unprecedented crisis of leadership within the diocese.  

In the final chapter Morier-Genoud traces the effects of radical changes that attended decolonization. In particular, he explores how the Catholic Church changed with independence, how it related to Frelimo’s socialist experiment, and how it dealt with a new war. Intent on resisting the dominant “political paradigm,” this chapter examines how the church “carried on working” after the transition (p. 149). And carry on it did. In the midst of profound changes in the church and the political context in which it operated, the Catholic Church underwent its own revolution and became, argues Morier-Genoud here and in the epilogue, a locally representative Mozambican Catholic Church and culture.

The heuristic device Morier-Genoud employs to discern the Mozambican Catholic Church’s transformation from an imperial church to an African church is, as heuristic devices tend to be, a double-edged sword. Teasing apart the nuanced dynamics of the church illuminates a general trend of Africanization over the decades under consideration. However, insisting on naming elements of the Catholic institution as either “African” or “imperial” runs the risk of drawing artificial—and as the story advances, increasingly arbitrary—distinctions. Nevertheless, this is a tool that allows Morier-Genoud to vividly illustrate change over time and to largely avoid slipping into his dreaded political debate about whose side the church was on.

This book is “resolutely multidisciplinary” (p. 8). Morier-Genoud employs a “toolbox approach” that combines history, political science, and the sociology of religion to mine the transformation of Mozambique’s Catholic Church from an imperial institution to fully national church and moral force that stood above state and society. This methodological approach permits a deep dive into the diversity of the church through the lens of religious congregations—that is, from a horizontal, rather than a hierarchical, perspective. This volume is also an unapologetic institutional history; Morier-Genoud’s focus is on the institution itself and less on the unique personalities and individual proclivities that gave the institution its character. To be sure, we learn a great deal about Dom Sebastião intellectual and theological leanings, and also of several other key actors. However, without the specialized-approach history, for example, and its fondness for things such as the subtilities of dress or the minutiae of one’s character, these individuals remain somehow out of reach. Regardless, Morier-Genoud’s focus on diversity and action rather than on policy allows him to illustrate in rich detail how the church became less hierarchical, more community-oriented, and more prophetic over the course of five decades. It also allows him to show in impressive detail how much influence local religious orders and congregations have on the dynamics within the congregations themselves, and how those dynamics trickle up to affect policies and politics at the level of the Vatican.


[1]. Derek R. Peterson, Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival: A History of Dissent, c. 1935-1972 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Citation: Andreana C. Prichard. Review of Morier-Genoud, Éric, Catholicism and the Making of Politics in Central Mozambique, 1940-1986. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL:

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