In an address to the bishops of Southern Africa, the Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Peter Wells has called on the Church’s leadership to focus on communication. Firstly, to engage with and listen to youth in the light of the upcoming Youth Synod and, secondly, to consider how the Church communicates credibly and consistently through the media – especially in the age of ‘fake news’ and ‘infotainment’. In the second part of his address he spoke about the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and explained how the Holy See is careful to insist on integral human development that resists any form of ‘ideological colonisation’. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, he exhorted that every bishop present become an ‘oasis of hope’ especially in their pastoral mission to all those who are entrusted to their care and guidance.

Part I

Momentum for youth

Archbishop Wells, speaking to the bishops at the January Plenary meeting of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), commented especially on Mini World Youth Day, which took place in Durban last December and afforded the youth of Southern Africa an opportunity to witness to their faith with “vibrancy and enthusiasm”. He encouraged the bishops to “maintain the momentum generated by this event”.

He spoke of the upcoming Synod on Youth to be held from 3-28 October 2018, which has the title “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” and recalled how Pope Francis called on bishops and the entire Church:

“Giving particular attention to young people does not mean considering them alone. It also means focusing on a critical theme for a combination of relationships and pressing issues, such as intergenerational relationships, the family, pastoral work, social life, and so forth.”

Referring to the Synod Preparatory Document, he said the Church has decided to examine herself on how she can lead young people to recognise and accept the call to the fullness of life and love, and to ask young people to help her in identifying the most effective ways to announce the Good News today. By listening to young people, the Church will once again hear the Lord speaking in today’s world.

The nuncio challenged the bishops to find ways to engage with, and listen to, the youth. He said it was important not just to “give a voice to the younger generation, but to find ways that allow our young men and women to participate in the life of the Church and to be front-line protagonists in its mission to evangelise and to bring the message of the Gospel to a society which is crying our for words of healing and hope.”

On issues of safeguarding, seminaries and the role of the Church in the modern world – particularly in our own political turbulent times – the nuncio said it was critical to focus especially on how the Church communicates. He emphasised a greater commitment to making the Church’s voice heard in the media.

‘Zero tolerance’ and the duty to protect the weakest of those entrusted to the Church’s care

Communication was also important when working together as a Church. The nuncio said that it was an obligation to have an effective child safeguarding policy and encouraged dioceses to collaborate in ensuring that such policies exist and are communicated in every diocese and parish. Recalling the words of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, Wells said:

Today I reiterate once again that the Church, at all levels, will respond with the application of the most severe measures for all those who betrayed their call and have abused the children of God. The disciplinary measures that particular churches have adopted must be applied to all those who work in the institutions of the Church. However, the first responsibility lies with the Bishops, with the priests, with the religious, with those who have received from the Lord the vocation to offer their life as a service, to all children, young people and vulnerable adults which includes their vigilant protection. For this reason, the Church irrevocably and at all levels intends to apply the principle of “zero tolerance” against the sexual abuse of minors. (Excerpt from: Pope Francis’ address to the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, 21 September 2017)

The accreditation of the seminaries

Secondly, addressing the bishops on issues relating to seminaries in South Africa he was concerned that the Council for Higher Education (CHE) is “reevaluating the accreditation of seminaries as Institutes of Higher Learning” because “seminarians have been registered for degree courses and have achieved degrees without having the necessary matric result for tertiary education”. He expressed that this was “a valid concern” and that the Church “always welcomes initiatives that assist in bettering our institutions of higher education” but wondered whether the CHE “may not fully understand the purpose of a seminary and its specific focus”. He expressed his hope that the forthcoming meeting that was being arranged between the CHE and the bishops would have “a positive outcome” and assured the bishops that the nunciature would do what they can to assist the bishops in clarifying “this unfortunate situation”.

Making humanity more human

Wells then went on to speak about the role of the Church in the particular political, social and economic challenges that face South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland - the countries making up the SACBC. He remarked that two years on from the 50th anniversary of Gaudium et Spes it might be valuable to recall the following inspirational words from the Second Vatican Council:

Pursuing the saving purpose which is proper to her, the Church does not only communicate divine life to men but in some way casts the reflected light of that life over the entire earth, most of all by its healing and elevating impact on the dignity of the person, by the way in which it strengthens the seams of human society and imbues the everyday activity of men with a deeper meaning and importance. Thus, through her individual matters and her whole community, the Church believes she can contribute greatly toward making the family of man and its history more human. (Gaudium et Spes, No. 40)

Poverty, racism and discrimination

The context of the Church in Southern Africa is “not only complex” but also “dynamic, evolving,” and “mutating”. Wells said that “it goes without saying that the concerns and the challenges of the Church in the apartheid era are different in many ways than those of today, except” he said, that many who were poor in the past are “still poor today, some are even poorer and the struggle with racism and discrimination is still a painful reality”.

The archbishop said that around the world, and not only in Southern Africa, people are asking the question “Do today’s leaders really have our best interest at heart?” and “who is corrupt and who is honest?”

He bemoaned the increasing incidence of having leaders presenting slogans, soundbites and #hashtags in place of policies for the common good. He explained that the problem with slogans is that they reduce the level of debate to political point-scoring, polarising debate into: ‘you are either for us or against us’, thus “eclipsing the possibility of rational discussion about the real pros and cons of the political or social policies that are being put forward”.

The rise of ‘infotainment’ and the proliferation of ‘fake news’

The nuncio noted that Southern Africa has not been immune to the “global deterioration of debate in the public arena”. He acknowledged that “in a so-called ‘post-truth fake news’ era we can no longer expect that it is enough to speak out and one will be heard”. He noted that arguments tend to be won “not because of their rational content” but by “how much they manage to evoke emotional outrage against a particular individual, party or institution”, and that if content is taken into account at all, “it tends to be filtered according to a particular agenda”. He cited social media as a place particularly prone to such misbehaviour.

Today, more than ever, there appears to be a “seamless blend between news and entertainment, or what is now being labelled ‘infotainment’, to the point that ‘religious communities, their leaders and their message are presented only in a superficial and stereotypical way”.

Church communication

Turning to examine how such good news might be promoted in the public sphere, the nuncio began by quoting a letter he received from a bishop, wherein he agreed that “the Church must avoid becoming part of … the ‘cacophony of voices’ and that ‘our message is the Gospel’ which does not have a ‘political slant’, but that this should not stop the Church in Southern Africa from proclaiming its message of good news and that she should not fear being misrepresented. He noted that it was a fact of life today that all media outlets will filter their messages through particular agendas but that for this very reason it was important for the Bishops’ Conference to have a well-prepared media strategy and that the bishops should do all they can “to develop and promote an authentic and effective Catholic media presence”.

Welcome, protect, promote and integrate

Wells highlighted especially the role of the Church in standing up “for the plight of migrants and refugees” and “our opposition to all forms of xenophobia” as being areas where the Church should be particularly vocal. Referring to Pope Francis’ recent message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees (14 January) , he highlighted the four key verbs the Holy Father encouraged everyone to implement in their lives: “to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate”. Quoting Pope Francis, he explained what this means:

  • Welcoming means, above all, offering broader options for migrants and refugees to enter destination countries safely and legally.
  • Protecting - may be understood as a series of steps intended to defend the rights and dignity of migrants and refugees, independent of their legal status.
  • Promoting essentially means a determined effort to ensure that all migrants and refugees - as well as the communities which welcome them - are empowered to achieve their potential as human beings, in all the dimensions which constitute the humanity intended by the Creator.
  • Integrating - concerns the opportunities for intercultural enrichment brought about by the presence of migrants and refugees. Integration is not “an assimilation that leads migrants to suppress or to forget their own cultural identity. Rather, contact with others leads to discovering their ‘secret’, to being open to them in order to welcome their valid aspects and thus contribute to knowing each one better.

Pope Francis in his message for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 14 January 2018

Part II

2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

The nuncio explained that the “whole question of migrants and refugees has its root in the search for a world characterised by justice, peace and integral human development.”

In the second half of his address to the bishops, the nuncio explained that he wanted to elaborate in more detail on how this development should be understand. He explained how the issue of migrants and refugees is directly linked to the recent UN General Assembly’s “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. He noted that there were 17 sustainable development goals1 and that these were articulated in part with the help of the Holy See.

Resist all forms of ideological colonisation

Pope Francis has called these goals “an important sign of hope,” while at the same time cautioning against the “ideological colonisation” of countries by the West. Wells explained that the major concern of the Holy See is that the “objective truth about human nature in its personal and social dimensions may be compromised by a political agenda driven by the more powerful western nations which seek to impose on the more vulnerable nations a reductive secularist world-view”.

The nuncio elaborated, however, that while the UN often speaks of “human development”, the Holy See speaks of “integral human development” which includes “respect for the natural difference between man and woman”. He noted that human rights “derive from a correct understanding of human nature” and the “recognition of a transcendent moral law”.

“Individuals must be respected, especially the poor, by recognising that they are free agents of their own destiny lived out in the natural bonds of family and community.” He recalled that “the minimum spiritual and material needs are needed to enable a person to live in dignity and to create and support a family”, which is, he went onto say: “the primary cell of any social development”.

The correct understanding of the human persons affirms sexuality as “an important dimension of human identity,” said wells, noting that “sexuality must be lived in accordance with the dignity of each person, since a sexual relationship requires full respect for the dignity and liberty of each person forming the couple”. He stressed that the Holy See acknowledges that “women have a special role to play in the family and society due to their unique presence in the creation of life as physical and spiritual mothers”. He emphasised that “Women must be given the means to realise their inherent dignity as feminine persons protected from psychological and physical violence which includes all forms of abortion and female infanticide.”

The nuncio explained to the bishops that “the Holy See emphasises that any references to ‘gender’, ‘gender equality’ and ‘gender equality and empowerment of women and girls’ are understood according to the ordinary, generally accepted usage of the word ‘gender’” which is “based on the biological identity that is male and female”. Pope Francis has frequently spoken about the perils of “gender ideology” which denies the relevance of biological sex, male and female, and promotes the idea that there is a plethora of “genders” based on one’s subjective perceptions.

Wells further explained that by deliberately using the term “promotion”, instead of “empowerment”, the Holy See “seeks to avoid a disordered view of authority as power rather than service”, and that the Holy See “expresses the hope that women and girls, in particular, will challenge this flawed perspective of authority with a view to humanising the situations in which they live”.

Beware of confusing language that uses ‘health’ or ‘care’ to smuggle in notions of ‘abortion’ or ‘sterilisation’

Referring again to the UN’s goals, he noted that “when the goals speak of “healthy lives” this should be understood to mean the health of the person as a whole — including the most vulnerable, the unborn, the sick, the disabled — during all stages of development of the life of the person, taking into consideration every dimension (physical, psychological, spiritual and emotional).”

“The right to health is a corollary to the right to life”, it can never be used “as a way to end the life of a person, who is such from conception until natural death.”

Wells explained that in various points of the Agenda there is an advocacy for “health-care services, including family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes” and that it “calls for universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.” He said that the term ‘reproductive health’ etc. is problematic since the very terms ‘reproduction’ and ‘reproductive’ “obscure the transcendent dimension of human procreation”.

The Church, he said, prefers the term ‘procreation’ “because it reflects the participation of the couple, man and woman, in God’s work of creation”. He emphasised that the Holy See “does not consider terms such as ‘reproductive’ as applying to a holistic concept of health” as “they fail to embrace, each in their own particular way, the person in the entirety of his or her personality, mind and body” and “they further fail to foster the achievement of personal maturity in sexuality and in the area of mutual love and decision-making, thereby overlooking the characteristics of the conjugal relationship between a married man and woman that are in accordance with moral norms”. He explained how the Holy See rejects any interpretation that considers abortion or access to abortion, maternal surrogacy or sex-selective abortion, and sterilisation as dimensions of ‘reproductive health’.

On the issue of more powerful nations demanding ideological changes in return to foreign aid, the nuncio firmly declared that “states and international organisations are not permitted to use coercion or the exertion of pressure on other states and organisations in order to impose policies that undermine the ethical and cultural foundations of the society through international economic assistance or development programmes”. He similarly noted that “national governments should ensure that public and private health care respect the inherent dignity of the human person and ethical and medical protocols, as well as the freedom of religion and right to conscientious objection of health-care workers and providers”.

Protection of the family

Wells affirmed that at the heart of the 2030 SDG Agenda is the human person and argued that this means, therefore, that “the family, the natural and fundamental unity of society, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is also at the centre of development” and is therefore, “in accordance with international human rights law” entitled to protection by society and the state. He explained to the bishops that in international law there is a distinction between the family as “a unit of society’ and as a ‘household’. He noted that ‘household’ refers to a variety of situations (he cited “child-headed households, single mothers with children under their care, [and] cohabitating couples”) whose “individual members and their well-being” must always be of concern to the state. He noted that “such protection should never detract from the special protection that must be given to the family which is the natural and fundamental unity of society as a subject of rights and duties prior to the State.” On this point, he referred the bishops to the Charter of the Rights of the Family for an explanation of what protection for the family might entail.

Family planning

The nuncio underlined that the Holy See “cannot endorse methods of family planning which fundamentally separate the essential dimensions of sexuality, namely the unitive and procreative elements of the conjugal act between a husband and a wife”.

The nuncio re-iterated that the responsible and moral decisions concerning the number of children and the spacing of births belong to parents, who must be “free from all coercion and pressure from public authorities, including any demographic data that might induce fear and anxiety about the future”. He explained that fertility awareness and education are fundamental in the promotion of responsible parenthood and that governments of countries should also be free from similar coercion and pressure, especially by ‘oppressive lending systems’, that is, when the cost of receiving the money is the imposition of an idea upon the people that “changes, or means to change, a mentality or a structure”.

The nuncio also explained that there are specific areas of support that must be developed to assist these couples in finding “work, education, rest and family balancing”. In addition, he noted, “the Holy See has continually emphasised the prior rights of parents to educate their child according to their religious and moral beliefs, including dimensions of human love and related matters concerning the nature of sexuality, marriage and the family”.

Religion and right to practice religion freely protected by International Human Rights Law

The 2030 Agenda acknowledges intercultural understanding and recognises international human rights law, both of which include religious freedom. “The Holy See emphasises that the religious dimension is a fundamental part of every people and every nation. Religious freedom shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbours whose religious views differ from our own and interreligious dialogue, permits us to speak to one another, as opposed to taking up arms.”

Wells emphasised how the Holy See taking into consideration the ongoing atrocities against Christians and other religious groups and maintains that issues relating to religious freedom and freedom of conscience as well as interreligious and intrareligious dialogue must be given priority for the ultimate success of the 2030 Agenda.


Archbishop Wells concluded by quoting from a homily given by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 to an audience of young people. He said:

“In times like these, given the cultural and social context in which we are living, there may be a greater risk of reducing Christian hope to an ideology, to a group slogan or to outward appearances. Nothing is more contrary to Jesus’ message! He does not want his disciples to “recite” a part, even that of hope. He wants them “to be” hope and they can only be hope if they remain united to him! He wishes each one of you, dear young friends, to be a small source of hope for your neighbour and, all together, to become an oasis of hope for the society in which you are integrated.”

The nuncio confessed that he did not think he could improve on this wish, which he extended to all those present, “that you may be an ‘oasis of hope’ especially in your pastoral mission to all those who are entrusted to your guidance”.

He further thanked the bishops and assured them of his support as they “daily face the challenge of proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed and being a source of unity for the whole Christian community entrusted to your care”. SA.

This article is archived here from my work for the online publication, Spotlight.Africa which I wrote whilst working for the Jesuit Institute South Africa. Spotlight.Africa was a work of the Society of Jesus in South Africa from 2017-2021.

This was originally published at:

  1. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals mentioned in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. ↩︎