Benin, The Catholic Church in
BENIN, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Republic of Benin is a largely agricultural country located in West Africa that is bordered on the north by Niger, on the east by Nigeria, on the south by the Bight of Benin and the Gulf of Guinea, on the west by Togo and on the northwest by Burkina Faso. More than half the population dwells in the tropical coastal region. The landscape rises to hills in the northwest, while agricultural plains stretch through the east and the semi-arid north, a region visited by dry harmattan winds during the winter months. Agricultural products include cotton, Palm, corn, yams and cassava. In addition to limestone, marble and stands of timber, oil reserves are located off Benin's coast. Because of an underdeveloped economy, most Beninese rely on subsistence agriculture for their survival, although the newly seated government's transition to a market economy bodes well for the country's future. In 2000 one-third of Benin's citizens lived below the poverty line.
Once part of Upper Guinea and made a territory of French West Africa in 1895, Benin achieved self-rule in 1960 as the independent republic of Dahomey, and retained membership in the French Community. In 1976 the region changed its name to Benin after becoming a socialist state, but returned to a democratic republic in 1991. Like many African nations, the spread of AIDS continued to threat the Beninese population, and by 2000 the average life expectancy stood at 50 years. In 2000, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, a native of Benin and the dean of the College of Cardinals in Vatican City, called AIDS "a menace to the lives of scores of millions of Africans, and an obstacle to the development of all Africa."
History. Benin was part of one of the most sophisticated states in Africa prior to the coming of Europeans, and had its chief city in Abomey. Entering the region in 1485, the Portuguese built a chapel at Ouidah in 1680, but during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, attempts at evangelization were sporadic and ineffectual. In about 1830 Catholicism in Benin consisted of about 2,000 Portuguese and former slaves repatriated from Brazil who dwelt along the coast and who were under the jurisdiction of the bishop of São Tomé. In 1860 the territory was made part of the Vicariate Apostolic of the Two Guineas,
and was confided to the Society of the african missions (SMA). Two priests arrived at Ouidah in 1861, but their efforts were restricted to working among foreigners. The Prefecture Apostolic of Dahomey was established in 1883 and briefly included Togo.
Following the successes of a French military expedition, which overthrew the native government in 1892, freedom to evangelize was granted in 1894, when the region
became a French colony. In 1901 Benin/Dahomey became a vicariate apostolic, and its jurisdiction was extended northward to include Niger. A native congregation of women, the Petites Servantes des Pauvres de Cotonou, was founded in 1912, and a seminary was opened at Ouidah in 1913. A separate prefecture apostolic, embracing northern Benin, was established at Niamey, Niger, in 1942; but in 1948 northern Benin became the Prefecture Apostolic of Parakou (diocese in 1964), and the Vicariate of Dahomey became the Vicariate of Ouidah. Another vicariate was created in 1954 for the southeast at Porto Novo (diocese in 1955). The hierarchy was established in 1955, when Cotonou (formerly the Vicariate of Ouidah) became an archdiocese and metropolitan see for the country.
An overseas territory of France since 1946, the region became the self-governing Republic of Dahomey and received full independence on Aug. 1, 1960. Following the rise to power of a Marxist government in 1974, the country's name was changed from Dahomey to Benin, and atheistic policies were adopted. All churches were nationalized. Visas of foreign missionaries were revoked, forcing them to leave the country, while local priests were threatened with jail for any actions viewed as threatening to the state.
In December of 1989 the Marxist government was abolished, and the following February Cotonou Archbishop Isidore de Souza led the conference that drafted the country's new constitution. Democratic elections followed in 1991.
Into the 21st Century. By 2000 Benin had 172 parishes, 250 diocesan priests and 107 religious priests. Religious included 53 brothers and 689 sisters who operated clinics, hospitals and ran Benin's 22 primary and 18 secondary Catholic schools. The regional seminary of St. Gall, in Ouidah, was under the direction of the Sulpicians, while the Christian Brothers maintained a normal school at Bohican. The Trappists established a house in 1959 and the Cistercian nuns in 1960. In December of 1997 the Vatican opened a campus of the John Paul II Institute in Cotonou, a school in Rome that focused on the study of marriage and family life. A Catholic radio station, Rado Immaculate Conception, broadcast services and other Church-related programming. Most Catholics resided in the south, in or near the cities of Porto-Novo and Cotonou.
As part of the country's Christian minority, one of the challenges faced by the Church was the development of programs to promote relations with Benin's other faiths. Most Beninese were adherents of animist faiths such as vodoun, although elements of the Christian and Muslim doctrines often found their way into such indigenous religions. Although religious groups were required to register with the government, they were also given tax-exempt status and Church-based holidays were recognized by the state. Another issue of growing concern among Church leaders was the persistent trafficking in child slavery, and the Archdiocese of Cotonou established a counseling center to deal with this evil. Estimates put the number of children trafficked in West Africa at over 200,000 per year, many of whom were put to work on plantations, as domestics, or were forced into prostitution.
Bibliography: Bilan du Monde, 2:299–303. Annuario Pontificio has data on all diocese. For additional bibliography, see africa.