The Catholic University of America

Rev. Thomas Ochieng Otanga


Final Examination of

Rev. Thomas Ochieng Otanga

For the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

12:00 p.m., Caldwell Room 125





Luo ancestor veneration and the Christian doctrine of the Communion of Saints: Toward the development of an African Christian theology of ancestors


Director: James Wiseman, Ph.D.


My monograph examines the belief of the Luo people of Kenya about their ancestors in light of the Christian doctrine of Communion of Saints. The objective of the study is to discover ways by which veneration of African ancestors can be considered as a preamble to the appropriation of the belief in the Christian doctrine of Communion of Saints. Furthermore, the monograph seeks to suggest creative ways by which an African ancestral framework can become a point of departure for promoting an authentic engagement between the Gospel of Christ and the indigenous African cultures in developing an African Christian theology of ancestors.

Early Christian missionaries discouraged African funeral rituals (and many other African traditional customs) and encouraged Christian burial rites. However, Christian rituals alone fail to satisfy the cultural and spiritual needs of the African Christian believers. Consequently the African Christian believers very often publicly assent to orthodox Christian beliefs and join in the denunciations of the ancestor rites, but privately retain their loyalty to their indigenous traditions. Their traditions affords them the means by which they can live in communion with their ancestors whose commemoration they have always regarded as indispensable and beneficial or even redemptive for their earthly existence. This dual or multi-faith practice is a spiritual dilemma that if unexamined may become a problem that stifles the spiritual development of African Christians, weakens the entire enterprise of evangelization and could in the long run hamper the growth of authentic Christian faith.

In this study I argue that African ancestral veneration is on par with communio sanctorum. Moreover, since African ancestral beliefs and practices are fundamental pillars of religion for many ethnic groups in Africa, I propose that we use them to open up broad possibilities for defining pastoral strategies responsive to the African Christian believers’ spiritual needs. The monograph ends by proposing that if Christianity is to become firmly rooted in the rich African spiritual traditions, certain theological parameters must be delineated to enable African Christians to relate their ancestral beliefs to the salvific work of Christ. Ancestral beliefs and practices can therefore be viewed through a single theological lens that serves as a hermeneutical tool for critiquing Western and Christian hegemonic forces as well as responding to the cultural legacies of colonialism and of imperialism.