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Encountering Catholic leaders in Uganda: Theology professor's Fulbright grant will lead to groundbreaking study

Jay Carney, PhDIn the 56 years since declaring independence from their British colonizers, the people of Uganda have paid witness to often-brutal political power struggles and repressive dictatorships.

Seeking stable leadership and guidance in the postcolonial era, Ugandans have found some direction in the Roman Catholic Church, the largest religious denomination in the country. Just how the Church and its leadership have confronted the challenges of the past six decades will be the subject of a study by Creighton University theology professor Jay Carney, PhD, who has earned a 2018-19 fellowship from the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program to delve into the lives of seven Church leaders and explore how their lives and work have responded to the political realities in Uganda.

“It’s a broad study of how the theology and spirituality of these leaders has been at work in Ugandan public life,” said Carney, who has researched extensively in the African Great Lakes region and penned a book, Rwanda Before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era, that won the African Studies Association’s 2015 Bethwell A. Ogot book prize for best book in East African Studies. “I’m going to be looking at a lot of spheres of Church leadership, including social work, Catholic radio, peacebuilding and politics.”

The seven subjects of Carney’s study — Prime Minister Benedicto Kiwanuka, Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga, the Rev. John Mary Waliggo, Sr. Rose Mystica Muyinza, the Rev. Tonino Pasolini, Ms. Sherry Meyer and Ms. Rosalba Oywa — represent a cross-section of modern Ugandan Church history and the Church’s role in developing the nation and resisting dictatorship.

During the academic year that he will spend mostly in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, Carney intends to conduct oral interviews and comb over local archives to create what will be one of the first monographs on postcolonial Catholic history in Uganda. And, in choosing to take a biographical approach to the history, rather than an institutional one, Carney said he hopes to make the study resonate for a broader audience.

“I’ve personally always been drawn to biography,” Carney said. “People’s lives resonate for me and, I’ve found, for my students. And since there hasn’t been much done on Catholic local leadership, it made sense to put the focus on those leaders, rather than on institutions. These are people whose stories need to be better known.”

Another project in Carney’s research will involve a more in-depth look at the life and work of Kiwanuka, the first prime minister of Uganda. Though a lawyer and a layperson, Kiwanuka nevertheless felt deeply guided in leadership by his Catholic faith.

Just a year after coming to power in 1961, Kiwanuka lost an election to Milton Obote. He graciously stepped aside — still the only peaceful passing of power in Ugandan history — but was nonetheless jailed as a political prisoner by Obote’s government in 1969. Kiwanuka was freed after the 1971 coup d’état by Idi Amin, and Amin appointed Kiwanuka chief justice of Uganda.

Ever governed by his legal training and Catholic conscience, Kiwanuka soon ran afoul of Amin’s authoritarianism and repeated abrasions of the rule of law. He was arrested in 1972 and murdered in prison.

“Kiwanuka was a respected lawyer, social democrat, and martyr, shaped by Catholic social thought and teaching,” Carney said. “He is that example of a layperson whose political imagination was deeply shaped by his Catholic faith.”

Carney and Jonathon Earle, PhD, a professor of history at Centre College in Kentucky, are collaborating on a larger biography of Kiwanuka.

Along with the scholarly component of the Fulbright grant, Carney will also be teaching at Uganda Martyrs University, a Catholic university with campuses in Nkozi and Kampala. The university’s administration is also establishing a new degree program in philosophical, religious and social studies, and Carney will help develop some of the curriculum with Albert Luswata, PhD, a professor at UMU who recently completed his own Fulbright project at Boston University.

Carney is hoping he can also forge longer-term partnerships between UMU and Creighton, such that students here can more fully engage the African nation in study-abroad opportunities or faculty can pursue their own research projects.

“I’d like to be able to help build that bridge,” Carney said. “I think it’s an area where Creighton and Uganda Martyrs could both really benefit, especially given both universities’ shared emphases on integral development and public health. Part of the Fulbright is looking at the question of what it means to be a Catholic leader and what we can learn from Catholic higher education in Uganda. Those are missional elements for Creighton, too. We’re always looking for ways that this University can benefit from more international encounter.”

Carney’s Fulbright will be paired with a year’s sabbatical he earned through the Haddix Faculty Incubator Awards.

“I’m very grateful to the Haddixes and to the Fulbright Program for this opportunity,” Carney said. “I am looking forward to being in Uganda again and getting a chance to work with the people there, digging into what it means to be a public Catholic leader in modern Africa.”


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