Editorial: Pope’s Ultimatum to Rebellious Nigerian Priests

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The ultimatum given by Pope Francis to unruly Nigerian priests in the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara to pledge “total obedience” to him and their bishop before July 9, or be summarily excommunicated from the church is another blight on the toga of Nigeria’s international image, that took a further beating. This shameful and unacceptable display of insubordination and indiscipline has brought Mbaise people, Imo State and the entire nation into disrepute, going by the cavalier showmanship, intemperate feistiness and reprehensible waywardness that characterized the priests’ attitude to solemn matters of church discipline. One of the hallmarks of Canon Law is unquestionable loyalty and obedience to church hierarchy and for Mbaise priests to reject the papal appointment of a Bishop of their diocese on grounds of tribalism is an unjustified expression of intolerance and bad manners. This was a great disservice to the Catholic Church; but most importantly, to efforts at rebranding Nigeria. To say this unbelievable national shame was an embarrassment would be an understatement.  

The Pope’s ultimatum relates to a standoff between the Vatican and the Catholic Church hierarchy in Ahiara diocese with priests from Mbaise, who opposed the appointment of Bishop Peter Okpaleke, by the Pope's predecessor, Benedict XVI in 2012. The Ahiara clergy protested Okpaleke’s appointment, with some demonstrators locking the doors of the cathedral to stop the new bishop from entering, according to Catholic news site Crux. Bishop Okpaleke does not hail from the Mbaise ethnic group in Imo State, and priests of the diocese view him as an outsider, given that he is from neighboring Anambra State. The situation has persisted for five years until Pope Francis decided to read the riot act, saying “whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the diocese wants to destroy the Church.” The clergy in Ahiara must now each write a letter of apology declaring their obedience to the Pope and asking for his forgiveness for opposing the appointment of Bishop Okpaleke.

It is unusual for the Holy Father to issue this kind of ultimatum, but the Pope said he had even considered suppressing the Ahiara diocese; an extreme measure that only occurs when a Catholic population has been dispersed by persecution, but decided against it for the sake of the region’s Catholics. The Pope delivered his ultimatum after meeting with a delegation from the diocese of Ahiara at the Vatican. In the frank meeting with the Nigerian delegation, Francis demanded that every priest of the Ahiara diocese must individually write him a letter by July 9, in which each one must “clearly manifest total obedience to the pope and…be willing to accept the bishop whom the pope sends and has appointed.” Any priest who fails to write such a letter will be suspended from carrying out his duties, including the celebration of mass and other sacraments, such as baptism and will “lose his current office,” according to the pope’s address. It is not clear if the clergy has responded to the ultimatum.

Whatever might have informed this malign display of gross insubordination, the actions of the Mbaise priests; who by virtue of their positions and calling are supposed to rise above petty and pithy issues of tribalism, was a mockery of the admonition of their calling as servants of God, who are supposed to preach the word and save men’s souls, without regards to tribe, race, color or sexual orientation. The reason for the rejection of Bishop Okpaleke was, to say the least embarrassing and disgraceful as the decision itself. It is an unbelievable shame that underscores more the culture of intolerance that has crept into the Nigerian society, and by extension, the Catholic Church. Honestly, the people of Imo State deserve better!

No matter what grievances the Ahiara clergy might have, picking a fight over the Pope’s choice of Bishop to head the Ahiara diocese was not the appropriate manner for Mbaise people to publicly flaunt their tribalism credentials by their unbecoming and rebellious attitude. This kind of brigandage in the church therefore, amounted to a mindless circumvention of the community spirit and essence of the Christian faith as symbolized by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was most inauspicious and must never again be contemplated.  The Ahiara clergy must consider the implication of their actions against the lessons of humility, service, self-sacrifice, and true love taught by Jesus through his own life. Jesus taught his followers that, in love, those who seek to be first must make themselves last and servant of all. The Mbaise priests can learn a lot from the supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

This notwithstanding, the moral failings of the Mbaise priests must not be become a justification for punishing the entire diocese, including those clergy who remained on the path of rectitude and whose actions are measured in line with the tenets of their faith. Nigeria’s constitution rightly recognizes that the only way to protect the exercise of citizens’ religious duties is to guarantee the freedom of religion. The Mbaise priests should not lose sight of the fact that Jesus Christ was crucified for proclaiming a message that ran against conventional wisdom. He was politically murdered, contrary to due process, by civil authorities that made the cause of religious bigots their own. This highlights the danger to truth and freedom that can manifest itself when state and religion inordinately cohere.

The Pope’s ultimatum is an opportunity to reflect on the state of the church in Mbaise and the Ahiara diocese in general, whose stock has drastically fallen on account of the ill-advised opposition and challenged to papal authority, which borders on near infallibility. Many Catholic Christians have seen their confidence shaken. But the Pope’s edict should be seen as a call to hope, a declaration that the church remains one holy family; a reality of eternal possibilities and renewal. Granted, so much water might have gone over the bridge; the Mbaise people might even feel undone, but the Ahiara diocese can rise to new heights and regain her dignity. The clergy should therefore, and without further delay, honor the Pope’s ultimatum by writing the apology. The diocese can be made to work for everyone. It only takes serenity for the Mbaise people to accept the things they cannot change; courage to change the things they can; and the wisdom to know the difference between a political and a papal appointment.