Opinion: Pope Francis, Celibacy and the Church

By Nkannebe Raymond

The foundations of the Roman Catholic Church currently curated by the 81 year old Pope Francis is once again, struggling to recover from what has become a familiar tremor. With the findings of a Pennsylvania grand jury last month which in a 900 page report indicted over 300 predator Catholic bishops in the state of serial abuse of some 1000 children in a systematic and organized orgy of abuse that spanned a whopping seven decades, the liberal Pope of “Laudato si” fame, is stewed in his own share of clerical abuse that has worryingly become a recurrent feature of nearly, all papal administrations. Tucked to that, is the pontiff’s alleged conspiracy of silence over the cardinal Theodore MCcarick affair which leaves him battling to redeem himself in what would arguably go down as the greatest controversy of his papacy.

A fortnight ago, during an official visit to Dublin, the first of such papal visit to the city since after John Paul II in 1979, the soft spoken Argentine at a public mass found himself apologizing to the lay Catholics there for the decade long wider clerical sex abuse from Boston to Philadelphia to Dublin and elsewhere. Dublin, the capital of Ireland has been a hot spot of sexual abuse, exploitation of women and pedophile priests. And while over 100,000 lay Catholics lined up the streets to welcome the Pope,  protesters and those who have long distanced themselves from Catholicism also made statements of their disaffection with the church with visible placards.

Three months ago, the Pope accepted the resignation of a Chilean Bishop- Juan Barros whom he had staunchly defended earlier in the year despite weighty allegations of cover up of clerical abuse under his watch- a move that would force the pontiff to tender a public apology to the Chilean Catholic community saying he made “grave mistake” by originally defending Bishop Barros.

Barros was among 34 Chillean Bishops who offered to resign in May this year after Pope Francis said the country’s religious hierarchy was collectively responsible for “grave defects” in handling sexual abuse cases and the church’s resulting loss of credibility, following a 2,300 page report that showed that the Catholic hierarchy in Chile systemically covered up and downplayed cases of abuse, destroyed evidence of sexual crimes, discredited accusers and showed “grave negligence” by not protecting the children from paedophile priests.

The isolated case of 88 year old cardinal Theodore McCarick who until his resignation in July, (the first of such resignation of a cardinal since 1927), was already the highest ranking US priest, sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb; and has hightened calls for the pope’s resignation by his conservative critics against the fine traditions of canon law.

Theodore McCarick resigned late July following the findings of the grand jury in Pennsylvania 2 months ago. Until his shameful resignation, McCarick was a parish priest in New York, from where he rose to become an auxiliary Bishop in the city, and then rising to become a Bishop in Metuchen, New Jersey. He was then promoted steadily, first as archbishop of Newark, and later ascending to become archbishop of Washington DC. He left his Washington post on reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75 according to canon law, but remained a vocal voice in the Catholic church and a member of the prestigious college of cardinals which advises the Pope.

In what continues to puzzle pundits and commentators alike, McCarrck’s rise in the Church hierarchy was despite ceaseless allegations and petitions written against him. A state of affairs that feed the conclusion of those who strongly believe that the octopoidal Catholic church has become a cesspit of corruption. Little wonder Pope Francis was once reported to have equated reforming the church, with  “cleaning the sphinx of Egypt with a toothbrush”.

The New York Times on the 16th of July  reported that the cardinal was repeatedly accused of sexually harassing and inappropriate touching of adult seminary students who were in training to become priests. It was told that he often invited seminarians and young priests to his New Jersey beach house and chose one man to share his bed.

The relationship between Pope Francis and disgraced cardinal McCarrick has in no small measure increased the yoke of Pope Francis.  Having influenced his emergence following the conclave of cardinals five years ago, Pope Francis must have found himself unable to rule McCarick and thus allowed him the leeway to do as he pleased. It is said that McCarrick influenced top appointments in the Vatican and even single handedly appointed his successor, cardinal Donald Wuerl who also has come under intense suspicion as part of those running the abuse cult within the Church. It is this atmosphere that must have informed Francis’ refusal to heed the advise of those who warned him about getting too close to McCarrick following allegations of sexual abuse and cover up that became synonyms with his person. Having met his Waterloo with the Pennsylvanian reports, not a few persons have called for the resignation of the Pope for what they termed a “condonnation of corrupt behaviour”.

At the forefront of the calls for the resignation of the Pope is top Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Mario Vigano, who in a damnifying 11 page testimonial charged that the Church’s leader had been aware of the allegations against McCarrick since 2013 but failed to act on them.

In the words of the conservative cleric who by the way, is no fan of Pope Francis,…” he knew from at least 23 June, 2013 that McCarrick was a serial predator. Although he knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end. Indeed he made McCarrick’s advice his own, which was certainly not inspired by sound intensions and for love of the Church. It was only when he was forced by the report of the abuse of 2 minors, again on the basis of media attention that he took action regarding McCarrick to save his image in the media”. In calling for the resignation of the Holy See, the cardinal enthused, ” Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and Bishops who covered up McCarrck’s abuse and resign along with them…”

Now, for all the weighty allegations raised in Vigano’s “95 theses” of sorts, which  he said he was forced to write in order to unburden his conscience, the reaction of the fairly outspoken Pope to them,  is one of silence. On his flight back from Ireland, the embattled Holy Father reluctantly responded to Vigano’s testimonials by declaring, “I will not say a single word on this”.

A silence which critics say has not been golden at all given the size of revelations with the full complements of annexures, in Vigano’s letter.

The orgy of clerical abuse that has dogged the Roman Catholic Church since the turn of the 20th century, but with renewed vigour in the last three decades, has become the proverbial albatross around the neck of the Church. And only time would tell if it would eventually become it’s Achilles Heels. The situation is rather complicated by the attitude of a Church that has become an expert in brushing scandals under the carpet and taking sides with its own, as against victims of clerical sexual abuse and molestation. A reenactment of this clerical attitude was recently seen in the disposition of Pope Francis in the case of Bishop Barros, before his mea culpa six months after he was confronted with incontrovertible evidence of the Chilean Bishop’s complicity.

16 years ago, a dark cloud gathered over the Catholic Church when the famous Boston Globe revealed the wide spread wrongdoings in the then Archdiocese of Boston following an investigation that led to the criminal prosecution of Five Roman Catholic Priests. That incident would for the first time thrust the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy into global consciousness. Not a few million dollars was was spent by the Church in the settlement of claims brought by victims of the abuse.

It is not that clerical abuse of minors is a crime peculiar to the American Church. Not at all.  Several dioceses across Europe have also had their fair of the social menace that continue to detract from the Catholic Church’s moral authority. For example in 2010, allegations of sexual abuse spread like wildfire across a half dozen countries namely Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Brazil-home of the world’s largest Catholic population.

Whereas Africa has not been put on the global map as a destination of clerical abuse, there is nothing suggesting that it is not to be found in the African Church. The stigma associated with coming out in the open to speak of these things may still be the reason why it has continued to fester unnoticeably for now. As a young seminarian in Zaria, Kaduna state, not a few of my colleagues and seniors alike, were caught indulging in homosexual conducts. While some were expelled by the authorities at the time, others who were absolved of any complicity but who continued in the practice graduated and are Priests today in various dioceses. It is therefore hard to argue that they have not continued in their homosexual escapedes knowing how difficult it is to drop old habits. But that is the limit one would go on that, as far as this piece is concerned.

As I have pointed out before now, what appears to be very troubling in all these, is the tendency of the Church to live in a hurtful denial by taking to  an endless defence of its own instead of confronting her demons headlong. It is this attitude that must have helped in no small measure to embolden the sexual predatory elements within the church heirrachy. And which also leaves victims of sexual abuse to live and die with the stigma of abuse knowing  before hand  that the church would discredit their petitions in order to save it’s face. Or how else does one explain a situation where elements within the church fingered to be complicit in the sexual abuse  of minors continue  to rise in the church hierarchy?

It is against this backdrop however that the latest reaction of the Pope following the recent scandal that has rocked the church merits some commendation when contrasted to the corporate Vatican reactions to clerical abuse in the past. At a recent ordination of Bishops conducted by the Holy See, he charged some 75 Bishops hailing from 34 countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania to “just say no to abuse-of power, conscience or any type”. “saying no to abuse”, the pontiff said, “means saying no with force to every form of clericalism”.

Yet, it would be foolhardy to suggest that mere admonistions  would operate to upend what has almost become an unwritten tradition of the church. This somewhat skeptical position is reinforced by the testimony of Raman Martin, the most senior Roman Catholic figure in Ireland who told The Guardian Uk last month, that abuse was “a systemic issue for the whole church. This is not an isolated issue of 2 bad priests in a particular school or parish. This is an issue where the whole culture of our church wrongly facilitated abuse”. This  testimony of the cleric given how much information available to him as a senior member of the Church in Dublin, should give us a picture of what the church is up against. Hence why mere admonitions would be akin to the proverbial slap in the wrist therapy.

Not a few critics of the Roman Catholic Church and even senior members of the Church hierarchy have called for a review of the canon law which would see priests reserve the right to either be celibate or take spouses as with other Christians denominations to the extent that sexual gratification appears to be at the core of predatory clerical behaviour. But celibacy, like Nigeria’s unity, as we are often told, is not negotiable in the Church’s eschatology, at least since the canons of the Elvira Council of the 4th Century made it so.

The position of the Catholic church on celibacy for it’s Priests draws inspiration from both scripture and canon traditions. In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians as recorded in the book of Ephesians 5: 25-27, the Church was described as the bride of Christ; and in so far as the Latinism: Sacerdotal alter Christus, goes, the priest must remain the Church’s bridegroom in consonance with the teachings of Paul, the apostle.  As to be a priest, is to be ‘wedded’ to the Church, there cannot be a question therefore of another marriage for prelates in its most popular sense.

Beyond that, since canon law nominates that the priest is a personification of Christ, it necessarily follows that as Christ lived and died celibate in so far as one can gather from recorded scripture, the priest is invited to live in like manner. With the above biblical and canonical origins of clerical incontinence; howbeit in précis, one tends to get a picture of why the Catholic Church is not given to brook any idea of shifting it’s much criticized position on sexuality and marriage for her priests. A tradition which needless to say remains arguably the most distinctive feature of the prelates of the oldest church on the face of the earth.

But for celibacy to make any scriptural sense, it must come with its moral component on the part of the clergy who entertain the choice of enlisting for the royal priesthood of Christ. If the prelates of the Roman Catholic Church must bask in the euphoria of being Christ’s representatives on earth, the irreducible minimum conduct required of them, would be to live as Christ and the apostles lived. And by this, it is not inferred that the priests must live a life of pure holiness, as scripture makes us appreciate the impossibility of that.  But as it relates to total abstinence from sex of all kinds, that should not be open to any debate.

By no means is it suggested that total abstinence from sex is a walk in the park as man continues to struggle with the the lures of the flesh however ascetic they may be. It was Sigmund Freud who it in proper perspective when he observed that “sex is every man’s weakness irrespective of how prudent or puritanical they may be”. Yet, no one says the call to the royal priesthood is an all-comers-affair. The more reason why those who commit to it, must live by it’s base ethical behavioural standards or risk being defrocked.

But where does all of these leave Pope Francis as the head of the church at a very tempestuous era of her history? I do not think that is too far to seek. Beyond the admonitions to members of the clergy to shun all forms of abuse, the Pope must hasten to react to the weighty allegations in Vigano’s letter for two reasons to wit:  to make concessions where necessary, and to controvert parts of it that may have veered off into hyperbole. This would serve to limit how much of it is relied upon in the court of public opinion  to cast opporobium on the Church. Beyond that, it would set the stage for a healing process of the church assuming it is committed to wiping off this ugly chapter in her history.

The test for Francis therefore who in many respect has changed the negative perception of the church abroad through his liberal posturings in his interventions on controversial subjects namely: climate change; communion for divorced and remarried Catholics; abortion and homosexulity;  is whether he can set the all important first foot in front by moving from angling to save the image of the church and tardy acceptance of resignations to actively rooting out abuse and cover ups through an institutionalised network that would cut across the whole spectrum of the Church irrespective of where this corrupt behaviour is found.

There are no pretensions that this would be an easy one for the Pope, but how he handles this particular scandal would make or mar his papal reign.

Nkannebe Raymond writes from Lagos. Comments and reactions to raymondnkannebe@gmail.com

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