From Iron Fist to Limp Wrist -
Pope Francis and the Diocese of Ahiara
On June 10, Pope Francis issued an ultimatum to hundreds of priests in the Nigerian diocese of Ahiara – give me your absolute obedience within 30 days or I will fire you. He threatened these priests with harsher punishment than the Church has meted out to any child abuser. Nothing like this massive threat has occurred in modern history. I’m not sure if there is any precedent – none has been mentioned. But not only has mainstream media ignored this, almost all the religious press has as well. Pope Francis’ deadline of July 8 is long past, and the priests of Ahiara have NOT met his demand. But Francis has failed to carry out his threat. The latest report (here) contradicts a prior report from the same publication, which suggested the problem was nearly resolved. Now, after the priests and their flock have called Pope Francis’s bluff, it seems we are back to square one. What is going on?
I have written several articles about this situation. If you are familiar with them, skip to the next section. In this section, I provide a summary and links to earlier articles.
The problem goes back to 2012, and concerns the replacement for the bishop of Ahiara. The retiring bishop urged that a priest from the diocese replace him, and presented three suitable candidates. No priest from Ahiara had previously served as bishop.
Normally the recommendations of an incumbent bishop carry a great deal of weight. But a council of bishops rejected those recommendations and chose an outsider as the new bishop. They gave no reason for rejecting the incumbent’s list of candidates, or for dismissing requests for representation from the people and priests of Ahiara. They simply demanded obedience, claiming they know best.
The priests and laity of Ahiara did not accept this. They blocked the carpetbagger bishop from entering the diocese and taking his seat. They appealed the decision, but received only a demand for obedience. There has been a stalemate since 2012, and Ahiara has had no bishop.
The priests of Ahiara appealed the decision to Pope Benedict. There were further discussions in Nigeria, but nothing was resolved, and nothing was made public. When Pope Francis took office in 2013, he inherited the problem. He assumed Pope Benedict’s position, with the same results. There is no evidence that he attempted to adjudicate the conflict, much less justify the rejection of the incumbent bishop’s recommendations.
On June 10, Pope Francis seemed to snap. He waved his iron fist, and issued an ultimatum. His justification: “This seems very hard, but why must the Pope do this? Because the people of God are scandalized.” What is so scandalous? Pope Francis’s primary reason: “One must clearly manifest total obedience to the Pope.” In the eyes of Pope Francis, failure to show total obedience to the pope is more scandalous than raping children, and merits harsher treatment. Pope Francis has only talked of obedience. He has said nothing of justice.
CRUX was essentially the only American newspaper to cover the story, and they suppressed all mention of the incumbent’s recommendations. The story, as they and others framed it, was one of renegade priests opposing the Church for tribal reasons. They treated the issue of representation as one of tribalism, and supported the official Church position.
The deadline for Pope Francis’ ultimatum passed without any observable response. About a month after the deadline, Ines San Martin, the #2 at CRUX, wrote an article based on discussions with anonymous Vatican officials and senior Church officials in Nigeria. She said that Pope Francis was responding to the priests of Ahiara, and suggested that a solution was imminent.
Shortly afterward, John Allen, the editor of CRUX, contradicted his #2: “Pope Francis has thrown down one of the most authoritarian gauntlets we’ve seen any pope fling in a long time…. Had any other recent pope done such a thing, howls about abuse of power and over-centralization probably would have been deafening. . . . Francis, however, gets more or less a free pass.” This is the only criticism I have seen of Pope Francis’s handling of the situation.
The links to earlier articles, in chronological order: Pope Francis Demands Absolute Obedience; Pope Threatens Nigerian Priests – Background and Update; Diocese Rebels Against Pope - Religious Press is Silent; CRUX on Papal Conflict in Nigeria.
CRUX ran a new article on the subject under a new byline. A Nigerian newspaper, Premier Times, also covered the story: “Please obey the Pope, priest begs defiant Nigerian Catholic worshippers.” The term ‘priest’ is misleading. The person in question is an archbishop, and also the head of the committee responsible for electing the new bishop. The article says the new bishop “was rejected based on clannish differences,” once again ignoring the prior bishop’s recommendations and the issue of representation.
CRUX presented some startling news from one Nigerian official: “My brothers and sisters, everything possible was done to appoint a priest from Ahiara Diocese as the second bishop of the diocese by those whose duty it was to recommend to the pope for his kind approval, confirmation or rejection.” No such claim was previously made. Furthermore, this official failed to explain why they were unable to approve any candidate from Ahiara despite doing “everything possible” to choose a local priest. Did God harden their hearts, as he did with the Pharaoh? CRUX did not question his claim. It is astonishing how quickly they can rewrite history.
Premier Times reported that Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama has again appealed to the priests and laity of Ahiara to submit to authority and accept the carpetbagger; Kaigama is also the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria which chose the outsider. He said, “We are not happy that the church in Ahiara is outside the system for this long. We are particularly not happy that the name of Nigeria is ringing in different parts of the world as people who are disloyal to the authority of the Pope. But it is our fervent prayer that the people of Ahiara will see reason and come back to the church that is founded on the obedience to the authority of God.”
Once again, simply a demand for obedience. The people of Ahiara have continued to block the entry of the outside bishop. Pope Francis has failed to make good his threats, and the situation has deteriorated from its previous “scandalous” state. The people faced the bully, and he backed down. But no one wants to touch the story. It is neither uplifting nor politically correct.