Did Pope Francis Back Down in Nigeria?

The headline in NCR: “Francis backs down in dispute with Nigerian priests, accepts bishop's resignation.” This is deceptive.


Pope Francis inherited a problem in the Nigerian province of Ahiara, and proceeded to make it worse. When the bishop of Ahiara retired in 2012, he recommended his replacement be a member of the Mbesi tribe. There had never been an Mbesi bishop, despite the fact that the vast majority of the diocese is Mbesi, and there are many qualified Mbesi candidates. Recommendations from the departing bishop are almost always accepted. But in this case, Church authorities – none of whom was Mbesi - rejected the recommendation, and appointed an outsider. The people and the priests of Ahiara rebelled and did not allow him to assume office.

Pope Benedict rejected an appeal, and left the resulting stalemate to Pope Francis. After quiet pressure failed to resolve the situation, Pope Francis threatened to fire the dissenting priests if they did not submit in 30 days. Both the people of Ahiara and its priests refused to back down. After some time, Pope Francis tried to scam them (see Murmurs from Nigeria’s Diocese of Ahiara and links therein). Recently, a Nigerian cardinal publicly urged Francis to fire the priests, but this had no apparent effect.

What just happened?

The outsider appointed bishop six years ago has just resigned. NCR and others view the bishop’s resignation as an admission of failure from Pope Francis. This assumes that Francis forced the bishop to submit his resignation. No evidence was provided, nor any explanation offered for the timing of the resignation.

A new bishop has been selected. NCR does not mention his tribal background, but it was almost certainly not Mbesi. In fact, NCR completely suppressed the issue of tribal affiliation which is central to this conflict. If Pope Francis and Church officials selected another non-Mbesi candidate, that cannot be considered backing down. It is actually doubling down, rejecting Ahiara’s demand for representation, and forcing another unwanted outsider upon them.

It remains to be seen whether the people and priests of Ahiara will accept the new carpetbagger. But it is clear that Pope Francis disdains any attempts at local representation, and continues to act as an autocrat demanding total obedience from his subjects. NCR suppresses and misrepresents the real issue here.