It was Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Obuna of Abakaliki Diocese who in 1986 wrote a book with the caption: “African Priests and Celibacy in a Culture where a man without a child is a waste…”, and argued that monogamy and celibacy were alien to African Culture, reminding us of the great sacrifice associated with the vocation to the priesthood in Africa, which Christ affirmed that those who have left worldly possessions to follow him including families will receive bountiful blessings in heaven. Those vows are what have distinguished Catholic Priesthood from others and given it the dignity and respect it commands among other Christian religious groups in the world today, and sustained the uniqueness of the church several thousands of years after Christ. Priestly life is a life of prayer, sacrifice, and detachment from the world, mortification, humility and service to humanity. Like other Christians, they are in the world but ought not to be of the world. References for Luke 12:50
Priestly celibacy at the advent of Christianity in Africa threw families into warpath where as Christ said “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law…” (Luke 12: 50-55). Not many families were favourable to their children becoming priests or servants of God who would not be allowed to marry and bear children more especially those from families where they were the only male children and assumed heirs of the families.
Gradually, over the years, those impressions have been erased in the minds of many families whose children have become priests as the honour, respect and dignity brought to bear on such families far outweigh the issues of childlessness, such that many parents now even counsel some of their male children to enter the Seminary to study for, and become catholic priests.
However, emerging trends in the Church have become a source of worry to many concerned catholic faithful following several reports of abuse of the vows by many priests who now secretly take into marriage and/or engage in relationships with female parishioners or members of the society. Though many members of the church are unable to speak out on some of this disturbing trends, many confirmed reports of the incidents give cause for worry and the church needs to do something urgently. It is no longer news that many catholic priests are in competition with worldly men over mundane things like having the most beautiful ladies as girl friends, possessing big mansions, big and latest vehicles or cars, living the most flamboyant lives, attending night clubs, drink heavily and impose heavy dues/levies on their parishioners, extort money from politicians in the name of prayers to meet up their private needs and many other profane lives styles. It would appear as if the church is losing focus on issues of celibacy and chastity. Not speaking about the matter officially in Africa and Nigeria in particular, by the church does not mean the pain is not being felt, but how long can the church keep silent. Is it not time yet, to call a SPECIAL SUMMIT on this subject matter in the Catholic Church? Catholic Priesthood and celibacy is not an imposition, it is a service flowing from a call from God but which comes with conditions as prescribed by Christ and the Church.
A few months ago, specifically on 14th August, 2016, The Sun Newspaper reported that
“Parishioners at Queen of Apostles Catholic Church, Kakuri parish, Kaduna State, are still in shock following revelation that the parish priest…was engaged in a secret marriage to two women, an act that led to his being disrobed and sacked from the priesthood”. Barely a month after that report, a Parish Priest of a Popular Parish in Abuja was reported to have defiled a ten years old girl in his Parish and was arrested by men of the Nigerian police and prosecuted in the Court. Such cases are not new in the history of the Catholic Church which has made many people to question the possibility of continuous sustenance of the vows of celibacy and chastity. That is not the reason for this contribution. We are thinking that time has come for the church to call some of the priests involved in the abuse of the vows of celibacy and chastity to order, and take a stand. .
The position of the church on Priestly celibacy has never changed: Simeon Onyebuchi in his well researched work on “Little Known Facts for Every Catholic”, (2012), noted that “The primary basis for the requirement of celibacy is clearly the lifestyle example of Jesus Christ. Our Lord presented celibacy as a legitimate lifestyle not only by His very life, since He never married, but also in His teaching. When our Lord emphasized that marriage was a covenant between husband and wife and thereby prohibited divorce and re-marriage (Mt 19:3-12), He concluded: “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”
“Jesus prefers that the celibate life is to be chosen only by those who are called to it for the sake of the kingdom of God. They do so because they have been called to it and they joyfully receive it. The Gospel of Luke (18:28-30) tells us that the Twelve Apostles left everything, including their families, to follow Christ: Then Peter said: “We have given up our possessions and followed you.” He said to them, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive (back) an over abundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come.”
St Paul actually preached eloquently on celibate life and said; “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. . . . Those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. . . The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided”.
The argument over whether celibacy is mandatory for priest in the New Testament is overtaken by the strong teachings of the church.. There are ample historical documents which show that the early Church Fathers, endorsed celibacy in their writings and personal lives. They held the belief that sexual intercourse with a woman makes a priest ritually unclean to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice to God”. “Origen (A.D. 185-253), one of the greatest scholars of the third century and the most productive author of his time, in his 23rd Homily on Numbers, concludes that “only the one vowed to perpetual chastity can offer the perpetual sacrifice.”
Also, “Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (A.D. 265-340), who is often referred to as the father of church history because of his work in recording the history of the early Christian Church, writes commending the clerics who practice celibacy: “I am glad to say we are able to provide teachers and preachers of the word of holiness, free from all ties of life and anxious thoughts. And in our day these men are necessarily devoted to celibacy that they may have leisure for higher things; they have undertaken to bring up not one or two children but a prodigious number, and to educate them in godliness, and to care for their life generally.”‘
In the same way, “St. Epiphanius of Salamis, (A.D. 315 — 403), in his “Panarion” or “Against Heresies” (A.D. 374), writes most vehemently in favour of clerical celibacy: “Holy Church respects the dignity of the priesthood to such a point that she does not admit to the diaconate, the priesthood, or the episcopate, nor even to the subdiaconate, anyone still living in marriage and begetting children. She accepts only him who if married gives up his wife or has lost her by death, especially in those places where the ecclesiastical canons are strictly attended to”. “St. Ambrose (A.D. 333-397), who was the governor of Liguria and Aemilia, urged his clergy to persevere in chastity”, when he said “You who have received the grace of the sacred ministry in an integral body and with an incorruptible purity; you who are alien to the conjugal community itself know that the ministry must be immune from offense and stain and must not be subjected to any injuries from possible conjugal relations. I did not leave this issue aside for the following reason: in many places that are quite remote, some men who exercise the ministry, even the priesthood, have at times begotten children; …Learn, 0 priest, 0 deacon … to present your pure body to the celebration of the mysteries’
“St. Jerome (A.D. 342-420), a foremost biblical scholar of the ancient Church and the pioneer in biblical translation, notes that ‘A layman, or any believer, cannot pray unless he abstains from sexual intercourse. Now a priest must always offer sacrifices for the people: he must therefore always pray. And if he must always pray, he must always be released from the duties of marriage. For even under the old law they who used to offer sacrifices for the people not only remained in their houses, but purified themselves for the occasion by separating from their wives, nor would they drink wine or strong drink which are wont to stimulate lust.”‘
The endorsement of the first ecumenical Council of the Church, meeting in ancient Nicaea now Iznik, Turkey ( A.D. 325), was emphatic: “It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep. The bishops declared unanimously: It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity”
The above historical excurses is to remind us that celibacy and chastity are the major vows taken by Diocesan priests at ordination while Religious priests in addition to celibacy and chastity take vow of poverty as well. These vows are not optional for priests. It becomes embarrassing not only to the people in the church and the society when those expected to live by example are the ones promoting profanity and insensitivity where it matters most. When we criticize our political leaders for not living by example, the church should lead the faithful by example, the Priest is said to be another Christ on earth. Christ lived by clear example and we cannot reinvent another Christ different from the one we have professed in Baptism and faith to follow. Those who wish to serve God as Priests should either keep to the regulations and doctrines of the church or quit as done in civilized societies. I strongly recommend that Nigerian Catholic Bishops Conference do convoke a special Summit or Special Retreat for Priests in all the Catholic Dioceses in Nigeria on the matter.