Views and news on peace, justice and reconciliation in Africa




Church fights hard to safegaurd its credibility

By Laurenti Magesa (1789 words)

In the last decade the Western Press has often exposed cases of immoral behaviour of Roman Catholic clergy. Now similar cases are surfacing in Africa. A Tanzania-based theologian and journalist attempts a critical look at this development and what the Church in that country is doing to safeguard its credibility.

In recent years, reports have been widely published in North America and Europe about past and present incidents of immoral behaviour of some Roman Catholic clergy. Similar reports are now being published in Africa.
It was just a matter of time. With the current rise and consolidation of multi-party politics throughout Africa, there is a freer press and a lessening of previous church control over the mass media. Reporters do not now feel much constrained by either the state or the church to publish their findings, whatever or about whom they are.

Initial attempts by some church authorities in parts of Africa to prevent unflattering news about the clergy and the church from appearing in the media, or to characterise such as merely the work of ill-willed people, have failed. Subsequently, in-order to limit the extent of scandal to people and damage to the church's credibility, bishops in Africa have been forced to react in a number of ways.

Some individual bishops and bishops' conferences advocate a return to the past, stressing a longer and stricter training for candidates to the priesthood. For example, there has now been introduced in many dioceses a year or two of pre-philosophy preparation. Called a "spiritual year", it is intended to be a time of rigorous screening for potential seminarians, and resembles in structure pre-conciliar seminary formation where the young men are allowed little contact with the outside world. The "drill" schedule of spiritual exercises, familiar in previous seminary training, is also being widely reintroduced.

The bishops who advocate this approach attribute clerical misconduct to lax seminary formation and cite the saying: "As the seminarian is, so also the priest." There are other bishops, however, who place the blame not so much on defective seminary formation but on the failure of the bishops themselves to apply the law in the life of priests. They insist that the problems would not be as great if the prescriptions of Canon Law were applied more strictly against all offending priests. This also seems to be the position of Cardinal Josef Tomko, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of People. As one Tanzanian bishops under his Congregation................. to stop relating to their priests as "grandfathers". According to the Cardinal, they should act as "fathers" who must not hesitate to apply the law when necessary.

Cardinal Tomko's message has evoked responses, notably, from among the bishops of Tanzania.
In reaction to circumstances in the life of the clergy in the country, but also perhaps in conformity with the Cardinal's directive, the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC) has drawn up a document called "The Tanzania Priest Code of Conduct (TPCC)" whose aim is to regulate clerical behaviour in all the country's dioceses. It introduces itself as "an attempt by the TEC to have a Code of conduct, which, together with the existing ecclesiastical laws, will enable all priests within the particular church of Tanzania, to conduct themselves genuinely and fittingly ...".

Still in draft form at this writing, the document will, without doubt, be approved by the required "two-thirds majority of the plenary session of the TEC" to come into force, as its own Norm 60 indicates.

The structure of the document is rather comprehensive in scope. It at first sight appears almost pastoral. Among other things, it "specifies the role of a diocesan bishop, enumerates the various aspects of the life of a priest in daily circumstances, (and) indicates the relations that must exist between a priest and the different groups of the people of God in the Church...".

However, its central aim is unmistakably judicial, as it states clearly in paragraph 4 of the introduction: "The main purpose of this Code of Conduct is to serve as a juridical guide and directive to all priests living and working in Tanzania...".

The TPCC lists what the bishops have determined to be the major failings of the priests in the country and spells out appropriate applicable punishments and sanctions "after admonitions and painful persuasions to change the mind of the culprit priest have totally failed." The three areas of conduct that most immediately concern the bishops are "unfaithfulness to celibacy, misuse of alcohol, and involvement in activities that are unbecoming or alien to the priestly state and vocation, such as business or trade, politics and so on." This is not an exhaustive list, as the bishops stress, but, as they see it, these are the areas that stand out and need urgent action.

Few will dispute the fact that some sort of reminder to the priests in the country to be more faithful to their vocation and not abuse the trust the people have placed in them was needed. This applies in the areas that the bishops specify as well as others familiar with the concrete situation of the church in Tanzania; will have difficulties with the juridical option as the best way to bring about clerical reform, and even with several aspects of the Code itself.

Chapter II of the Code (i.e. Norms 16-25) spells out the role of the diocesan bishop in well known terms: He is required to promote communion and charity, and dialogue among his priests and between them and himself. He is also expected to show special care and concern over those priests who may be in difficulties, and see to it that all of his priests have enough to lead a decent life and "maintain their apostolic liberty." But here precisely may lie the most basic problem. Is this communion among priests, and adult collaboration between them and the bishops, sufficiently promoted by the bishops in the concrete order? or is the hierarchical and juridical power of the bishops presented as primarily.....? In other words, in every day life, is the bishop in Tanzania seen first of all as ruler or pastor?

Norm 16 of the TPCC defines the diocesan bishops as "ecclesiastic to whom a diocese or any entity equivalent to it has been juridical entrusted and who has all the ordinary, proper and immediate, power that he needs to execute freely his office of teaching, of sanctifying and of ruling." There is a danger of seeing in this definition the merely hierarchical and juridical role of the bishop, almost to the exclusion of this primary pastoral responsibility. It would seem that it is this emphasis that has made the bishops opt for the juridical approach to the clerical problems in Tanzania, and to have exempted themselves almost completely from the situation. There is no hint in the document of "mea culpa" on the part of the bishops, a gesture which would have been eminently pastoral.

You cannot legislate morality; the adage makes sense especially in this case. There is no merely juridical method of ensuring clerical fidelity to their vocation. The law needs to be applied not as a rule, but as an exception in extreme situations. What is most desirable is prevention, and the most effective way to help priests to remain true to their calling lies in the pastoral field. What pastoral care and guidance do the priests receive? And how mature and authentic is it in their eyes? For whereas the juridical approach risks seeing people as children to be disciplined, the pastoral option is more amenable to regarding priests as adults, and more understanding in the face of the hard facts of human reality.

The pastoral option would require a thorough investigation into the reasons why the clergy in Tanzania have failed in their celibate commitment, in the abuse of alcohol, and in involvement in such things as business. The method would be inductive, with "Sacred Scripture, conciliar and post-conciliar documents, and the 1983 Code of Canon Law" used to buttress, not to establish, the line of the argument. Beginning with prescriptions contained in Scripture and so on in a deductive way tends to make them resistant to contextual interpretation.

Let us take, as an example, the problem of priests' involvement in business or trade. No doubt, it is a problem to the extent that it does cause scandals. But the question to ask here is why such a big number of priests do this.
Business or trade is a complicated and time-consuming activity and few would, without compelling reason, enter into it. The document speaks of priests having "every right to receive a just remuneration" in Norm 34, enough to enable them "to support themselves, to have a holiday yearly, pay the salaries of those who devote themselves to their service , and to assist personally the needy." It is one thing to say this in a document and quite another to see to it that this "right" is honoured. A lot of pastors will confess from first hand experience that it is often honoured in the breach.

Here then the element of need outweighs that of greed. When this is appreciated, then the proscription in Norm 49 of the TPCC that priests are "forbidden personally or through others to do business either for their own benefit or that of others.." becomes, not only illogical, but practically irrelevant.

It is common knowledge that most priests have not been able to offer whatever input they might have had to the document because there have been no open discussions on it. In the spirit of dialogue and collaboration, there should have been, and perhaps then the document would have been richer, pastoral and much more realistic.

Besides the questionable theology on women underlying the proscription in Norm 44 of not having "female house-servants (sic) at the presbytery" - are women here seen as always occasions of sin? - other related prohibitions contradict the reality on the ground. Today, many pastoral agents, including catechists, in many dioceses are women. In their collaboration with the pastors, they must frequently indeed be together. What does the pastor concerned do with the prohibition that he "should not alone frequently travel with or visit a woman?" Further, how can any African priest (or sister) understand the regulation that "they should not stay or sleep in private home, (presumably even their relatives) but in the nearest presbytery or convent)," despite their many weaknesses?

Had there been a little wider and open discussion on the content of the TPCC, one error, at least, would have been avoided. Scholarship on African Religion has long since established beyond contention that in the African context and mentality, there is no clear-cut distinction between the sacred and the profane.
Everything in Africa has potential religious or sacred significance. Yet in Norm 14, the bishops insist that there is such a "clear distinction"! Could this be a result of the TEC's desire to tackle and solve clerical problems quickly by codifying clerical morality?


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