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The Catholic Church and Priests in Benue Politics

By Paul Utser
14 September 2022   |   12:33 pm
Institutions are not without challenging moments. At this instant of an increasing political affliction in Nigeria, the local Catholic Church is cast in a predicament of two necessities: the duty of proclaiming the Gospel and the obligation of maintaining canonical order.

Institutions are not without challenging moments. At this instant of an increasing political affliction in Nigeria, the local Catholic Church is cast in a predicament of two necessities: the duty of proclaiming the Gospel and the obligation of maintaining canonical order. The consistent prophetic messages of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria continue to provide hope, but hardly without a customary tone of episcopal frustration over the country’s political situation.

Concerning the Gospel, the Church’s primary mission is to preach the good news of God’s salvation to all the ends of the earth. In this mission, salvation is recognized neither as an abstract concept nor an exclusively after-bodily-death experience. Instead, it is a reality meant to generate the fullness of life, here on earth as it is in heaven. The fulfillment of this mission is not bereft of a well-ordered life.
Hence, the Church’s Code of Canon Law plays a fundamental role in the ecclesial community to ensure a regulated performance of the evangelizing mission.

However, it has now become evident that in Nigeria, certain political developments continue to present a difficulty for the Church in terms of sustaining fidelity in the pastoral mission of preaching the Gospel within the guidelines of Canon Law. The plague of politics has created a different kind of missionary experience for the Nigerian Church. With due regard to alternative approaches to addressing this situation, the need for a deeper assessment of the local Church’s pastoral guidelines regarding the absolute canonical prohibition of priests’ involvement in partisan politics should not be overruled. This proposition stems from the Benue political experience, representing a practical case study. The conversation should be on how best to collectively (both priests and laity) alleviate the sufferings of the people and promote the common good.

A few months ago, the Catholic Diocese of Gboko published a letter dated May 20, 2022, announcing the suspension of Fr. Hyacinth Alia from public pastoral ministry following his joining the 2023 governorship race in Benue State. Referencing Canon 285 paragraph 3 of the 1983 Code, the letter stated, “The Mother Church does not allow her clerics to get involved in partisan politics on their own.” The phrase “on their own” suggests that priests’ involvement in partisan politics is not prohibited absolutely. In other words, a priest can obtain the Church’s permission to engage in partisan politics.

Nevertheless, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, accessible on the official website of the Vatican, has paragraph 3 of Canon 285 as follows: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power.” Herein, the prohibition is absolute, without any conditions or room for permission. Where Canon 285 mentions “permission” is in paragraph 4, which states that “Without the permission of their ordinary, [clerics] are not to take on the management of goods belonging to lay persons or secular offices which entail an obligation of rendering accounts.”

The Canon that more directly speaks, with a condition for permission, about priests’ involvement in politics is Canon 287 paragraph 2, which states that clerics “are not to have an active part in political parties and governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.” A significant dual-sided theological question in need of an answer is: What are the rights of the Church in Nigeria that require protection, and what is the common good that should be promoted?
While responding to his suspension, Fr. Alia, through his media personnel, expressed awareness of the Church’s law and teaching regarding his engagement in politics. Furthermore, he described his suspension as a “worthy sacrifice” for the challenge he has undertaken for the common good of the people of Benue State. With such a statement, and considering that Fr. Alia has been a priest for more than thirty-two years, there is little room to imagine that he does not understand what the Catholic priesthood is about and what his decision entails.

It must be recalled that in the same Benue State, in the early 1990s, a Catholic priest, late Fr. Moses Adasu, was also suspended for the same reason of joining the governorship race, but he still went ahead to become the State governor. Today, among other things, supporters of the Fr. Alia movement insist that the praise of having a state university cannot be sung without mentioning Fr. Adasu, whose government of fewer than two years executed the establishment of the institution. The university has graduated many professionals beyond the shores of Benue. Without a doubt, some of the school professors and workers may have been entirely unemployed if there had been no Benue State University.

After his less than two years as governor (having been removed from office by the military junta of the late General Sani Abacha), Fr Adasu was reinstated by the Catholic Church to continue his public pastoral ministry. When he later died in 2005, he was buried in the diocesan cemetery where deceased priests of the diocese are interred. Given what transpired in the case of Fr. Adasu’s engagement in partisan politics, it remains unclear whether the Catholic Church in Benue has considered any alternative measure other than suspension to address or prevent a future canonical offense of partisan political engagement by her priests.

Among the arguments against Catholic priests in partisan politics is the prospect of a priest becoming a divisive figure in the local Christian community. This claim is anchored in the dissenting nature of political parties and their variant ideologies. Accordingly, a priest who publicly becomes an active member of a political party is deemed unlikely to retain a credible perception among members of his Church, especially among those who do not belong to the same political party with him. Moreover, this is believed to have the potential to impact the spiritual good of those church members negatively.

However, it is difficult to understand whether the division resulting from a priest’s involvement in partisan politics automatically ends when he returns to public pastoral ministry. Besides, the argument about division is hard to sustain in the face of internal divisions caused by certain pastoral policies and decisions of the local Church. For example, the creation of a parish or pastoral unit, and even the appointment of a parish priest or diocesan bishop, is sometimes received with a feeling of unfair treatment by some of the faithful. The experience of outstation churches refusing to join with neighboring communities as one pastoral unit is not foreign to the Catholic Church in Benue. Thus, can the argument based on division be a primary concern? Yes! However, should it be ignored in other instances? I do not think so; it appears selective.

Another argument in defense of the canonical prohibition is based on the concern about priests in politics becoming overseers of government policies that are at variance with the faith and teaching of the Catholic Church. Still, the question of protecting the rights of the Church and promoting the common good retains its critical relevance. Is it better for the Church to stay aloof and let other people in government promote policies that inhibit the rights of the Church or destroy the common good? In the evangelizing mission, do we consider some areas of society as not part of “all the world” (Mark 16:15)? Perhaps, it is pertinent to remember that to guard rules, an adequate contemplation of reality must not be forgotten. The gospel ought to have a deep engagement with the concrete human experience and challenging reality of society. In the words of the Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, we need to awaken ourselves to the deep reality that “God’s loving presence is with and in all things.”

The canonical prohibition of priests’ engagement in partisan politics could also be defended on the basis of the distinctive roles of the priests and the laity. The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests lists the functions of a priest, which concerns educating the people of God in the Christian faith and guiding them towards spiritual development according to the Gospel. The document notes, however, that priests “cannot be of service to men if they remain strangers to the life and conditions of men” (Presbyterorum Ordinis,3). On the other hand, paragraph two of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity affirms the apostolic role of the laity whose activity is “directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel.” This idea is reechoed by St. Pope John Paul II (Christifideles Laici, 17 and 36) and Pope Benedict XVI (Deus Caritas Est, 28). While Pope Francis recognizes that the Church, in her dialogue with the State and with society, does not have solutions to every particular problem, he encourages priests to get involved in the lives of their people and “smell like the sheep.”

The inspiration that defined the entire theological deliberations at the Second Vatican Council was an appreciation for a contextual understanding of God’s revelation. The Council itself was the brainchild of a new reality that modernity served on the Church. Instead of closing the window against the modern world, the Church was inspired by a curiosity to learn and understand how to communicate more appropriately with this new world about God’s goodness. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium Et Spes, expresses in its second paragraph, that “the council yearns to explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today.”

This is preceded by recognition in the first paragraph, that “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men [and women] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” Notably, the outcome of theological reflections during the Council provided the template for revising the existing 1917 Code of Canon Law to echo the Church’s new missionary experience. This resulted into a new Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983. The move underscored that the fullness of God’s revelation in Christ is a reality the pilgrim Church continues to learn.

Significantly, Jesus Christ emphasized that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and St. Paul reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). But this does not in any way contradict the lessons Jesus gave in situations where his mission and the prescription of the law were at stake. For example, in the Gospel of Luke (6:6-11), Jesus had an encounter with the Scribes and Pharisees about the man with a withered hand. The question asked by Jesus was very direct: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy?” When there was no response, He healed the man. While the law sometimes imprisons, the Lord always, frees.

There is scarcely any biblical evidence that our heavenly citizenship requires us to suspend living our earthly life joyfully to the fullest. If that were the case, Jesus would not have declared, “I have come that they may have life and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The fullness of life is impossible in a country with a political cesspool that enhances the escalation of poverty, hunger, disease, and hopelessness. There is no fullness of life but fear amidst incessant attacks on churches and the massacre of worshippers during worship. There is not an abundance of life in a society of kidnapping and killing of citizens. Yes, we have the Gospel and the Code of Canon Law. Nevertheless, in maintaining what is supposed to be done according to the law, should we forget to adequately assess what we can learn from what is to be done by the mission?
The complexity of the issue at stake is undeniable. Yet, in the face of the current situation, the words of St. Pope Paul VI, to the International Congress of Canonists on 25th May 1968, could guide the Benue Church into a profound missionary reflection: “In the ecclesial Community, law cannot exist as such in the abstract and be vitally operative apart from the positive legal enactments that define and determine it in the concrete…Canon Law is called upon to play an essential role in the life of the Church. Its function is to sustain, defend and protect the common drive towards an ever more complete fulfillment of the Christian life.

Since progress in the Christian life requires pastoral ministry, it follows that the special scope of ecclesiastical legislation is to meet adequately the various and complex needs of pastoral action by providing a sound criterion of well-ordered practical efficiency” (L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly English Edition, June 6, 1968, page 1). To do this, there has to be a simultaneous dual interaction of the Gospel and Code of Canon Law that has both vertical and horizontal orientations in Catholic political engagements.
Paul Utser
Faculty of Theology
Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Ontario