Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The trouble with Catholic and Anglican priests’ indulgences

In matters of great moral importance, making people uncomfortable while pursuing reform is not a sin.

• March 28, 2021
A composite of heads of Anglican and Catholic in Nigeria
A composite of heads of Anglican and Catholic in Nigeria

While we had our eyes set on entertainers like Prophet Odumeje, entrepreneurs like Apostle Johnson Suleman, actors like Prophet T.B. Joshua, quack scientists like Rev. Chris Oyakhilome, con artists like Jesus of Nkpor, and so many others under the radar, supposedly decent clergymen in the Catholic and Anglican denominations indulge themselves in the same behaviours as their Pentecostal contemporaries.

In 2011, we were all repulsed when Bishop David Oyedepo of the Living Faith Church, aka Winners’ Chapel, slapped an indigent young woman for saying to him that she was a witch for Christ. Then, our disgust at the bishop’s inhumanity and his unchecked arrogance knew no bounds. But some bishops in the Catholic and Anglican churches daily slap around, in subtle and not so subtle ways, the members’ intelligence. The arrogance in some of them is at the same level as that of our worst military dictators. The faithful are often left wondering where the Christ in them had gone when the bishops display their inhumanity.

While defending himself in 2018 of the allegations that he collected ₦260 million to build his retirement home, the Anglican Bishop of Lagos Diocese of the Church of Nigeria, Adebola Ademowo, justified it by saying that he had served the church for 18 years as a bishop. He said that when he came in, he met only ₦1.5 million in the account with over ₦3 million a month in salary obligations. Ademowo said that he put the church in a great financial state during his time by building flats in Lekki and Ikoyi that generated over N60 million annually.

Like a corporate executive, he touted hostels at Ajayi Crowther University that generated N20 million a year. Like a CEO who had impressed shareholders with excellent returns on their investments, Mr. Ademowo said that when the Diocesan Board became aware that he was building a retirement home, they supported him with N200 million.

For those who would think that N200 million was too much, the man of God said this: “I will like to bring to your notice that the Diocese of Lagos West built a house for The Rt. Revd. Dr. Peter Adebiyi at the cost of over ₦200 million in 2013, the Diocese of Lagos Mainland built and furnished a house for The Most Revd. Prof Adebayo Dada Akinde on retirement for over ₦250 million for his services to the Diocese of Lagos Mainland for about ten years in the year 2016.” He did not bring up that within these dioceses are priests in rural areas struggling to do their work due to a lack of resources.

The same year that Bishop Ademowo justified his N260 million retirement bonus, a designated bishop, Peter Ebere Okpaleke, resigned after five years of waiting to be accepted as the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese in Mbaise, Imo State. Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Okpaleke a bishop in 2012, but the priests and the faithful of Mbaise rejected him because he was not from their area. They locked the door of Ahiara cathedral, forcing his installation ceremony to take place outside the diocese. When Pope Francis came in, he threatened to suspend the priests who would not pledge allegiance to Okpaleke. Most of the priests defied papal authority. Okpaleke resigned. In their reaction to Okpaleke’s resignation, the Vatican told the rebellious priests that they should “reflect on the grave damage inflicted on the Church” through their “unreasonable actions opposing a bishop legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff.”

By every measure, the arms and legs of Nigerian Catholic and Anglican church priests are deep into the world. We are essentially back to 1517 when Martin Luther reportedly posted his Ninety-Five Theses over the selling of indulgences on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Like everything else, the genesis of selling indulgences started with good intention. In 1516, the Roman Catholic Church sent Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, to Germany to raise the money needed to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. With the approval of Pope Leo X via the Archbishop of Mainz, Tetzel expanded his preaching of indulgences, selling indulgences to raise money for his bishop and the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica, now in the Vatican.

Luther’s Thesis 86 asked: “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St Peter with the money of poor believers rather than his own money?” We can raise this same question across every stratum of the Nigerian church today.

Over 504 years ago, Luther was fighting the Catholic Church, arguing that Tetzel and other priests who were preaching that “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs into heaven” were wrong. Indulgences, Luther insisted, would not absolve buyers from punishment for their sins and would not grant them salvation. He preached that the Catholic Church’s ways were corrupt and that the church had abandoned its core mission.

Through the acts of reformers like Luther, the interpretation of the scripture ceased to be the pope’s exclusive right. In debates after debates, he proved that the pontiff and the church councils were fallible. For daring to demand reforms, on 3 January 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther. Five hundred years ago may be far away. In so many ways, we are back to the same place.

When I wrote “How Anglican and Catholic priests extort bereaved families,” I thought it was just peculiar to southeastern Nigeria. Little did I know that it was a nationwide phenomenon. For the faithful, many encounters with Anglican and Catholic priests leave a bad taste in their mouths.

In America, most corporations write on their vehicles a phone number to call with this question, “How is my driving?” If you encounter a reckless driver in such vehicles, you call the number to complain to the corporation that owns the vehicle. The Anglican and Catholic churches urgently need such a policy. They need an independent body to assess how their priests are doing and what the faithful feel about their churches.

In thinking of Part 2 of that piece, I wanted to state specific instances with the names of priests and bishops. After going through hundreds of readers’ comments on various social media platforms, I reconsidered. The consensus was that many priests were out of control. They have been sucked into the world, and they have become of the world. Beyond interactions around funerals, many readers went further to tell stories of unpleasant encounters with priests at marriages, baptisms, and every other occasion that required them to deal with the church, which are indicators of fundamental faults.

The life of service to which the priests were supposedly called has been replaced with an indulgence in the life of the world and the desire to live it to the fullest. It has resulted in priests essentially adopting the life of businessmen. In our eyes, everything has turned commercial. A reader compared bishops to police commissioners. The way police commissioners send out their men on the road to collect bribes and make daily returns is how many bishops send out their priests to take collections anyhow and anywhere they can and make remittances to the bishop.

Here is how a lay leader in a church put it: “Blame the bishops who give parishes fat assessments… if you do not complete your assessment, your salary will be stopped, so you need to attend all manners of funerals to make up for the loss of salary as the envelope from the funeral will go a long way in augmenting the stopped salary.” She continued, “I pity the priests. The bishop expects every church to now have a school on its premises. The priest must make it happen, and if not, he may be transferred to one village with no electricity.”

The church now functions like such business franchises as MacDonald, Domino’s Pizza, Dunkin Donuts, etc. Under the pressure of meeting their quota, priests lose sight of their responsibilities to the parishioners. To live it up like their Pentecostal counterparts, priests spend a significant part of their time in business ventures not associated with the work of the Lord. Unlike the Pentecostal pastors who openly advocate and live prosperity preaching, the Catholic and Anglican priests privately adopt the philosophy.

Somehow, these priests assume that the lay people are unaware of the goings-on.

As bishops turn cathedrals into malls and priests turn their parish churches into grocery stores, the church drifts away, and the priests are distracted. They put up token appearances but spend the bulk of their time engaging in church and temporal politics, meeting financial quotas, building their personal empires, and relegating to the rear their pastoral responsibilities.

With the priests perched on their church bell towers, a new generation of Africans is emerging. They are Africans who can do without having a priest say “a prayer for the dead” when they pass. They are people willing to go to a funeral home, have a ceremony and bury their dead. If you think that the Pentecostal churches have cut deep into the membership of Anglican and Catholic churches in the last three decades, the next 30 years will be worse. As the parents of this generation die off, subtle dissatisfaction will bubble up in the open. In most cases, it will lead to massive abandonment of the church.

From the priests’ perspective, the church has needs; the parishioners must meet the needs of the church, or the church ceases to exist. That is quite legitimate, but there are other ways to meet the needs without compromising on the church’s objectives. Remember, it was the pursuit of the church’s needs in the 1500s that led to indulgences, which crushed the morale of the membership and led to Martin Luther’s demand for reformation.

It is worth reemphasising that it will do the church a lot of good to visit some horrendous stories from those who have had sad encounters with its priests. The dissatisfactions and disaffections are real. It is not a feeling that yearly synods have been able to capture nor address. Those who care about the church should listen. The issue to address is neither this writer nor funerals; this is about a wide range of issues that are fast pulling the congregations away from the church.

I know that our people do not want to address issues like this, especially now that many Christians believe that the church in Nigeria is entangled in a war of survival against the state. This is exactly when they should address such matters to show that the church is above board. Another reason to do so is to inspire the faithful to feel that saving the church is a good fight.

While some prefer to couch their concerns in innuendos, those who genuinely love the church have come out to acknowledge the shortcomings. They are fully aware and seriously concerned that at the rate the church is going, what happened to the church in the West may also occur in Africa.

The only way to return the church to the Christ-like mission it set out for itself is to begin this conversation. We must open this wound on the forehead of the church and get the pus out.

The church is too important to our people to be left in the hands of the CBO, CMO, CWO, or CGO. Those who cover-up for the priests, the de facto leaders of churches, by blaming their excesses on organisations within the church, should have a rethink. The saints that emerged in the church did not attend such heights by following sheepishly the resolutions of church committees.

Recently, while encouraging Catholic priests and theologians to follow the example of St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Pope Francis asked them “to enter into a living relationship with the members of God’s people and to look at life from their perspective in order to understand the real difficulties they encounter and to help heal their wounds.”

Pope Francis concluded that “the radical call of the Gospel must not be set against human weakness… it is always necessary to find the road that does not alienate [people] but brings hearts closer to God.”

For the Nigerian church to remain the same, the church must change. We can choose to hide our heads in the sand as if nothing is wrong, but posterity is always fair and as Isaac Newton’s third law says, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Some argue that most priests are decent. It is perhaps so; but, as our forefathers said, when one finger is soaked in oil, it stains the rest. In this case, it is probably more than one finger in the oil.

Some references were made to the labelling of crooked priests as ‘vultures.’ It made some squirm. It was uncharacteristic, yet it was intentional. In matters of great moral importance, making people uncomfortable while pursuing reform is not a sin. At the same time, maintaining reverence while demanding change is not holiness. There are times when silence is complicit. There are times when things need to be said. Things screaming to be said must be said without the fear of upending the old order or supposed standard. The consequence of not telling these truths is eternal damnation.

Now let me go for my penance.

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