By Owei Lakemfa
WHEN I was an undergraduate in the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, one of our teachers (not lecturer) was the famous Ugandan writer, Okot P’Bitek, author of best sellers like ‘Song of Lawino’ and ‘Song Of A Prisoner.’ We had two Nuns in the class and quite often, P’Bitek who came to class, singing, would stop in front of one of the Nuns and ask rhetorically: “Sister, your mother gave birth to you and you say you don’t want to give birth?” The class would roar and he would move on to the front of the class, still singing. Behind this P’Bitek mind game are issues of culture, nature and beliefs.
These issues were once more brought to the fore this Tuesday when Pope Francis lamented that Nuns have been and are being sexually abused by Catholic priests and bishops, and that some are being held as sex slaves by otherwise celibate priests. He revealed that “Pope Benedict had the courage to dissolve a female congregation which was at a certain level, because this slavery of women had entered it – slavery, even to the point of sexual slavery – on the part of clerics or the founder.” His reference is to the Community of St. Jean in France which was dissolved in 2005. The Pope lamented that: “Sometimes the founder takes away, or empties the freedom of the sisters. It can come to this.”
The revelation is in addition to the widely reported and documented cases of Catholic priests sexually abusing children especially boys. When in August, 2018, Pope Francis visited Ireland which has produced many priests and sent them to countries like Nigeria, he lamented: “My visit to Ireland, despite the great joy, also had to bear the pain and bitterness for suffering caused in that country by various forms of abuse, also by members of the church and by the fact that the church authorities in the past did not succeed in tackling these crimes in an adequate way.”
The earliest documented case of sexual abuse in the church was in the 11th Century when Peter Damian wrote a treatise, Liber Gomorrhianus, against these abuses. In a ten-year period from 2001, the Holy See handled cases of sexual abuses affecting about 3,000 priests dating back from the 1960s. These kind of scandals are not about to depart the household of the Catholic Church and I am not sure it will ever because it centres around the humanness of the priests and nuns and the fact that all human beings are susceptible to temptations. Although they all pray not to fall into temptation, sometimes they actually do.
But celibacy itself is not part of the Christian religion; most of the Apostles Jesus Christ chose, including Peter the first Pope, were married. The Popes, St. Felix III 483-492, St. Hormidas 514-523, St. Silverus (Antonia) 536-537, Hadrian II 867-872, Clement IV 1265-1268 and Felix V 1439-1449 were married. There were Popes who were themselves the children of Popes. Pope Innocent I was the son of Anastasius I, Pope Silverus, 536-537 was the son of Pope Homidas and Pope John XI, 931-935, was the son of Pope Sergius III. Popes like Felix, Anastasius II, Agapitus I, Pope John XV, 989-996 were all sons of Catholic priests while Pope Boniface VI, 896 AD, was the son of Bishop Hadrian. Popes Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Julius and Pius IV had a minimum of three children each.
The Catholic Church was over one thousand years old when at its Second Lateran Council in 1139, it decided to ban priests from marrying. It is argued that celibacy is to live the way Jesus did; it is marriage to the church; a full dedication and service to God. It is regarded as purity, undivided loyalty, detachment from the world and material accumulation.
However, it seems to pay little attention to human frailties and urge which not all dedicated priests and nuns can overcome at all times and seasons. Many of the priests guilty of abusing children and nuns to satisfy their sexual urge might have started out with iron clad resolve and dedication, but fell along the way. It cannot be easy to excuse them from their priestly duties; how many times can a human being be forgiven, seventy times seventy times? For long, an embarrassed church tried to cover up what amounts, in most cases, to criminality. Also, some Bishops become unwilling accomplices.
In some cases, the church paid to settle the victims; in 1998, it paid $30.9 million to twelve victims in the United States, and in July 2003 the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville paid $25.7 million to some victims. One of the highest amounts ever committed by the church to settle victims was $600 million by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
The reasons for celibacy are quite lofty, but it is time for the Catholic Church to review it by giving its priests and nuns the option of getting married or begetting children if they so wish. The case of other churches show that a priest is not necessarily less dedicated to serving God because he is married or has children. Also, there is the need for the Catholic Church to review its position on women; nuns are spiritually, not necessarily inferior to their male counterparts.
There is no reason why a Nun cannot rise to become a Pope. There is the story of Pope Joan, 855-857 (Ioannes Anglicus) a woman who disguised as a man to enter priesthood and was apparently so good that she was elected the Pope, and reigned as Pope John VIII for 25 months before she was discovered when her water broke, and was sent to an early grave. The issue is not whether this story which the Church has tried to live down is official or rejected, it is that gender does not determine a human being’s dedication or closeness to God.