A sort of caveat lector [Let the reader beware] is necessary. This article is a satire about the fictitious case of the suspension of a Catholic priest, John Mwanyenga of Kabuchende parish in Ulufyengo Archdiocese in the fictional country of Zambezia. The main characters, John Mwanyenga, his Archbishop, Justus Mukali and Apostolic pro nuncio to Zambezia, Gianfranco Luigi are all fictional and any similarity to actual historical persons and places are purely coincidental. The aim of the article is to shine a spotlight on a too often occurrence in the Catholic Church in the relationship between priests and bishops which involves miscarriages of justice. I argue that the villain of the piece is the abuse of power or to put it differently, the use of hard power where soft power should be used. The kind of power the Catholic bishop potentially has can only be found in an absolute monarchy. As Shepherd-in-Chief, the bishop should instead be accustomed to soft power which is akin to servant or slave leadership modelled by Jesus Christ in the New Testament (cf. Mark 10.35‒44). This requires a change of style: from a secretive process of appointing bishops to a more open, democratic and transparent system through an electoral Synod drawn from the diocese. The bishop ought to be appointed to a limited two terms of 10 years each or retirement at 65 or whichever comes first. The same could be suggested for the Supreme Pontiff who at the moment can be Pope long after he has become senile and incontinent. If there is any legacy Pope Benedict XVI has bequeathed the Catholic Church, it is the possibility of stepping down as he did on 28 February 2013, allowing the Church enough time to examine his legacy.
This article is an amended version of chapter 1 from my forthcoming book about the closure of Mpima Major Seminary in Kabwe, Zambia 1985 when 67 students training for the Catholic priesthood went on strike, boycotting prayers, Mass and classes except meals. All 67 students were instantly fired and asked to re-apply in a muscular display of what Joseph Nye refers to as “hard power” (Nye 1990: 166). Only 35 of them were taken back. My forthcoming book is entitled, “In the Eye of a very Catholic Storm: A Zambian Seminary Boycott and a Spark Conspiracy.” My overriding argument is that, then as now, we have an example of the Catholic Church use of hard power instead of the more Gospel-like soft power. I am referring to the recent news splashed all over social media at the beginning of May 2020 about the suspension of a Catholic priest involving a woman who was taken ill at his home and died on the way to the hospital, leading to the suspension of the priest “from the priesthood indefinitely.” In the case of Ulufyengo‒ Gate ⸺ as in the name of the Archdiocese in question in Zambezia ⸺ as I shall refer to this incident, I argue that his suspension may be unlawful and could be reversed on appeal to Rome to the Congregation for the Clergy but I am happy to be corrected by the powers that be in Zambezia or even to take part in a televised debate with the Archdiocese of Ulufyengo canon lawyers. If the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to Zambezia, His Excellency Gianfranco Luigi happens to be reading this, I am happy, as he would say, “Sono disponibile per fargli conoscere di persona la mia prospettiva su questa situazione delicata” [I am available to let him know in person my own perspective on this delicate matter]. What has been at stake is ultimately the name of the Catholic Church. As a cradle Catholic and theologian, it behoves me to bat for the home team — particularly the camp of diocesan priests — and try and restore some of the sheen that may have come off as a result of Ulufyengo -Gate. As an ex-Catholic priest, I experienced at first-hand the aspersions thrown in that direction by non-Catholic colleagues. They had only one solution to the issue: allow Catholic priests to marry. As one who plied that trade for 14 years, I can assure them that marriage is not a panacea for celibate sexual misdemeanours but that is another discussion for another day.
2. The Object of Power is Power
Power is everything, especially in an institution like the Catholic Church, which is listed in its political Avatar, the Holy See, as one of the seven surviving absolute monarchies along with Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Eswatini [formerly Swaziland] and United Arab Emirates. As George Orwell said in his dystopian novel 1984, “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power” (Orwell 1949: 263). Americans are just waking up from the nightmare of falling from a democracy to an autocracy in the name of one Donald Trump who refuses to concede that he lost fair and square. Many a pastoral, affable and collegial Catholic priest has had his head turned immediately after donning the mitre and testing the aphrodisiac called power. He does not even need to establish a dictatorship. He has that handed to him in a golden chalice and the authority symbolised by his crozier.
3. Defining Soft Power and Hard Power
Let me now define soft power and hard power. Joseph Nye popularised the terms in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, in which he wrote that “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants might be called co-optive or soft power in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants” (Nye 1990: 166). Soft power sounds a lot to me like Gospel-power, with the correction that instead of getting others to want what you want, you get them to want what Jesus Christ desires for them which should be second nature to deacons, priests and bishops in particular and all followers of Jesus Christ in general. How you get that was drummed into us from the first day in the seminary: humility and discernment — having the quality of being modest or realistic view of one’s importance and the knack to make the right call, not one based on low self-image or the spirit of vindictiveness. It also means having the grace to admit when you have got it wrong rather than justifying or canonising your blunders. Ernest Wilson describes hard power, on the other hand, as the capacity to coerce “another to act in ways in which that entity would not have acted otherwise.”1 This is the kind of power I now associate with nationalist and populist leaders high on the aphrodisiac of hard power, such as Donald Trump of the United States of America, the appropriately middle-named Jair Messias Bolsonaro of Brazil with a Messiah Complex, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Bashar Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Rodrigo Roa Duterte of the Philippines, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Kim Jong-Un of North Korea, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Viktor Orbán of Hungary. A recent addition to my exclusive club is my fellow Copperbelt-born Edgar Chagwa Lungu of Zambia. All these potentates and dictators have three things in common: psychotic narcissism, love of the nectar of the gods or aphrodisiac known as power and reluctance to relinquish it. I add Edgar Lungu to this list reluctantly because try as he may, he is not good at being dictator. I am compelled to add him for his reluctance to acknowledge that by 2021, he will have served two terms but he appears ready to risk civil war to stay at Plot number one. And it’s not the money. He has more than enough for a washed out and pretty run of the mill lawyer. But power has been slowly going to his head. Recently, he informed a public meeting, presumably in jest, that “I warned you that there are far too many presidents in this country. From now on I will be referred to as President-General” to the delight of the Nyanja speaking audience.2 Many a truth is spoken in jest. Hard power is antithetical to Gospel servant/slave power. As one elf-like President, Frederick Chiluba, whom I could easily add to the list, once said in the hearing of his aides, “Power is sweet”3 while nibbling at his favourite snack of roasted cassava and peanuts from Luapula province — just across from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where he was sired — while swivelling in his office seat, his tiny feet in designer children’s emblazoned shoes dangling off the floor. Even an almost octogenarian such as Donald Trump is unable to resist the aphrodisiac that is political power as the recent US presidential elections have shown us.
4. Church Power as Hard Power: Déjà Vu All Over
Nearly 35 years after a famous clerical use or better abuse of power in which I played no small part as a freshly-minted 28-year-old priest in 1985 when 67 seminarians were dismissed, it was déjà vu all over again. This bit was historical. On 4 May 2020, I woke up to the following headline from social media forwarded to me by an ex-Oblate friend of mine whom I had met in the United Kingdom a few years before. This and the following are fictional. The news item was entitled “Ulufyengo Priest implicated in death of allegedly married girlfriend; bishop suspends him” dated 4 May 2020. Another online outfit going by the nom de plume, Mpelembe News had the sensational and vulgar headline, “Suspended priest was bonking someone’s wife who was found dead in his house.” My first reaction was the well-being of the priest and the family of the deceased, especially her children. They must have been gutted. I asked myself how such delicate news became red meat for social media feeding frenzy and public consumption. A family had just lost a mother, aunt, sister, cousin or daughter and a priest had been dragged into the kangaroo court of social media shame during the holiest week of the Christian calendar and all we were worried about was who was sleeping with whom. I understand the priest’s letter of suspension imputes unfaithfulness to chaste celibacy as the principal reason. The words of a certain Palestinian Jew came to mind, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8.7). Since this news was in the media, I am not breaking any confidences or sharing anything that social media has not already drugged into the open. Here is how another outlet, the Ulufyengo Times, summarised it. “Ulufyengo bishop, the Most Rev Justus Mukali has suspended Very Rev Fr John Mwanyenga as Judicial Vicar of the Archdiocese of Ulufyengo.” I wondered whether someone in the system was not settling scores or just putting someone else in his place.
5. The Nitty-Gritty of Ulufyengo-Gate
Then it hit me. The young priest in question had been a guest of my wife and I in our Twickenham flat near the national Rugby Stadium in the United Kingdom in 2016. At that time, he was supplying for a local priest on leave at a nearby Parish in the London borough of Hounslow during the summer where he was a popular and well-loved visiting priest. He was completing his graduate studies in Canon Law in Rome. I asked my ex-Oblate friend for the young priest’s number so that I could offer him a shoulder to cry on. Not surprisingly, his phone was off. I then contacted two priests from the Archdiocese, both my former students and they confirmed the story, correcting some of the misinformation such as the married status of the woman in question. She was a divorcee of longstanding. There were discrepancies between the media reports that the woman had died in the priest’s room and the priest’s correction that she had collapsed in the sitting room and died on the way to the hospital. I eventually spoke to the priest offering him a shoulder to cry on. In the meantime, I wrote to the Secretary-General of the Association of Zambezia African Diocesan Catholic Clergy (AZADCC) expressing my concern on 5 May 2020. I reproduce my email here in its entirety. What upset me was that a sensitive canonical matter should end up on social media and pictures of both the deceased and the young priest splashed across various social media platforms with no regard for their privacy and reputation.
I am at a loss what to make of the suspension of Rev Fr John Mwanyenga, judicial vicar of Ulufyengo Archdiocese and how the suspension has been deemed to be in the public interest by a memo addressed to the clergy, the religious and the laity. Regardless of delict, which has not been stated in the memo, let alone proved by a tribunal, I am concerned about the wider issue of justice and whether the rights of the priest have been upheld in the process. Is this something AZADCC [Association of Zambezia African Diocesan Catholic Clergy] can investigate, taking into account the relevant canons I cite below, particularly whether due process has been upheld and the suspended subject has been informed of his right to appeal and whether the suspension is latae ferendae [sentence to be passed] or latae sententiae [sentence already passed or automatic] and whether the suspension is penalty which is medicinal or expiatory. I would also want to know what measures have been put in place for the priest’s bread and butter issues which are still the responsibility of the Archdiocese, notwithstanding the suspension.
My email continued, and this was hard for me. Knowing that the bishop in question was my erstwhile colleague until 1997 when I resigned from the ministerial priesthood.
I am happy for my email to be forwarded to His Grace, Dr Justus Mukali to seek clarification and per chance to issue a follow-up public statement regretting the social media [feeding] frenzy. I am also anxious to hear how the suspension ended up on social media in the first place to the detriment of the reputation of the priest [and the deceased]. I write this as a concerned Christian and ex-priest who is worried whether the suspended priest is receiving duty of care, whether guilty or not of putative delict. I hope your good office can shade light on the matter or even issue a public statement if only to assure future objects of sanctions that AZADCC has their backs. I have no ulterior interest in the matter save the well-being of the priest. If canonical delict has been established, it may be of interest how and what procedure established it and what recourse to a promoter of justice has been established.
Not surprisingly, I never heard from my addressee or his superiors. Neither was any follow-up clarification forthcoming. The object of Ulufyengo Archdiocese suspension is still under suspension. Because of the nature of episcopal authority globally, it is unlikely any change of outcome is being contemplated. It is a matter of “Episcopus locutus est, causa finita est” [The bishop has spoken, the matter is finished]. For what it is worth, I offer a canonical perspective, if only to draw lessons.
1 Ernest J. Wilson (March 2008), “Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (1): 110–124, page 115
2 President Edgar Chagwa Lungu (), “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Twevh_ON2e0 (Accessed on 21.11.2020)
3 Ishbel Matheson, 4 May 2007, “Chiluba’s legacy to Zambia,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1715419.stm (Accessed on 13.06.2020)
- Quote paper
- Dr. Tarcisius Mukuka (Author), 2020, The Catholic Church in Zambezia. The Appointment of Bishops, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/963981