38. Authority does not always equate to rightness
38. Authority does not always equate to rightness

38. Authority does not always equate to rightness

In the past weeks, I explained that the Church is the body of Christ and Christ is the source of authority. Yet, although Christ is the source of authority, he handed over the Church to humans to manage. Hence, in this post, authority refers to human authority and not Christ.

As clerics and religious, we occupy various positions of authority. Does occupying these positions mean that everything we do or say in the ministry is right? NO.

The Church attaches infallibility only when the Pope, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the Christian faithful, proclaims by a definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held (Can. 749 §1). The Church attaches infallibility only when the Pope, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the Christian faithful, proclaims by a definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held (Can. 749 §1). The College of Bishops also possesses infallibility when they gather at an ecumenical council and exercise their magisterium on faith and morals. Bishops around the world also enjoy infallibility when, while maintaining the union between themselves and the Pope, they teach matters of faith and morals and agree that such should be held as infallible (Can 749 $2).

That Church authority does not ALWAYS equate to rightness goes back to the beginning of the Church when Peter, though he was the head of the Church, but for fear of the Jews, pretended that he did not eat with gentile believers. Paul “opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned” (Galatians 2:11-14, NRSV).

Church history is dotted with instances of abuse of power by Church authority, sexual abuse perpetrated by Church personnel, and the complicity of Church authority in racism, ethnic genocide, and cultural cleansing. Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have all apologised for the sins of the past, even though they were not born when some of these evils happened.

For instance, Pope John Paul II, in his homily on the Day of Pardon, said:

We cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially during the second millennium. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions. Let us confess, even more, our responsibilities as Christians for the evils of today. We must ask ourselves what our responsibilities are regarding atheism, religious indifference, secularism, ethical relativism, the violations of the right to life, disregard for the poor in many countries. We humbly ask forgiveness for the part which each of us has had in these evils by our own actions, thus helping to disfigure the face of the Church”. [1]

Pope Benedict XVI apologised to the victims of sexual abuse in Ireland. In his pastoral letter to Catholics in Ireland, he affirmed:

You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel[2].

On 1 April 2022, Pope Francis apologised to the indigenous tribes of Canada for the Church’s role in forcefully assimilating children of indigenous tribes into European culture. In his apology letter, Pope Francis said:

I also feel shame. I have said this to you and now I say it again. I feel shame—sorrow and shame—for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values. All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon. Clearly, the content of the faith cannot be transmitted in a way contrary to the faith itself: Jesus taught us to welcome, love, serve and not judge; it is a frightening thing when, precisely in the name of the faith, counter-witness is rendered to the Gospel[3].

The message today is this:

As Church authority, we are not gods, and we should not make ourselves one.

If we make mistakes, let us admit them and apologise. In my research into sexual abuse of minors perpetrated by clerics, I discovered that denial, insistence on rightness, and cover-ups largely contributed to the outrage, backlash, and litigations in the wake of revelations of sexual abuse of minors. Without diminishing the heinousness of sexual abuse of minors, this means that if we had admitted our wrongs earlier and apologised, tempers against the Church would not have risen very high today.

The Church in Nigeria is currently facing backlash on supposed extortion and lack of sympathy by some Church officials, particularly at funerals. While the issue is complex, pretending that the problem does not exist and/or discrediting those who continue speaking up against these excesses will not resolve the situation. What they need is our clear stand against these excesses and, as victims run into thousands and are now scattered around the world, our public apology to those legitimately wounded by our confreres at funerals and marriages. Yes, we have injured many at their weakest moments. Until we do these, they will continue fighting, and one day, we will still apologise.

Let’s not forget that there is a growing anti-Christian sentiment in Nigeria stemming from resentment for the Church’s role in undermining our culture. We do not need to make people angrier. The papal apologies came after decades of continuous fighting by the victims and their families irrespective of the Church’s attempts, according to the spirit of the times, to deny, ignore, and suppress these events. Of course, the long years of fighting led to resentment, distrust of the Church, and disinterest in the Catholic faith.

As the Church in some western countries lost members and paid thousands of dollars in compensation to sexual abuse victims (some dioceses in the US have declared bankruptcy), we are losing members who are hurt by our excesses. And while we may not pay compensations, we have cut off our future sources of income from people who leave for other churches together with their children, or if they remain Catholics, will be reticent to contribute financially in response to their experience. We must realise that it is ONLY when people continue to identify as Catholics that we can talk of clearance for their funerals.   

If we will be forced to apologise in the future, why not apologise now, and save our successors the consequences of a wounded Church, a reduced population, a financially weak Church with its attendant challenges to the Church’s evangelising mission, and the trouble of cleaning up our mistakes?

Ka Chineke mezie okwu and may the light of the risen Christ continue to illumine our minds🙏🏾


[1] John Paul II, Homily on the Day of Pardon, 12 March 2000, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/2000/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20000312_pardon.html

[2] Benedict XVI, Pastoral Letter to Catholics in Ireland, 19 March 2010, no. 6, available at https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/letters/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_let_20100319_church-ireland.html

[3] Francis, Audience with Delegations of the Indigenous Tribes of Canada, 1 April 2022, available at https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2022/04/01/220401e.html

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