For the past several years, a controversy has been brewing in a diocese in Africa: Ahiara diocese in Nigeria. The previous Bishop was a native son, from the region and people called Mbaise, in southeastern Nigeria. But his successor, Bishop Peter Okpaleke, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, is not from the same ethnicity or region. And so the people and the priests have rejected his authority. They will only accept a Bishop who is from their region and people. And this rejection has continued to the present day.
On the 8th of June, 2017, Pope Francis received a delegation from the diocese. He addressed them with rather harsh, but in my view fitting words, found in full here: To Delegation From The Diocese Of Ahiara, Nigeria. Pope Francis states that every priest of the diocese must “write a letter addressed to me in which he asks for forgiveness; all must write individually and personally.”
“In the letter
1. one must clearly manifest total obedience to the Pope, and
2. whoever writes must be willing to accept the Bishop whom the Pope sends and has appointed.
3. The letter must be sent within 30 days, from today to July 9th, 2017. Whoever does not do this will be ipso facto suspended a divinis and will lose his current office.”
I find nothing wrong with this order from the Roman Pontiff. He has the full authority of Christ, and he certainly has the authority to appoint Bishops. Furthermore, all priests take a vow or make a promise of obedience, and that obedience is not only to the local Bishop, but to the Pope and to the Church. So in reality, the holy Pontiff is asking very little. Express your obedience, in accord with your vow or promise. Accept the decision of the Vicar of Christ concerning the appointment of the Bishop. And this Bishop was originally appointed by Pope Benedict XVI, and is confirmed in this appointment by Pope Francis.
Well, I hope that all the priests write the letter, and accept the Bishop. But I know what my fellow fallen sinners are like. So I suppose that some will stubbornly refuse, thereby falling away from the Church. There might even be a local schism.
As the conservative schism unfolds, how will Pope Francis respond? We see a hint of his possible response in the controversy above. He says “one must clearly manifest total obedience to the Pope.” And so, it may reach a point in the schism where the Pope will not allow further discussion and dissent. The schismatics will have to clearly manifest total obedience to the Roman Pontiff, or they will be removed from their offices. Laypersons might be excommunicated (ferendae sententiae), and some ordained persons might be laicized and excommunicated. Of course, everyone guilty of formal schism or formal heresy is automatically excommunicated (latae sententiae).
There is an attitude widespread among many conservative Catholic commentators today, that they owe no obedience to Pope Francis. They are conservative and he is liberal; therefore, they must be right and he must be wrong. No theological explanation is ever deemed sufficient by them. They ask for “clarification”, but they will not accept any clarification other than simplistic agreement with their own limited understanding and misunderstandings. They take the attitude that Pope Francis is not able to teach them anything, and that he has no role to correct them.
For a long time, many of these commentators have been speaking as if they were each Popes; they have been pontificating on every subject. And then, when the actual Pope disagrees, they are indignant. How dare he speak as if he were the leader of the Catholic Church. How dare he disagree with the majority opinion of the conservative Catholic subculture. Their behavior is much like the behavior of some persons in secular culture, who think that if the majority opinion is on their side, they cannot be wrong.
Already, many conservatives have taken a position in opposition to everything that Pope Francis says and does. They constantly look for things to criticize and contradict. It reminds me of the way that each political party treats any leader from an opposing party. Democrats criticize everything that Republicans do, and Republicans criticize everything that Democrats do. Many conservative Catholics see Pope Francis as a leader from an opposing party. They have turned religion into politics.
Eventually, a point will be reached where they will have to obey. They will have to accept his teaching, in contradiction to their own understanding, in contradiction to the majority opinion in the conservative Catholic subculture. Pope Francis will not back down. He will not give in to their demands, just as he did not give in to the demands of the priests in Ahiara. Pope Francis will require the conservative Catholic leaders who oppose him to submit their minds and hearts to his Papal Magisterium, just as those priests are being required to submit. And if they do not, Pope Francis is entirely capable of suspending them “a divinis”.*
There are not many days left for the priests of Ahiara to repent and submit. And there are not many weeks left for the conservative Catholic leaders to repent and submit. For if they refuse, they will surely be like withering branches, which are cut away from the vine.
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* Suspension “a divinis” forbids an ordained person from exercising any part of their ministry that is granted to them by ordination or by a privilege given to ordained persons. A priest suspended “a divinis” may not say Mass, consecrate the Eucharist, hear confessions (except in danger of death), or administer any of the other Sacraments.