By Evaristus Bassey
Times have long changed, and the reality is fast dawning on everyone, especially Catholics, that someone who is ordained to be a priest forever, could voluntarily abandon his calling. In Europe and America, it is no longer news when a Catholic priest abandons the priesthood.
My greatest shocker was in 2003 in a parish I served in Baltimore, where a man was introduced to me as the former associate pastor (parish priest) but who had resigned, got wedded in the very parish, and remained a parishioner there! For days and weeks, I never was able to overcome my surprise about this extreme de-sensitivity towards what those around would think or say; for in Africa, we are always concerned about what people would say.
I then developed this theory that in Western societies, as the capitalist struggles and the freedom ideals strip one of community and make one individualistic, the decision space is narrowed and the individual thinks more of consequences to him/herself than in traditional societies where the decision space is wider because the individual is more or less like a corporate entity and his/her decisions are influenced by factors beyond him/herself.
Where an individual’s decision space is wider, there is a tendency to take less drastic decisions. I know Fr. Patrick Edet but I do not know his relationships, such as community affiliations, family, friends etc. I am convinced though that it wasn’t a sudden and easy decision.
Social media was awash with commentaries at the breaking news. Nigerians are known to make light of serious issues; I guess this is part of why we are among the happiest people in the world. Some have welcomed Fr. Edet to the club of beer palour regulars with a postscript of carrying off an ‘Ekaete’ at the female hostel.
In other words, he is being welcomed to the world of free men, where men booze and cap it up with a night away with a girl by their side. I would say that because Rev. Fr. Patrick Edet talked about being free at last, 90% of those in the social media would think that the freedom is now to live a life of licentiousness, having denied himself all this while. I am quite sure Fr. Patrick is not leaving because of uncontrollable passions.
Many Christians usually forget that Christian moral ethics approve sexual intercourse only in the context of marriage. Sex is seen as a gift from God, purposed for the union of husband and wife, a union which often brings forth children. As long as one is not married, he or she should not engage in the act.
If an unmarried person engages in sexual intercourse, it is a sin called fornication, and if a married person does it outside of his or her spouse, it is a sin called adultery. This understanding exists also in Islam although it may not be expressed in the same way; in fact, in Islam, when one commits adultery, it is not seen as a civil offence, the penal code in the North of Nigeria interprets it as a crime. In Sharia, the punishment is death by stoning.
So, let nobody rejoice that Fr. Edet has come to join the club of free men, for as Jean Jacque Rousseau exclaimed, ‘man is free but everywhere he is in chains’. In this case it is the ‘chains’ of submission to moral principles or doctrinal beliefs one voluntarily accepts when he or she subscribes to a particular faith.
It is probably true that many priests at one point or the other consider leaving the priesthood. But, this is not because they even want to go and marry or have it out with a girl. Sometimes, it is economic hardship, especially where a priest sees his service among very poor communities as a punishment and there is no support system to enable him meet up with basic needs that make him live in human dignity. Sometimes too, it is more a conflict of his personal vision and that of the local church.
Catholic priests are like soldiers; you go when you are told to go and stay where you are posted. Sometimes a priest’s expectations go beyond what his bishop would allow and when he is not able to compromise, he loses it. There is never a ‘big’ priest because he could be in a big assignment today and the least one tomorrow, and all are in the service of the one Lord. Sometimes too, priests who leave are taken in by their giftedness and want to profit personally from those gifts, whereas being within the church regulates the exercise of the charisma and the personal profitability. Many times too, some Bishops limit the dialogue and the options unnecessarily and adopt a take it or leave it approach which frustrates the priest. But this is a cultural thing, because in societies where even a child is seen to have rights, the level of relationship is not that of master-servant but friend and helper.
Whatever could be the reasons Fr. Patrick Edet left the Catholic priesthood, and went to the airwaves about it, he has not become a bad man. We would respect his decision and be sad and yet happy for him. Leaving the priesthood is not an exit from life or an exit into a life that lacks any restrictions. He is to be prayed for, as well as other priests. Priests face a lot of challenges daily. It is not enough to say ‘if you cannot cope, come out’, for we all have God’s expectations and most people are unfaithful.
The priest, too, can be unfaithful and can even give up. It is rather a moment to reflect on how authentically each person is living out his or her faith and to make amends where necessary. Fortunately, everything that is ‘truly religious is truly human.’
Rev. Fr. Bassey, a Catholic Priest, works at the Catholic Secretariat as CEO of Caritas Nigeria.