By Ben Agbo (Rev Fr)
This is a most sensitive period in the Nigerian political history, when both our actions and inactions would be most consequential.
Shakespeare wrote that, “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries.”
Such a time is now. I am afraid, election 2023 will be a most decisive election in Nigeria, when even the heavenly powers would pause the button of destiny to wait upon Nigerians to first exercise their powers of volition in the choice of the good from the bad; the saintly from the corrupt politicians, the competent from the incompent, the young from the old politicians. The fate of Nigerians, whether we may continue together as a nation or not, may highly be predicated upon this choice.
This brings me to the role of Catholic Priests. I remember this quote vividly from our own erudite Bishop, Most Rev Prof Godfrey Onah, which came as a message/address to Nsukka Diocesan Senior Seminarians over 20 years ago: “Our country Nigeria is in a very dicey situation; the politicians have failed us; the military has failed us even more woefully; even the elites have failed us. The only hope is for Catholic Priests to help salvage the nation. This is because they are the only people who can influence a large crowd of people without paying any money for it.”
Looking at this statement today in resonance with the most recent happenings in Nigeria, I am even more worried if the Catholic Priests would sooner or later not be added in the list of those who have failed Nigeria.
Every Catholic priest is ordained with the triple munera (three major functions): Munus regendi is the kingly duty that makes him the administrative leader of the people of God. Even in secular/public functions, we are addresed as ‘My Lords Spiritual’. Munus sanctificendi is the priestly duty of sanctifying the people of God through his preaching of the Word of God and administering of the sacraments. Munus docendi is the prophetic function of speaking the truth to power (condemning evil when necessary), the duty of teaching and exhorting/enlightening the people of God.
This is where the concern of this short reflection hinges. To what extent can the Catholic priest directly/indirectly enlighten the people of God without getting messed up in partisan politics?
I just consulted some Canonists this morning, who drew my attention to Canons 286 paragraphs 2 and 3 where Clerics are warned to ‘avoid those things foreign to the clerical state and are forbidden from assuming public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power’. I didn’t see any sections forbidding Catholic priests from partisan politics in terms of registering as party members, canvassing for support of candidates or enlightening the people on who/which party they should vote for. I guess we are only trying to be ‘ecclesiastically correct’ when we stay away from partisan politics in normal situations.
But I don’t think the situation is normal now. The life of the Church and Catholic priests are in danger in today’s Nigeria and sitting on the fence politically has become the most stupid and dangerous thing to do. Lumen Gentium article 31 opines that ‘although those in holy orders may sometimes be engaged in secular activities….it is the special vocation of the Laity to engage in temporal affairs….However, priests engagements in merely advisory positions would not be banned’.
Having said that, I should think that watching the present political topography of Nigeria, where the ruling parties have grossly failed the generality of Nigerians in terms of economy, free and fair primary elections, public education, security, etc, it is mandatory for Catholic priests to wade in to use their special positions and privileges, in conscience, to let the Nigerian electorate (many of their parishes who are ignorant) understand who they should vote or not vote for come 2023.
Some very credible candidates have emerged in very unpopular parties; parties who don’t have ‘structures’ in many local government areas of the country. But since the Catholic Church has over 50 dioceses cutting across all the more than 774 local government areas in Nigeria, we can see that there is no ward or polling booth that Catholic priests in Nigeria can’t access directly or indirectly.
We can therefore do and undo when it comes to helping Nigeria to have good governance come 2023. We can help any party we want to establish their structures in any communities around the federation.
“The only reason for the triumph of evil,” says Edmund Burke, “is that good people sit back, do nothing and say nothing.” If Catholic priests all over the country can decide to do something and say something in support of those parties that have the right candidates that can salvage our situation, Nigeria must surely be brought out of the woods sooner or later.