A diocese is on the verge of schism – but who is to blame?

A cardinal adjusts his zucchetto (AP)

What on earth is happening in the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria? According to reports, it seems that the local clergy have refused to accept the appointment of a bishop by Pope Benedict XVI, made in 2012, and now Pope Francis has demanded that they accept the appointed bishop and that each priest write him a personal letter of submission within thirty days or face suspension. After five years of refusal by the priests of the diocese, the Papal patience seems to have snapped.

This is not the first time that a diocese has had imposed on it a bishop that it clearly did not want. Let us remember the example of Osorno in Chile, where the new bishop actually faced protests in his own cathedral on the day of his installation. Despite the protests, the Pope insisted that the appointment go ahead. However, let it be noted that the rejected bishop in Ahiara is not being contested for the same reasons as in Osorno.

Historically there are other examples of disputed episcopal appointments, but these were usually quarrels between Church and state, rather than clergy and people refusing to accept the nomination of the Holy See. The troubles of Osorno and Ahiara are rather different. Both open up questions about the way the Church is governed.

While we all know that bishops are appointed by the Pope, the fact is that there is a huge mechanism of government that helps the Pope to appoint the thousands of bishops around the world. Local nuncios have their role to play in drawing up the shortlist of three, the terna, which is supposedly based on wide-ranging consultation. Then the Congregation for Bishops (or, for mission territories, Propaganda Fidei) in Rome examines the terna and makes its recommendation to the Pope, though it can reject the terna entirely and ask for a new one. Needless to say, this system can be short-circuited at various points, in that a name can go through because that name is backed by other important names. In addition, the lengthy vetting can mean that only the blandest candidates emerge.

As every student of Church history knows, there was a time when a bishop was elected by his diocese; in addition the power to appoint bishops as the exclusive privilege of the Holy See is relatively modern, and had to be wrested from the state; this is still under dispute in China today. So there are many advantages to Roman centralisation, though perhaps the Ahiara debacle is a sign too of its potential weakness. The Church should, to put it mildly, appoint bishops who are going to be a focus of unity in their dioceses, and not the sort who, perhaps through no fault of their own, provoke discord. Why didn’t someone see this coming?

Right now it looks as if we are dealing with a rebel diocese in Nigeria. How did it get this far? If the clergy refuse to submit, and are suspended, that will amount to a de facto schism. That will not be good for the people of the diocese or for the Universal Church. Let us hope and pray that all parties step back from the brink. There is one way that this could happen: that the unlucky bishop withdraws from his appointment, and a new bishop is appointed. But things have probably gone too far for that. A bit of humility may be required on all sides. The last thing anyone wants to see, surely, is a highhanded Holy See driving the people of a diocese into schism.