The climbdown over the Nigerian bishop shows something is changing in the Vatican

Archbishop Anthony Obinna of Owerri, Nigeria, had appealed to Catholics in the Diocese of Ahiara to prepare for the installation of their bishop (Photo: CNS)

Something very strange has happened in the diocese of Ahiara, Nigeria, as this magazine reports. You may remember that there had been a face-off between the priests of the diocese and their Bishop, who had been prevented for the last six years from taking possession; the Pope intervened, in favour of the Bishop, threatening the priests with dire consequences if they did not obey, and if they did not write him personal letters of submission. I wrote about the matter at the time.

Well, one side has now, as they love to say, caved. And it is not the side you would have expected. The Pope has done a complete volte-face. The rejected Bishop has resigned, and the rebel priests have seemingly got their way, the threat of suspension or worse being set aside. Andrea Tornielli has the story here.

Before this saga began none of us had heard of the diocese of Ahiara, though those of us with African experience would have been familiar with the old story of tribalism, and the way people always prefer a pastor drawn from their own ethnic group. This happens at parish level a lot, but rarely has it got so out of hand as in Ahiara, where the Sovereign Pontiff himself felt the need to intervene and to intervene so strongly. But what is really interesting here is not what this sad story tells us about Ahiara, but what it tells us about the Vatican.

Somewhere in the Vatican a decision was made to reverse the policy on Ahiara. Someone decided that there should be a hand-brake turn. The Bishop should give way, and the priests (and the laity) should get what they wanted – the complete opposite to the previous position.

Nor is this all. Ahiara is just one example of a complete bouleversement of late. The other is the Osorno case. One moment we had a bellicose defence of the contested Bishop Barros, with the assertion that there was no evidence against him. The next moment, after a verbal intervention by Cardinal O’Malley that tended in a completely different direction, we have Archbishop Scicluna being sent out to investigate, where previously we were assured there was no case to investigate.

This leads one to conclude that there is, behind the scenes, a changing of gears in the Vatican, where, belatedly, but better late than never, mistaken approaches are now being corrected. As the Italians love to point out, it is the facts behind the facts (the dietrologia) that really count. There are changes afoot, but the real changes are the ones that we cannot see. What, I wonder, is going to happen next?