Catholic leaders in Africa are becoming increasingly concerned about the establishment of new churches by former Catholic priests who left the Catholic Church in order to marry. While most Catholics on the continent strongly uphold celibacy for priests, membership at these churches is growing, according to local leaders.
Some of the priests were removed from the clerical state by their bishops, while others chose to leave in order to get married. The new places of worship they’ve founded throughout Africa in many ways resemble Catholic churches in practice and belief, but local bishops are stressing that these groups are not in union with the Catholic Church and pose a threat to the spiritual well-being of the faithful.
Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Zambia, Malawi, and South Africa are some of the African countries that have seen the rise of churches founded by married former priests; as many as 30,000 people are reported to be attending such churches in Kenya alone.
Peter Njogu is a former Catholic priest who now serves as the bishop of the Restored Universal Apostolic Church in Kenya. He says he formed the church because of the Catholic Church’s failure to change with changing times and to respond to the needs of African Christians.
“It’s no longer in touch with the people,” Njogu said of the Catholic Church.
According to Njogu, celibacy goes against African culture and traditions, which expect a man to marry and have children.
“When you have no children, you are nobody,” Njogu said. “There is a push, whether open or hidden, on every man to have children or at least a child.”
Catholic bishops’ concerns about these new churches were demonstrated on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to Africa in November 2015. A group of married former priests prepared a statement they hoped to present to Pope Francis, in which they urged the Pontiff to make celibacy optional, among other things, arguing that priestly celibacy was driving priests as well as lay people to join other Christian denominations.
But the Church leaders in Kenya did not allow the former priests anywhere near the Pope during his visit to their country; they issued a statement making it clear that the former priests were no longer considered Catholic clergy and would not be meeting with Francis.
Bishop Alfred Rotich, bishop emeritus for Kenya’s military and the chairman of the commission that oversaw the papal visit, was blunt about the decision to exclude the married former priests.
“If there are [those] who have moved out of the Catholic Church mainstream, they are not welcome,” Bishop Rotich said of those rejecting priestly celibacy.
The bishop noted that Pope Francis himself is celibate, as are the vast majority of the world’s bishops and priests.
“This is the prayer of the Church—that we continue being celibate,” said Bishop Rotich.
Still, the former priests insist that many African Catholic priests are living a lie and secretly violate their vow of celibacy.
Reports about the growth of these new churches are not uncontested; while Njogu and his fellow former priests insist that their congregations are growing, others have called into question the staying power of these communities, as well as their overall significance for the life of the Church in Africa. Kenya, for example, is a country with more than 8 million Catholics; the tens of thousands reported to attend new churches headed by ex-priests represent a small percentage of the Catholic population.
Father Joachim Omolo is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kisumu in western Kenya, a region that has seen the establishment of many new communities headed by former Catholic priests. He says that some of these churches have already had to cease operations or consolidate with others due to lack of members.
“The members who had joined the churches have left. You walk into the halls and find them empty,” said Omolo.
George Jamba, a former Catholic priest, is head of the Independent Catholic Charismatic Church, the largest married-priest led group in Kenya with an estimated 5,000 members.
“We were looking for alternatives for the priest,” said Jamba. “We have been advocating for marriage, since we believed married clergy would serve God better. They would lead the church better as they lead their families.”
“We don’t claim to be Roman Catholic and we are not in conflict with the Roman Church,” said Jamba.
Njogu says that efforts are underway to unify these new churches under a single spiritual leader who supports marriage for priests; Emmanuel Milingo, the former Zambian archbishop who was excommunicated in 2006 and laicized in 2009, is said to be a candidate for the position.
Milingo, who founded the organization Married Priests Now!, is widely seen as a patriarch of the married-priest movement. In 2006, the Vatican confirmed that Milingo had incurred excommunication for the illicit consecration of four married men as bishops.
Five years earlier, Milingo had been suspended from priestly duties when, at the age of 71, he married Maria Sung at a ceremony in the Unification Church presided over by Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
Milingo’s marriage gave a global dimension to the calls for married priests, and led many members of the clergy in Africa to come forward and reveal their secret marriages and families.
“I think a good number followed,” said Mike O’Maera, former editor of the Catholic Information Service for Africa. “[Milingo] came out at time when there was a heated debate about married priests in the Church.”
Despite the censure of their bishops, these men believed they still had a call to be priests even as they rejected the vow of celibacy. Some joined the existing married-priest churches, others formed their own.
In many of these new churches, those men who rise to leadership positions are required to have an occupation, so that they don’t burden their members with demands for the upkeep of their wives and children.
“We encourage and help them acquire graduate or postgraduate training in education, for example, so that they can work as teachers,” said Njogu.
“The church is growing,” Njogu insists. “We have opened new branches and we are set to open more across [Kenya]. More priests have been wanting to come and say this is the church of the future.”
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