Home > Archives > 10 - 2005 > Celibacy? It’s not foreign to African culture
from issue no. 10 - 2005

Interview with Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson

Celibacy? It’s not foreign to African culture

Celibate priests already exist in our traditional religion, and also married ones, who must abstain from sexual relations for three days when they celebrate their rites. Hence those who say that for the African mentality celibacy is inconceivable is telling an untruth

Interview with Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson by Gianni Cardinale

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson was the only cardinal titular of an African diocese to participate in the Synod of the Bishops on the Eucharist. Archbishop of Cape Coast in Ghana from 1992, Cardinal Turkson, who had his 57th birthday during the Synod, is one of the youngest members of the Sacred College. Created cardinal in the last Consistory in 2003, the cardinal is a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and of the Commission for the Cultural Property of the Church.

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson

Your Eminence, one of the issues that most caught the attention of the media reporting the Synod was that of what are known as viri probati. Is it a problem felt in your continent?
PETER KODWO APPIAH TURKSON: I don’t know of any Africans dioceses that have set themselves the problem, but the fact that it was discussed means that the question of viri probati presents itself as a solution to the problem – a real one in some areas of the Catholic world – of the shortage of priests and of the impossibility for some communities to have a regular sacramental life. At the end, however, the Synod decided, so to speak, to put the hypothesis aside, on the shelf, while all the others possible solutions to the problem are examined.
Solutions of what kind?
TURKSON: These solutions are of two types: long term solutions and short term solutions. The long term solutions involve the Church’s interventions in the relevant and pertinent organs of society, to efffect a change in attitude and thinking in the family about childbearing. In all cultures and societies childbearing is the basic source of vocations. The short term solutions involve the sharing of personnel between the Churches of the mostly southern (so-called missionary) Churches with the Churches of the north. This will not be a question of giving away surplus personnel, it will be a question of love for the Church, which urges us to share our meagre resources… our five loaves and two fishes.
In Africa is there the problem of communities that can’t receive the Eucharist regularly for lack of priests?
TURKSON: With us, in Ghana, there are communities that don’t have a priest to celebrate the mass regularly every week. Indeed, it is the case that several villages and towns go without a priest on Sundays and weekdays and need to content themselves with the services of Catechists. The priest may visit these communities every other week or once a month. This means that we also don’t have a priest for every community. The situation, however, is also related to the fact that some communities cannot, by themselves, support a priest. We create clusters of villages, which pool their resources together to support a priest. The priest visits them, one after the other; and in his absence the Catechists take care of the communites. Accordingly, for us, a step in the direction of making the Eucharist more regularly available to our faithful would be the preparation and elevation of suitable Catechists to the rank of Eucharist Ministers; and the equipment of the churches of the villages and towns with proper tabernacles for the custody of the sacred species.
Does a celibate priesthood present particular difficulties in an African context?
TURKSON: Celibate priests already exist in our traditional religion, and also married ones, who must abstain from sexual relations for three days when they celebrate their rites. Hence those who say that for the African mentality celibacy is inconceivable is telling an untruth. Of course among the African clergy one can find cases of infidelity to the vows. It’s a matter of sin, and sinners are everywhere, not only in Africa. But that doesn’t mean that a celibate priesthood is foreign to the African situation, no way.
Another Synod theme that got wide media coverage was that of the pastoral care of the remarried divorcees.
TURKSON: The question of the divorced and remarried Catholics is a complex one. While, among us in Africa (particularly, Ghana) the traditional systems allowed for divorce, they also had several practices which reduced the actual incidence of divorce to a minimum. One of the practices, which helped to curtail the incidence of divorce, incidentally, was polygamy. In my country, for example, polygamy has historically been an element that has solved the problem of divorce at the root. If a man wanted to repudiate a woman – because barren, too weak or ill to be able to work, or for other reasons – he didn’t put her in street with all the related problems (who would look after her and her eventual children?), but took another without abandoning the first. With the coming of Christianity, and its doctrine of the singleness of marriage, polygamy has been challenged and monogamy encouraged. Converts to Christianity have understood the Christian doctrine that teaches the indissolubility of marriage. They have embraced the sense of matrimony as invitation to testify the unbreakable love of Christ for his Church. But being a people still in the midst of life, every so often weakness disfigures its countenance, and the paradox of divorce is a reality and a new problem for the pastoral ministry of the Church. I believe that in those cases of divorce where someone is left and abandoned without wanting it, the abandoned person can be considered the victim of an injustice and therefore in need of particular consideration.
So the problems are different in that case also?
TURKSON: In Ghana marriage can be celebrated according to the traditional norms or civilly. Both forms, however, allow of divorce. As well as these two forms Christians must celebrate the marriage (already traditionally or civilly valid) also in church, as indissoluble and enduring sacrament. This creates problems for many faithful. Those who have contracted a traditional marriage hesitate to celebrate the marriage sacramentally, that is in church, because they know that in that case they won’t be able to divorce. They are, then, believers who stand on the threshold of the inner life of the Church and are afraid to enter fully. And that is why they can’t receive communion. During my pastoral visits, that is the problem that I have most frequently to face. I ask these believers to have courage and put their trust in the Lord and in his grace and in the support of the Christian community. I, too, if I’d put all my hope in myself and in my own strength, I would never have got myself ordained a priest.
At the end of your speech in the Synod Hall, you asked the Holy See to grant particular dispensations so that believers who cannot, as the canonical norms stand, take communion will be able to do so more easily...
TURKSON: It was a request connected to the problems of which we’ve just spoken. In Ghana we bishops have already decided to strengthen the four ecclesiastical courts with priests and lay people who know the traditions and the customs of the country well. It will be their task to examine the cases of those believers who can’t approach the Eucharist because, for example, of unfair impositions on the married couple of our patrilineal and matrilineal family system or of the simple spite or rigid religious stance of a non-Christian consort, and to recommend eventual dispensation from the bishops. It’s precisely to facilitate the solution of these problems that we intend to ask the Holy See for particular dispensations. Some of these dispensations could be given by individual bishops, but it’s well to avoid believers being disorientated by indications varying from diocese to diocese, and for that reason the line of general dispensations is to be preferred.
An issue very much felt in Africa is that of the inculturation of the liturgy.
TURKSON: Inculturation in itself has never been a problem; it’s always been there in the history of the Church. The important thing – and of this the Holy See is always reminding us – is that sight must never be lost in the process of what is essential to our faith. As regards us we should have the possibility of rendering worship to the Lord with what we have. The use of the tom-tom, our concepts, our way of representation, our chants, our dances are our gifts with which we want to adore the Lord. The Holy See doesn’t impose vetoes on us, but does invite us to take care that these modes of inculturation don’t get perceived as a pagan cult or a simple spectacle. It is the task of us African bishops to watch that it doesn’t happen.
Your Eminence, you referred earlier to the difficulties that arise in the mixed couples of Moslem and Christian. How do relations stand between the Church and Islam in Africa?
TURKSON: The problem with Islam is that the dialogue is one-way, there is no reciprocity. Islam wants to give, but doesn’t know how to receive. One can convert to Islam but not from Islam. If a Christian man, for example, wants to marry a Moslem woman he is forced to convert to Islam. And that’s not just.
What is the situation in your country in that regard?
TURKSON: Islam came to Ghana before Christianity and in the past centuries a proper co-existence was possible. Different faiths co-existed without problem. An uncle of mine was Moslem, my mother was Methodist and my dad Catholic, and I don’t remember problems of co-existence. Everything changed with the crisis that broke out in the Middle East between Arabs and Israelis, and with the subsequent hardening identities of the various religions. That conflict has spread everywhere and also in Ghana, not least because the Moslem groups have begun to receive a lot of aid from the Gulf countries. And with the aid the ideology also came, and then the peaceful situation begins to change. Unfortunately.
Another issue mentioned in the Synod is that of the spread of the Protestant sects.
TURKSON: In the African countries where the common language is not English, people are saved from the spread to some degree. But in the English-speaking countries the phenomenon is on the increase. These groups exploit an ignorance of the Bible present also in our communities, but they also spread because of the Catholics’ insufficient love of the treasure of the sacraments. What to do? Get the Bible known to our faithful and get them to discover the riches and beauty of the sacramental life of their Church. We must remember that Jesus reveals himself to us in two ways, in the Eucharist and in his Word. And we must walk on those two legs, while the Protestant sects stand on just one.
At the Synod one of your African confreres spoke of the sad cases of women who, transplanted to the training houses of religious orders here in the West, leave the houses and end up on the street…
TURKSON: The phenomenon exists. And it doesn’t concern only women. There are many vocations, but at times their training isn’t up to it. As for those who come to study in the West, it’s true that it’s not clear whether they do so out of a real vocation or to escape their country. And it happens that some who don’t have a real vocation fall into prostitution or drugs. That’s why it takes a lot of discernment. The best solution would be to look after training in the country of origin and not in the West.
Does the problem of defections involve priests as well?
TURKSON: There are also cases of that, but the phenomenon is small. The problem involves seminarians above all. That is why the relationship among the bishop and his priests is very important. If a priest wished his bishop well, it’s more difficulty for him to abandon the diocese. So it’s better that the bishop know his priests well. Personally, to encourage knowledge and mutual respect, when there are deacons ready for the priesthood, I have them as guests for six or seven months in the bishop’s residence. In that way I don’t ordain new priests solely on the basis of the report from the head of the seminary, but also on the basis of personal acquaintance. I believe that, with God’s help, it’s a good way of doing things.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português