Sexual Allegations Highlight Doubts about African Vocations

Article excerpt

Allegations of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct by priests in Africa have highlighted a nagging doubt about the church's rapid growth on that continent over the last 25 years.

Measured in numbers, Africa has witnessed an evangelization success story under Pope John Paul II. Church membership has more than doubled, priestly vocations are up more than 300 percent and the continent's convents are crowded with religious sisters.

But behind the statistics lie serious concerns about the depth of formation and commitment of African priests and religious. On issues like celibacy, for example, many say the church and African culture are engaged in a clash of values that is getting worse, not better.

"The recent history and development in Africa has not favored celibacy," Oblate Fr. Alexander Montanyane said in a telephone interview from Lesotho in southern Africa March 23.

"Most priests and religious do live their vows properly. But the society's values are changing so much, and the new vocations are coming out of that society," he said.

In the past, he said, many African priests went through minor seminaries, which helped eliminate people who found it difficult to remain celibate. Now the church recruits directly from high schools and colleges, and "they are not the same caliber as you had 30 years ago," he said.

Montanyane, a 68-year-old Lesotho native who worked at Oblate headquarters in Rome for many years, said he was surprised at the slippage in sexual values in the southern African culture when he returned there to teach two years ago.

"The whole fiber of the African culture really has been destroyed in that sense. These are the type of people we now recruit to the seminary, and many are arriving with bad habits," he said.

Like several missionaries and church officials in Rome, Montanyane said he thought the problem was predominantly one of sexual misconduct, not sexual abuse by. priests against nuns. While some cases of sex abuse may have occurred, he said, it's far more likely that a priest will engage in consensual sex. Sometimes this may occur with a nun, but more commonly between a priest and a laywoman, he said.

"I know that with the Oblates, over recent years we have had to expel a number of [priests], and part of that was precisely on this question: living outside their vows," he said.

Montanyane and others emphasized that problems with celibacy were certainly not confined to Africa, but it may be more easily noticed there because of the relatively high number of younger priests and nuns who have been part of the "vocations explosion" on the continent.

Vatican officials from Pope John Paul II down have emphasized the issue of celibacy in Africa, recognizing that -- as the pope said in his document on the African synod -- seminarians should be "clear in their minds and deeply convinced that for the priest, celibacy is inseparable from chastity. …