By Nchumbonga George Lekelefac, Monday, October 2, 2023.
This article will attempt to give a canonical perspective of the suspension of a catholic priest in the Catholic Church with regards to the latest canonical suspension of two Fidei Donum priests of Buea Diocese serving in the Diocese of Charlotte, USA due to disobedience as stated by Bishop Bibi. On Monday, October 2, 2023, social media had a landslide of innumerable messages that flooded due to a circular released by Bishop Michael Miabesue Bibi, diocesan bishop of Buea Diocese in faraway Cameroon. The letter was titled: “Suspension of the faculties of two priests.” The circular went viral like smoke among the various Cameroon social media “what’s app groups” overseas and in Cameroon with countless comments. This is because the two priests concerned are Fidei Donum priests and are well known and were serving in the Diocese of Charlotte in the USA.
- The Circular Letter
The Circular Letter DB/B -BOC-54/2023/7 of October 2, 2023 stated: “May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in Communion with the Holy Spirit, give you grace and peace. By this circular, I would like to inform the entire Christian Community in the Diocese of Buea, of my decision to suspend the faculties of two Priests: Fr. Henry Amin Doh Tutuwan and Fr. Felix Nkafu. In spite of repeated reminders from me, they have not come back from the Diocese of Charlotte where they were sent as Fidei Donum, to assume their new functions in their Diocese of Incardination. And until they do so, I have decided to suspend their faculties for the exercise of the Sacred Ministry of the Priesthood with effect from October 1, 2023. This is a penal remedy (cf. can.1339 §1 and 2), which is meant to be expiatory (Cf. can. 1336) with the following effects, namely: Prohibition from celebrating or concelebrating in public masses; – prohibition from celebrating private masses; – The same prohibition applies to the administration of the sacraments, with the exception of the sacraments of penance in periculo mortis. These faculties will only be restored when it would have been clearly established that they are ready to begin exercising their Priestly ministry in the Diocese of Buea. Yours in His Service, + Michael Miabesue Bibi, Bishop of Buea.”
What are Faculties?
Faculties are rights granted by the Holy See to bishops and by ordinaries to their priests to enable the latter to exercise their respective powers for the faithful under their jurisdiction. The term is most commonly used in relation to the sacrament of penance, where faculties are needed for the priest to absolve not only licitly but even validly. However, faculties for licit administration are required for all the sacraments, with varying degrees of obligation. On a wider scale, faculties are also required for the exercise of ecclesiastical authority or, in general, for performance of any act of jurisdiction in the Catholic Church. In every case, it is assumed that the one giving the faculties has the right to do so and the one receiving them has the power to put them into practice.
- Reactions from Social Media
Countless reactions were gathered from my research which I have included as an appendix.
Why were the priests suspended? Reason: Disobedience: “In spite of repeated reminders from me, they have not come back from the Diocese of Charlotte where they were sent as Fidei Donum, to assume their new functions in their Diocese of Incardination”
In the circular letter, Bishop Bibi states the reason for suspending Fr. Henry Amin Doh Tutuwan and Fr. Felix Nkafu, namely that “in spite of repeated reminders from me, they have not come back from the Diocese of Charlotte where they were sent as Fidei Donum, to assume their new functions in their Diocese of Incardination.”
- Why must Diocesan Priests be obedient? Priests make these 7 Promises on their Ordination day
Diocesan priests promise to be celibate, preach the truth, and obey the bishop. Unlike priests who are members of a religious community, diocesan priests do not take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. However, they do make several promises on their ordination day that are similar in scope. Diocesan priests:
- Assist the bishop’s mission: “Do you resolve, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discharge without fail the office of priesthood in the presbyteral rank, as worthy fellow workers with the Order of Bishops for the Lord’s flock?” Bishops are the primary shepherds in a particular region. Priests are meant to be co-workers, who assist the bishop in their pastoral mission.
2) Preach the truth of the Catholic church: “Do you resolve to exercise the ministry of the word worthily wisely, preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith?” Priests are entrusted with the task of preaching the Catholic faith to their flock, handing on to them the heritage of the Gospel.
3) Celebrate the liturgy reverently: “Do you resolve to celebrate faithfully and reverently, accord with Church’s tradition, the mysteries of Christ, especially the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation, for the glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people?” This is a promise to abide by the Church’s directives for the liturgy and to celebrate them with great reverence and respect.
4) Remain celibate: “In the presence of God and his Church, are you resolved, as a sign of your interior dedication to Christ, to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind?” This promise is made at a priest’s diaconate ordination, but applies to the rest of his life as a priest.
5) Pray without ceasing: “Do you resolve to implore with us God’s mercy upon the people entrusted to your care by observing the command to pray without ceasing?” This reminds the priest of his commitment to prayer, first mentioned at his diaconate ordination, where he promised to pray the Liturgy of the Hours on a daily basis.
6) Imitate Jesus Christ: “Do you resolve to be united more closely every day to Christ High Priest, who offered himself for us to the as a pure sacrifice, and with him to consecrate yourselves to God for the salvation of all?” This is a weighty promise, urging the priest to imitate Jesus Christ and consecrate his entire life to him. Christ’s obedience to the Father’s will even to his death on the cross is a central mystery of the Christian life and the motivating force for the sacred bond of obedience. Imitating Christ’s love of God’s will, priests are to submit their wills in a spirit of faith and love to legitimate superiors who receive their authority from God through the ministry of the church. In a spirit of service and concern for the members, bishops give commands in accord with the universal law and the proper constitutions of the diocese. Thus, authority and obedience practiced in the Diocese reflects the Father’s love of Christ and Christ’s obedience to the Father. Sharing a charism or gift of the Holy Spirit, those in authority like the bishop and the priests of his diocese are to seek God’s will in a spirit of peace, love, unity, and concern for the good of the church. This searching ceases with the decision of the bishop who is indispensable in every diocese. Every diocese has a bishop with authority to whom the priests are accountable. There is no provision in canon law of a diocese without a bishop. The authority entrusted to the bishop by the Church is not absolute. The bishop must always respect the human dignity of the priest, conform to universal and proper law, and exercise authority in a spirit of charity. In obeying the commands of the bishop, priests live in a spirit of faith and in imitation of Christ who always did the Father’s will. Their way of life testifies to the truth that that there is no contradiction between obedience and freedom. (Cf. James A. Coriden, Thomas Joseph Green, Donald E. Heintschel., The Code of Canon Law, Paulist Press, 1985 – Canon law -764-766).
7) Obedience to the bishop: “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?” This is the final promise a priest makes, and it is done more solemnly than the others. The priest kneels before the bishop and places his hands between the bishop’s hands. It is a physical reminder and pledge to obey the bishop and his successors.
- What is the meaning of the Suspension of a Priest?
What does suspension of a priest mean? The word suspension comes from the Latin word “suspendere” meaning to hang, to shelve, to put in cold storage. Suspension is “a censure or punishment, by which a priest or cleric is deprived, entirely or partially, of the use of the right to order or to hold office, or of any benefice.” Jose Bernel describes it as a censure that can affect only clerics and by means of which they are forbidden fully or partially to exercise the power of order, the power of governance or of office (canon 1333, §1) or of all of those simultaneously (canon 1334, § 2) and in some cases, the right to receive any good with economic value. (Cf. Jose Bernal, 2004, 335). This is one of the most common penalties that can be imposed on a priest. (Cf. Brendan Daly, The Canonist, vol 9, no. 1, 40).
Suspension in the 1983 Code is only a medicinal penalty and is no longer an expiatory penalty as it was in the 1917 Code. The 1983 code has 4 types of suspensions: 1) total or partial suspension of orders; 2) total or partial suspension of governance; 3) total or partial suspension of office; 4) total suspension which includes suspension of orders, governance and office. (Cf. 145, § 1; Bernal, vol. 4/1, 336). These are spelt out in detail in canon 1333— § 1, 2, 3 and 4 as follows: “Suspension prohibits: 1° all or some of the acts of the power of order; 2° all or some of the acts of the power of governance; 3° the exercise of all or some of the rights or functions attaching to an office. § 2. In a law or a precept, it may be prescribed that, after a judgement or decree which impose or declare the penalty, a suspended person cannot validly perform acts of governance. § 3. The prohibition never affects: 1° any offices or power of governance which are not within the control of the Superior who establishes the penalty; 2° a right of residence which the offender may have by virtue of office; 3° the right to administer goods which may belong to an office held by the person suspended, if the penalty is latae sententiae. § 4. A suspension prohibiting the receipt of benefits, stipends, pensions or other such things, carries with it the obligation of restitution of whatever has been unlawfully received, even though this was in good faith.”
The suspension of clerics totally or partially restricts their ability to function liturgically and /or in ecclesiastical governance. A suspension does not mean the cleric has lost his office or place of residence. If the cleric has received a “latae sententiae penalty,” he can still administer the goods associated with his office, for example parish property if he is the parish priest. (Brendan Daly, The Canonist, vol 9, no. 1, 48).
Normally, a suspension is a general suspension if is specified that the suspension is limited to certain acts. (Cf. canon 1382). A suspension can forbid all or some of the acts of the power of the sacraments of orders. For example, celebration of the Eucharist, anointing of the sick, and the sacrament of penance. If a suspended priest celebrates the Eucharist, it would be valid but illicit. (Brendan Daly, The Canonist, vol 9, no. 1, 48). A partial decree of suspension should make mention of the withdrawal of the faculty to officiate at weddings because the priest is an official witness of the church, and the couple bestow the sacrament no themselves. The validity of any marriage could be in doubt.
- Types of Suspension
- a) Latae Sententiae/ Automatic Suspensions
“Automatic or latae sententiae” penalties are necessary to provide immediate punishment for serious crimes, as well as to deal with secret crimes. (Cf. V. De Paolis, 1975). Canon 1314 states that penalties are normally to be “ferendae sententiae,” that is “imposed by an Ordinary or a Tribunal” but can be “latae sententiae” if the law or percept determines this. (Cf. Canon 1314).
There are six “latae sententiae” suspensions in the 1983 Code: 1) physically attacking a bishop (Cf. 1370, § 2); 2) a deacon attempting to celebrate the Eucharist (Cf. 1378, § 2); 3) simulating absolution in the sacrament of penance, for example, a deacon or a priest without the faculty (Cf. Canon 1378, § 2); 4) falsely accusing a confessor of solicitation the “coetus” for the Commission was concerned to protect the priest (Cf. Canon 1390, §1, Canon 1387; Communicationes 9 (1977), 313).
- Ferendae sententiae Suspensions
There are 3 possible “ferendae sententiae” imposed suspensions in the 1983 code: 1) simoniacal celebration of the Sacraments (Canon 1380); 2) solicitation (Cf. canon 1387); 3) sexual misconduct in an ongoing manner (Cf. Canon 1395 § 1). A bishop could also suspend a cleric for other offenses using canon 1399 which states that “Besides the cases prescribed in this or in other laws, the external violation of divine or canon law can be punished, and with a just penalty, only when the special gravity of the violation requires it and necessity demands that scandals be prevented or repaired.” A suspension a divinis is a suspension which “forbids the exercise of every act of the power of orders which one obtained either by sacred orders or by privilege.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, 2012).
- Suspension of a Priest: a last resort
In canon law, and in the Church, suspension of a priest is a last resort as stated in the Code of canon law, Can. 1341: “The Ordinary must start a judicial or an administrative procedure for the imposition or the declaration of penalties when he perceives that neither by the methods of pastoral care, especially fraternal correction, nor by a warning or correction, can justice be sufficiently restored, the offender reformed, and the scandal repaired.”
Further, canon 1347 § 1 states that “a censure cannot validly be imposed unless the offender has beforehand received at least one warning to purge the contempt, and has been allowed suitable time to do so. § 2. The offender is said to have purged the contempt if he or she has truly repented of the offence and has made suitable reparation for the scandal and harm, or at least seriously promised to make it.”
The WARNING should be recorded in a document kept in the secret archives. ( Cf. Canon 1339, para. 3). The warning is necessary for ferendae sententiae penalties, because although the law is broken the priest might not be in contumacy.
The offender could be in ignorance or might have acted without releasing the seriousness of what he was doing.
- Effects of Suspension
The suspension of a priest does not prevent the reception of the sacraments. (Cf. Brendan Daly, The Canonist, vol 9, no. 1, 52). A suspended priest can receive the sacraments so long as he is not in grave sin. When a cleric (bishop, priest, deacon) is suspended, with a “latae sententiae” penalty, that has not been declared, any act contrary to the suspension are valid but illicit. However, when the suspension “latae sententiae” or “ferendae sententiae” is declared, the law may establish that acts of governance contrary to the suspension are invalid. A marriage officiated at by a suspended priest is ALWAYS invalid. (Cf. Bernal, 337; canon 1109).
However, if the suspension of the cleric has not been declared (Cf. Canon 1335), the cleric may celebrate a sacrament, administer a sacramental, and issue an act of governance for any just reason. Even when another priest is available who is not suspended, the suspended priest can celebrate the sacraments at the request of the faithful for any just reason. This reason could be simply for the spiritual benefit of the member of the faithful. Because the supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls (Cf. canon 1752), the faithful have a right to the sacraments and the cleric has the obligation to celebrate them (Juan Arias, 1993). Also, the cleric has no obligation to dishonor himself and say that he is suspended. (Cf. canon 1352, §2).
When a member of the faithful is in danger of death, the suspension cleric CAN AND MUST CELEBRATE THE SACRAMANTS FOR THEM WHETHER THE SUSPENSION IS A DECLARED LATAE SENTENTIAE OR FERENDAE SENTENTIAE SUSPENSION. “Even though a priest lacks the faculty to hear confessions, he absolves validly and licitly any penitents whatsoever in danger of death from any censures and sins, even if an approved priest is present.” (Canon 976).
- Authority to remove the Penalty of Suspension 1354-1358
In order to have a suspension removed, the suspended person must have withdrawn from contumacy, that is from the rebellious inclination against authority and discipline. (Cf. De Paolis, 69). Once the person has withdrawn from contumacy, the suspension MUST BE REMITTED AND REMISSION CANNOT BE REFUSED. (Cf. Canon 1358, §1). Withdrawal from contumacy includes repentance for committing the crime and reparation for damages or the promise to make reparations. (Cf. Canon 1347 §1). Canon 1354, §3 allows for the Apostolic See to reserve penalties to itself and these reservations are to be interpreted strictly. Suspensions not reserved to the Apostolic See, according to canon 1355, §1, can be remitted by the Ordinary who initiated the trial, or the Ordinary where the offender lives. Remission is normally made in writing unless it needs to be public to protect the reputation of the offender or to repair scandal (Cf. Cf. canon 134; canon 1361 §1).
Unfortunately, penalties such as suspension are necessary in the church because priests do not always in St Paul’s words lead a life worthy of their vocation. (Ephesian 4:1). Suspension is a medicinal penalty with the primary aim to reform the offending priest. The suspension is imposed after the priest has been warned and when all other actions such as fraternal correction have failed. There are just the two canons 1333 and 1334 dealing with suspensions in the 1983 Code. Once the suspension has been imposed, it can have other benefits of repairing the scandal, and reducing the harm to the Church community. The specific details of the suspension are determined by the precept that the priest was given or by the decree that imposed the suspension.
Suspensions continue until they are remitted by a competent Ordinary, or in specific circumstances a priest in the sacraments of Penance. A suspension that prohibits the celebration of a sacrament is suspended when a member of the faithful is in danger of death and wishes to receive a sacrament. Also, a member of the faithful can receive a sacrament from a priest suspended by a “latae sententiae”, that is, automatic suspension that has not been declared, provided the member of the faithful is in good faith when he/she requests the sacrament. A priest who has received a latae sententiae suspension can still administer the ecclesiastical goods associated with the office that he holds, for example, a parish priest could still administer the ecclesiastical goods of the parish.
Furthermore, any suspended priest retains the right to use the dwelling associated with the office that he holds. (Cf. Brendan Daly, The Canonist, vol 9, no. 1, 56). (Cf. Brendan Daly, The Canonist, vol 9, no. 1, 56).
Nchumbonga George Lekelefac, B. Phil., (Mexico); S.T.B., (Rome); J.C.L/M.C.L., (Ottawa), Diploma in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Dutch; International Language Tutor of English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and German; Doctorandus, University of Münster, Germany; Europe/ US Chief Correspondent of the “Sun Newspaper”; Catholic Media Influencer and Whistle blower; Canon Lawyer and Researcher; Veteran Contributor on Social Media on Theological and Canonical enlightenment and arguments; Founder/ CEO of the “Nchumbonga Lekelefac Institute of Research, Documentation, Language and Culture, USA.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The SUN’s editorial stance.