Three months before Pope Francis' first apostolic journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the episcopate asks priests who, having broken the vow of chastity, have had a child, to renounce their priestly ministry.
The 19-page document written by the Conference of Bishops of Congo (Cenco) – intended for the internal use of the DRC clergy – is dated March 4, 2022. It took barely a month for it to leak into the press.
“At the school of Jesus Christ. For an authentic priestly life” – such is the title of the episcopal circular – intending to “break the silence” on a delicate subject: that of priests who have had a child, because of an essentially illegitimate union.
The Congolese prelates evoke an “incompatibility” between the office of father and priest, and ask any ecclesiastic who finds himself in this situation is to “seek a dispensation from his obligations from the pope,” in order to be able to take care of the children whom they have fathered.
Until now, the Congolese ecclesiastical authorities had generally remained discreet in this kind of affair, which can easily be understood for various reasons. It is also likely that the new Cenco directives had already begun to be applied before their publication.
Indeed, since the beginning of 2022, nearly a dozen priests have been dismissed from the clerical state. At the end of March, in the diocese of Tshumbe alone, in the center of the country, three of them had to cease their ministry and resign.
The Cenco document stipulates that, in the event that the priest who has a child is not willing to give up the cassock, the bishop must “present the case to the Holy See,” so that he may apply the maximum penalty provided—dismissal from the clerical state.
“Exhorting and persuading are no longer enough, these attitudes make it difficult to penalize the guilty and sow confusion and scandal among the faithful,” explain the Congolese prelates who insist that “the priest who begets children needs both mercy and rebuke from the Church.”
A clarification that comes a few months before Pope Francis’ trip to the DRC, scheduled from July 2 to 5. The Holy Father will discover a country plagued by armed conflicts, in which the Church plays a leading political role, and where Catholics represent 40% of the 90 million inhabitants.