African Bishop Stirs Controversy by Suspending Priest-theologian for Syncretism
A bishop in western Cameroon has caused controversy among his people by suspending a popular priest and moral theologian who was filmed doing a ritual dance pertaining to traditional African religion.
Bishop Dieudonné Watio of Bafoussam announced on June 15 that he had suspended Father André Marie Kengne, prohibiting him from publicly celebrating the sacraments.
Currently a parish priest, Father Kengne is accused of having promoted syncretism in a video posted online. It showed him wearing the traditional dress of the Bamiléké people, taking part in a ritual dance during a festival.
The priest, whose ancestors belonged to the Bamiléké, spoke in both French and the Bandjoun language to explain why he was participating in the cultic dance of a secret society.
Kengne — who was ordained priest in 1997 and completed a doctorate in moral theology in 2005 at the Accademia Alfonsiana (Pontifical Lateran University) in Rome — said there is nothing in the Bible, the Christian faith or the Catholic priesthood that prohibits him from participating in this traditional ceremony.
He praised the traditional culture of his people of origin, saying many of its values aligned with Christianity and were in conformity with Catholic doctrine.
Bishop Watio, however, disagreed. After learning that the video had gone viral in Cameroon, the 74-year-old prelate decided to sanction the priest.
“The bishop acted in accordance with the doctrine of the Church,” explained Father Clement Kouamo, who is close to the diocesan curia of Bafoussam.
“He must give priority to the official teaching of the Church. Above all, he must not give free rein to all forms of religious syncretism between Christianity and traditional religions,” Father Kouamo said.
But the diocese is divided over what is now being called “the case of the suspension of Father Kengne”.
And the division has also hit the local presbyterate.
“Between the bishop and us priests, we have a father-son relationship,” said one of them, who asked that his name not be printed.
“The bishop was too intransigent towards our confrere, Father André Marie Kengne, who is a well-respected moral theologian and anthropologist within our Church,” this priest said.
“For our common understanding, the bishop should have brought intellectual and doctrinal proofs that effectively implicated our confrere, and opened the discussion with his priests before sanctioning him,” he added.
The Jesuit anthropologist, Ludovic Lado, took a more balanced approach.
“First of all, I salute the interest, even the passion, of this priest for traditional African cultures, which reminds me somewhat of the initiatory adventure of my late confrère Éric de Rosny, whose famous work, Les yeux de ma chèvre, is well known,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
“But I also recognize the bishop’s right to redirect a priest when he feels that an outing may have created confusion in the minds of some of the faithful,” wrote Father Lado.
The Jesuit said that, although the bishop’s sanction “has the merit of safeguarding pastoral activity, the form was not there”.
“The bishop’s text could have done without the rhetoric that seemed like public vindictiveness on the diocesan radio stations,” he said.
Father Kengne said he did not want to comment on the bishop’s decision.