Editor’s Note: Sister Jeannine Gramick will take part in a public conversation on marriage equality this evening, May 31, 2013, with Bishop Thomas Paprocki, in Phoenix, Arizona. The following is her reflection on another recent conversation that she had with Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. For more information on tonight’s event, click here.
BY Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, Co-founder, New Ways Ministry
Last month, the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, hosted a conference entitled Peacebuilding 2013: Pacem in Terris at 50,” as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s landmark encyclical on peace.
With the hope that the ideas and spirit of “Good Pope John” and Vatican II were being rekindled in our church, I eagerly attended and was not disappointed. Attendees met leading representatives of co-sponsoring organizations, such as the peace and justice departments of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and several Catholic universities, Catholic Relief Services, Pax Christi International, Caritas Internationalis, the Sant’Egidio Community, and the U.S. Institute of Peace.
More than 200 attendees listened to presentations from such well-known Catholic leaders as Fr. Bryan Hehir, John Carr, Drew Christiansen SJ, and Scott Appleby. One speaker I was particularly interested in hearing was Cardinal Peter Turkson from the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Among LGBT advocates, Cardinal Turkson is known for his anti-gay remarks. For example, in 2012 when the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on African nations to repeal laws that criminalize homosexuality, Cardinal Turkson responded, “…when you’re talking about what’s called ‘an alternative lifestyle,’ are those human rights? … there’s a subtle distinction between morality and human rights, and that’s what needs to be clarified.”
Cardinal Turkson did not entertain questions after his hour long presentation, so I wended my way to the front of the auditorium and, after much picture-taking of various Catholic University officials with the Cardinal, I was poised to ask him my question privately.
“Thank you, Cardinal,” I began, “for emphasizing throughout your talk that the underlying principle of Pacem in Terris is the basic dignity of the human person.
“I was pleased that you gave a few concrete examples of how you used your influence in Ghana to resolve some disputed situations by showing the parties that the basic issue involved was the dignity of the human person. In the situation of gay and lesbian people…”
I got no further with my question. The Cardinal quickly interrupted me, maintaining that the press greatly misunderstood what he meant. He was merely saying that “this” (using the pronoun, without saying the word “homosexuality” or “gay” or “lesbian”) was not acceptable in his culture. He repeated his defense a few times before someone came to whisk him off to lunch.
After lunch, Karen, another conference attendee I met, engaged him in conversation on the same topic. Once again, Cardinal Turkson defended his remarks, asserting he was misquoted. It was clear, Karen said, that he did not wish to say more about the matter. Karen later spoke with a priest from Ghana, who had worked with the Cardinal. The priest maintained that Turkson would never endorse a bill to kill homosexuals but would acknowledge that the culture viewed homosexuality as an aberration that would not be tolerated.
Whether or not Cardinal Turkson was misquoted, the fact remains that he failed to denounce a cultural norm that violates basic human dignity. Perhaps being confronted by some Catholics at a U.S. peace conference may induce him to reexamine his views about the human rights of LGBT people and to respond more thoughtfully to the press in the future. Such face-to-face encounters, coupled with the political wind-change of recent positive remarks on gay civil unions by some Vatican officials, may spur him to understand that those human rights, as Pope John XXIII told the world 50 years ago in Pacem in Terris, are based on the dignity of the human person.