An African archbishop’s recent comments on homosexuality is an example of a new type of ecclesial discourse that is emerging on the topic. His message shows the dangers of such a discourse, the small progress that our church leaders have made, and the hope for future advancement.
In an interview with the website Aleteia.org, Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana, discussed his hopes and expectations for the Vatican’s October 2015 Synod on Marriage and the Family. In a discussion about different forms of marriage, he digressed into the topic of lesbian and gay people, saying:
“In Africa — this is the context I’m dealing with — I will not close my eyes to the fact that there are instances in Africa of homosexuals, people with homosexual tendencies, people with lesbian tendencies. Africa has always frowned upon that, because we have always looked at marriage as contributing to the well being of the greater society, not necessarily only to the well being of the individuals.
“So in a way, we may have to say that anyone who had a certain tendency was not happily looked at. In fact, there have been instances when their human rights have been trampled upon. The Church is calling us to understand that. Whether the person has homosexual tendencies or heterosexual tendencies, the person is created in the image and likeness of God, and that image and likeness of God is what we must protect. That is what we must defend. And that is why we must help that individual listen to what God says about his or her state. And I think that is the beauty of what the Church teaches us.”
What are the features of this new ecclesial discourse? First, like Palmer-Buckle, I think we are going to see a lot more members of the hierarchy speaking about the human dignity of gay and lesbian people. That’s a step forward. For too long, bishops have been reluctant to enunciate this aspect of orthodox church teaching.
But, another feature is the use of the word “tendencies.” This word, which began to be used more widely towards the end of John Paul II’s papacy and continued through the papacy of Benedict XVI, is problematic for two important reasons. First, it focuses homosexuality on acts, not persons or relationships. Second, it has the connotation that homosexuality may be temporary or fleeting. A “tendency” is much less permanent or foundational than an “orientation.” So, using “tendencies” is a step backward, or, more accurately, remaining in place–a very bad place.
The interviewer asked Palmer-Buckle: “. . . the word “accogliere” [to welcome] was a word used a great deal during the Extraordinary Synod last October. The word, in some instances, has been hijacked to make it seem as though the Church is on its way to approving homosexual relationships. What do the bishops need to say next October in order to communicate both to Africa and and to the West exactly where the Church stands? “
Interestingly, instead of agreeing with the more traditionalist agenda embedded in that question, Palmer-Buckle answered in a more “pastoral” way:
“You know, if there is anything I find beautiful about Pope Francis, it is how he calls us back to the question: How would Christ act in this circumstance?
“And I think one of the deepest respects I have for him was when he was returning from Rio de Janeiro and was interviewed by journalists who were interested in knowing what the Pope thinks about lesbians and gays, when he said: ‘If a gay is looking for Christ, who am I to condemn the person?’
“I think the Pope took the stance of Jesus Christ. For instance, in the face of the woman who was caught in adultery, those who were standing there wanted to stone her to death. And what did Jesus say? ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’ The Bible tells us ‘they went away one by one.’ Now if you remember the question Jesus posed to the woman: ‘Woman, has no one condemned you?’ She responds: ‘No one.’ He says: ‘Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.’
“The beauty of what I like about this is that Jesus first thought he must save this woman and her God-given dignity and the gift of life that God had given her. After he had saved her and made her understand that God loves her, then he tells her: now go and repair whatever is between you and God. I find it beautiful.”
There is a welcome in the archbishop’s message, which, if it were unconditional, would be helpful. However, his comparison of lesbian/gay people with the woman who is caught in adultery is demeaning. Furthermore, his emphasis on the need for repentance of sexual sin cancels out any welcome might have been offered.
Such negative attitudes in language indicate that church leaders like Palmer-Buckle still have a lot to learn about homosexuality and the lives of lesbian and gay people–particularly their lives of faith and love.
At the same time, Palmer-Buckle shows an important development in ecclesial discourse which I hope will be emulated: he has the ability to acknowledge where the church has failed. In answer to a question about pressure from the media, he answered:
“So I don’t blame [the media]. Most probably we have for so long a time made people suffer just because they are not ‘like us.’ We’ve made them suffer, discriminated against them, we have ostracized them. So if today the gay lobby is very loud it’s because we have almost de-humanized them. . . .
“What the Pope is bringing out is that we have no right to dehumanize anybody, either for color, for creed, or for sexual orientation. We should embrace them, and then point out, walk with them towards what the Pope believes is a certain inner voice that nobody can suffocate, that not even the media can suffocate.
“Those who are in the gay lobby, for one reason or another, have been compelled by us, the so-called ‘good ones,’ to even shove down a certain voice in themselves which definitely I think has been pointing out to them that something is not 100% right. We have contributed to that. We have also shut down in ourselves the voice which says: Everyone is a child of God, and we should welcome them all. We have no right to stone anybody, and we have no right to ostracize anybody. We should welcome them.
Self-criticism is a major step forward. Awareness that zeal about sexual ethics has cancelled out any human empathy and Christian compassion is also a significant advancement. To me, these qualities are pre-requisites for dialogue. Dialogue can’t happen if either side is unwilling to see themselves from the other perspective.
My hope would be that such bishops would be open to honest dialogue with lesbian and gay Catholics, in the non-judgmental manner advocated by Pope Francis. Palmer-Buckle’s interview contains one passage which, if he takes it seriously, could open up his approach somewhat. In talking about the Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family in October 2014, Palmer-Buckle said:
“The Holy Father himself put together a very beautiful synthesis. The long and short of it is: nobody should stop anybody from saying what he or she thinks about the current state of marriage, family, etc. Nobody should suffocate anybody. We should listen to one another and we should reflect on it and try to see what the Holy Spirit will tell us about how to accompany towards Christ people who find themselves in any form of marriage. That is [Pope Francis’] main concern: how do we bring them, whoever they are, in whatever context they find themselves, to Christ. I think that was a beautiful message.”
Yes, we need to listen and reflect. Not just bishops with other bishops, but bishops with laity and clergy and theologians and those in the scientific community. No one should be excluded from the dialogue. To hear the Spirit, we need to hear all the voices.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry