This post is the fourth in Bondings 2.0’s reports from the Synod on Marriage and Family in Rome. New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo will continue to send news and commentary from this meeting. Previous posts can be reached by clicking here.
Yesterday was my fourth day at an afternoon press briefing for the synod. Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s main spokesperson briefs the attendees, mostly representatives from the international press, and then turns the microphone over to two or three synod delegates to make brief statements of their perspectives on what has transpired, and to answer questions.
One of the guests today was Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle, the head of the Accra Archdiocese, capital city of Ghana, in Africa. Since criminalization of lesbian and gay people is such an important issue in some African nations, I put the following question to Archbishop Palmer-Buckle:
“Many African bishops have spoken vocally against marriage for lesbian and gay couples. Many fewer have spoken as vocally against criminalization laws against gay and lesbian people, though many Catholic leaders see this type of criminalization as a violation of Church teaching on human rights and also as destructive of family relationships. Do you think that the African bishops, or indeed any bishops, would support a statement from the synod condemning the criminalization of lesbian and gay people?”
“I can tell you that when the Holy Father, the pope, on his plane ride back from Rio de Janeiro, said ‘Who am I to condemn [judge]?, it had huge repercussions in our country. But some governments in Europe said we would not get their money without supporting marriage. I agree with the Holy Father – that people who are different from us are sons and daughters of God and we have to welcome them and be able to open the doors of the church to them. In Ghana we do this. Yes, they are human and they have human rights, and their human rights and dignity should be respected and upheld.”
“We found it sad that some government could violate our sovereignty. We know that all are sons and daughters of God and have dignity. We are doing what we can. It takes time for individual voices like that to be heard, when you are dealing especially with something that is culturally difficult for people to understand. They [Africans] have lived with it for millennia. Attitudes in Africa towards people who are different has been something that has been there for so long. It would be a bit deceptive to think overnight individuals will change their opinion–overnight documents would be written in favor and the rest of it. I’d say give the countries time to deal with issues from our own cultural perspectives. And I’d like you to know that we must underline that the rights of all the sons and daughters as children of God are to be upheld by the church everywhere. And we are trying. “I don’t want to say we have reached there. No, no, no — perfection is not yet something that we have obtained but we are working towards it. Be patient with Africa. We are growing.”
You can watch the video of this exchange on the following video, posted by the Vatican on their YouTube channel:
I appreciated Palmer-Buckle’s honesty. He did not try to justify the stance of some African bishops who have remained silent about criminalization, or even sometimes tacitly and overtly supported it. He acknowledged that accepting homosexuality is a difficult cultural problem that must be overcome. He was also adamant that the Church should support the human dignity of gay and lesbian people, mentioning it at least twice in his response. By saying “we are growing,” he acknowledged that the cultural homophobia which may be normative is not the ideal Christian situation for bishops.
He also seemed to be apologizing for the response of the bishops, saying that they were offended by the idea that aid to their countries would be tied to support for marriage equality. It must be pointed out, though, that supporting marriage equality and condemning criminalization of lesbian and gay people are two separate issues. According to church teaching, it would be extremely difficult for a bishop to support marriage equality, but, also by Catholic teaching, it would also be extremely easy for a bishop to oppose criminalization and the denial of human rights to lesbian and gay people.
While I understand his perspective that homophobia takes time to heal, especially culturally, we must also remember that lives hang in the balance when homophobia mushrooms into criminalization and institutionalized violence. Overcoming one’s personal homophobia may take time, but we also have to remember that when homophobia becomes legalized, that people suffer greatly from this. While I understand his call for patience, I hope that he and others realize that the longer it takes to eradicate homophobia, the more LGBT people will suffer and pay the price with their lives.
That is why a synod statement opposing criminalization is so important. The African bishops have shown that they are blinded by their cultural and personal homophobia, and they need to be led by their brother bishops to enact justice by speaking out against criminalization. Justice demands it and lives cannot wait.
Palmer-Buckle did not answer the question about whether the synod would issue a statement about criminalization. Perhaps it is too early in the process for him to be able to say anything with certainty about the matter. Yet, the synod has been urged to make such a statement earlier this year by the then-fledgling Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC). You can read about their recommendations by clicking here.
In their analysis of the Intstrumentum Laboris, the working document of the synod, the GNRC stated:
“The inclusion of the unfounded statement that international organisations are pressurising poorer countries to introduce same-sex marriage as a condition of receiving financial aid Para. 132) is scandalously dishonest. Far better for the Church to show its commitment to social justice through the condemnation of global criminalisation of LGBT people, including torture and the death penalty.”
The GNRC offered language to the synod for them to make such a statement about criminalizaiton:
“At a global level, people with variant sexual orientation are unjustly criminalised, tortured, subjected to death penalties, and those offering pastoral and practical care in such circumstances are also often penalised. This Synod of Bishops unequivocally condemns such injustices perpetrated on people and firmly opposes such patterns of criminalisation. It urges governments and civil society to respect the human rights of each person regardless of their sexual orientation.”
A statement condemning criminalization seems like the theologically easiest thing for the synod of bishops to do in regard to pastoral care for LGBT people. Let’s hope and pray that the more open and honest attitude towards this situation exhibited by Archbishop Palmer-Buckle today will influence bishops who are more opposed to such a development.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
*Many thanks to Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of FutureChurch, a Catholic reform organization, who is also present in Rome, for transcribing the bishop’s answer for me so that I could listen attentively and courteously to his response. Deb is blogging about the synod on her blog, SynodWatch. Her reports are excellent, and can be accessed by clicking here.
Religion News Service: “African archbishop: We’re not blocking progress in the church”
National Catholic Reporter: “Ghanaian archbishop: Africans not ‘blocking’ discussions at synod”