Visiting the Vatican earlier this week, a United States’ diplomat tasked with LGBTI human rights criticized the Catholic hierarchy’s assertion that Western governments tie foreign aid to marriage equality. These remarks come just weeks before Pope Francis journeys to Africa, including Uganda where anti-gay legislation became law last year and Kenya where homosexuality is illegal.
Randy Berry, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI People, said of these assertions, recently restated in the Synod on the Family’s final report, “the notion that aid was given on the basis of civil unions is completely false,” reported the The Tablet. He stated flatly: “It is not. Period. Full stop.”
Berry made the comments during meetings with Vatican leaders to discuss about the persecution of LGBT people globally. He met with representatives from the Vatican Secretariat of State and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The Tablet reported:
“Mr Berry stressed he had not come to the Vatican to pressure the Church to change its position on same-sex marriage rather to discuss violence and discrimination of gay people in parts of the world where homosexuality is illegal.”
Citing Uganda, Berry admitted that certain aid had been suspended in response to that nation’s anti-gay legislation but only after extensive reviews “to make sure that US taxpayer money was not used to fund legal structures that would prosecute people based on their identity.” The only aid affected is that which would have strengthened the state’s ability to prosecute LGBT people under the law, which Berry importantly noted, “the Church also opposed.”
The Synod document had reaffirmed this idea that humanitarian and development aid is being tied to marriage equality, stating in section 76, as paraphrased by Crux:
“They said local churches shouldn’t be pressured on the question of same-sex marriage, nor should international aid organizations make the acceptance of gay unions a condition of their financial help to poor nations.”
Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, also suggested this connection between aid and marriage equality was the case in an interview with Bondings 2.0‘s Francis DeBernardo. The cardinal said that while lesbian and gay people’s identities should not be criminalized, no state should be “victimized” by having aid denied because of anti-gay laws. Turkson has had an already ambivalent record on LGBT human rights issues.
Despite the disagreement of Western aid distribution and “clear differences” on same-sex couples’ legal rights, Berry was clear that the U.S. government and Vatican broadly agree that LGBT people should be protected from violence and discrimination. He called the meetings “quite a positive experience” and “an important first dialogue” from which to build collaborative efforts, according to Time.
That this meeting between high-level diplomats even occurred is historic and a sign of progress in the church. Berry, who is gay and the first person to hold this LGBTI special envoy position, requested the meeting so he could “brief Vatican officials myself.” He was on the continent for a three-week tour through Eastern Europe. Elizabeth Dias of Time commented on the event’s significance:
“It is a sign that the Obama administration sees future opportunity to work with the Vatican after the Pope’s September visit, with the possibility to build on the partnership they have strengthened on climate change and migration. It is also a sign that Vatican diplomatic efforts are willing to take certain amount of risk by talking with the U.S. on this issue, as any LGBT issues thrusts the Church into an often conflicted spotlight.”
Berry has visited more than thirty nations since taking office in February, and he described his role as one of listening as well as advocacy. Affirming Pope Francis’ style of openness, the envoy said:
“That inclusive approach speaks volumes. . .I would hope that be because I think they are completely consistent with what we’ve seen from His Holiness in the past.”
This goal of ending discrimination and violence against LGBT people, particularly their criminalization, is indisputably consistent with Catholic teaching. Uganda and Kenya both criminalize homosexuality because civil leaders have used sexual minorities as political scapegoats. Catholic leaders’ responses have been lackluster, if not quite negative in certain instances. Pope Francis should use his upcoming apostolic visit to speak out for the human rights of all, but note the particular challenges LGBT people face.
In this way, Francis can make clearer his commitment to mercy for LGBT communities and position the Church geo-politically as an ally to those seeking to protect the rights of all sexual and gender diverse communities. No endorsement or even discussion of marriage or civil unions is required.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry