Pope Francis’ visit to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic concluded yesterday without explicit remarks supportive of LGBT human rights, for which many had appealed.
Advocates in Kenya and Uganda had hoped the pope would preach words of tolerance in these highly Catholic nations,one which criminalizes (Kenya) homosexuality, an one which is still evaluating such a law (Uganda).
Openly gay Catholics, like Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda, wrote Pope Francis to ask for a meeting. Catholics globally emailed and tweeted the pope through New Ways Ministry’s #PopeSpeakOut campaign.
Some observers had speculated that Pope Francis would address homosexuality while visiting a shrine for 19th century Ugandan martyrs. In certain accounts, reported Crux, these forty-plus Christian men were executed in part for refusing King Mwanga II’s sexual advances. Pope Francis omitted any reference to this contested narrative. What the pope did say was that Christians, inspired by the martyrs’ faith, were called:
“to build a more just society which promotes human dignity, without excluding anyone, defends God’s gift of life, and protects the wonders of nature, his creation, and our common home.”
Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi later clarified that the line “without excluding anyone” (omitted in the Vatican’s English translation of the homily) “would also include people with homosexual tendencies.”
Pope Francis’ phrase “new forms of colonialism” during an address in Kenya has been interpreted by observers, including Crux’s John Allen, as a reference to homosexuality. This phrase, observers claim, specifically references some Catholic leaders’ suggestion that Western aid is tied to LGBT rights including marriage equality. It is worth noting that the U.S. envoy for LGBT human rights sharply criticized such claims in a recent meeting with Vatican officials.
Like Francis’ use of “ideological colonization” during his visit to the Philippines, the phrase “new forms of colonialism” is not quite clear. Connections to homosexuality seem stretched, though in its ambiguity, it will likely be misused by anti-LGBT voices appealing to anti-colonialist sentiments that run deep among many Africans.
One church official did comment to Crux about the church’s involvement in anti-LGBT laws on the occasion of the papal visit. Bishop Giuseppe Franzell of Lira, Uganda, said laws targeting sexual and gender minorities stem from “fundamentalist Christian groups and sects that come from North America. . .[and] individual Catholics, including some bishops.”
At the other extreme, Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda told PinkNews “the aim of [homosexuality] is not to promote life but to act against it” and “those with that tendency are called to abstinence.”
Church teaching is an insufficient appeal in nations where levels of LGBT discrimination and violence remain quite high. Appeals made to Pope Francis by LGBT people were thus quite simple and entirely consistent with current church teachings.
Reuters interviewed LGBT Ugandans, who would only be identified by first names, about their hopes for the pope’s visit, as well as about their daily lives. Keith said he wanted the pope to “[t]ell the congregation that being gay is normal and so we deserve our rights, equal rights.” Abdul, raised Catholic, says the church in Uganda and Kenya “says being gay is wrong” which has led to “continuous discrimination” and tremendous suffering. Though not quite a silver lining, trans woman Hector said the papal visit did provide “an opportunity to come out and tell our stories.”
On a positive note, Pope Francis made clear during his in-flight press conference on his way back to Rome that he prioritizes social justice over sexual ethics. Asked whether the church should change its teaching on artificial contraception given that HIV/AIDS continues to spread in Africa and other regions, the pope responded, according to the National Catholic Reporter:
” ‘This question makes me think of what they asked Jesus one time: “Tell me, master, is it licit to work on the Sabbath?” ‘. . .
” ‘Malnutrition, exploitation of persons, slave work, lack of drinking water. . .These are the problems.’
” ‘I do not like to descend into reflections that are so casuistic when people are dying. . .I would say to not think if it is licit or not licit to work on the Sabbath. I say to humanity: Make justice, and when all can earn a living, when there is not injustice in this world, we can speak of the Sabbath.’ “
Pope Francis’ first apostolic visit to Africa was, in many ways, a profound incarnation of his desired “poor church for the poor.” He led the church to the world’s margins and from there commenced the Year of Mercy. Francis visited an active conflict zone in Central African Republic at personal risk to preach peace, criticized injustice from slums outside Nairobi, and praised Uganda for accepting refugees (though failed to note the 500+ LGBT people who have fled that nation’s harsh conditions).
Pope Francis’ silence on LGBT human rights is notable nonetheless. In a church which mandates a preferential option for those marginalized, allusions that include all people do not suffice. Affirming the dignity of LGBT persons would have strengthened his witness for human rights and social justice while remaining consistent with current articulations of church teaching.
Francis’ silence can aid those like Uganda’s Ethics Minister Simon Lokodo who prayed the pope would not preach tolerance because “[i]t is bad enough that homosexuals are there, but let them not go ahead and expose themselves.”
Francis’ silence can harm all those LGBT people who face discrimination and violence for living openly as God created them, like Jackson Mukasa. Dragged from his home by a mob alongside his partner, Mukasa was brutally beaten before his assailants turned him into police for the ‘crime’ of being gay. Mukasa and his partner were jailed for several months under Uganda’s anti-gay law before being released. They now live in fear, forced to seek asylum abroad and asking:
“Is it that being gay is a crime to God? That’s why all these things are happening?”
Pope Francis didn’t need to endorse marriage equality to preach merciful words to those like Jackson Mukasa and to save LGBTQI lives too frequently under attack. That he chose not to is troubling indeed.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry