Being gay should not be illegal. This is a top Indian prelate’s message as the nation’s legislators consider decriminalizing homosexuality, coming just as Pope Francis formally commences the Year of Mercy today.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of the Archdiocese of Bombay (city of Mumbai) spoke to The Hindu Times about his public opposition to Section 377, which criminalizes homosexuality. He explained:
“For me it’s a question of understanding that it’s an orientation. . .I know there is still research being done whether it’s a matter of choice or matter of orientation and there are two opinions on this matter. But I believe maybe people have this orientation that God has given them and for this reason they should not be ostracised from society.”
Gracias was India’s only religious leader to criticize the re-criminalization of homosexuality in 2013. When the Delhi High Court’s decided to reinstate Section 377, he remained opposed to it in principle and is hoping legislators will act now to remove it.
Criminalizing a person’s sexual identity is a form of discrimination which the church opposes. Gracias further noted that “the Vatican itself is not for criminalisation of these people” and that such matters are distinct from questions of sexual ethics.
Beyond repealing Section 377, Cardinal Gracias’ encounter with LGBT people has implications for the church. He affirmed that those he met seek to serve faithfully both their church and their society. Citing the Year of Mercy, Gracias said “society should change its attitude towards [LGBT people], be more welcoming and understanding” and the church desires these same ends. The Indian Church can help expand people’s thinking, said the cardinal, and added:
“The Church also has an important role to play in providing them a sense of security. It’s not just that they should be tolerated, they should also be accepted. For many of them, through no fault of their own, this is a great suffering. They may like to have a family, have children but they cannot. It’s a cross that they have to bear.”
Gracias criticized “judgmental language,” mainly by those who think “it is a choice to be same-sex oriented.” Meeting with India’s National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which he heads, the cardinal said those gathered agreed their rhetoric about lesbian and gay people was too harsh. Locally, Gracias recently asked a priest to tone down his preaching on homosexuality.
The cardinal is realistic, however, about both the local Church and broader Indian culture being very traditional and resistant to change. He expressed fears of a backlash if LGBT rights are pushed too far, but said fear could not stop progress because communities “should not suffer because of that.” He concluded:
“Maybe this is a change that will take some time to come because Indian society is truly not ready for it but it is certainly a change that should come today, or tomorrow, whatever is the best time.”
As the Year of Mercy begins, I would call attention to the reason Cardinal Gracias gave for his more inclusive approach to LGBT issues. He explained:
“I had been reflecting on the question of whether the church should be more welcoming towards members of the LGBT community for some time. I met some groups and associations of LGBTs and I had an understanding for them. I don’t want them to feel ostracised. That’s why I came out publicly some time back saying I was in favour of decriminalisation of Section 377. . .
“When you interact with them you realise that they are everybody, they are sons and daughters of our own friends and our own society. But it is still something that is hidden and in the closet. People are frightened to come out because of the lack of acceptance.”
Cardinal Gracias’ public statements against criminalization are laudatory, as were remarks made in an exclusive interview with Bondings 2.o during the Synod on the Family that the church “embraces. . .wants. . .needs” LGBT people. What is most instructive, however, is his willingness to encounter LGBT people and risk being moved by their stories.
Pope Francis has called for a ‘culture of encounter,’ but few church leaders have made it real. Bondings 2.0‘s readers include many committed advocates who do much good in their local churches by creating encounters. While we cannot know the power of any specific letter or meeting, but we do know with certainty this is how change in the church and in society always happens.
The Year of Mercy is a perfect moment for renewed dialogue between LGBT Catholics, their families and faith communities, and church leaders across the world. Let us not wait to get started!
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry