In a new pastoral letter, Malawi’s bishops have encouraged Catholics to advocate for the arrest and imprisonment of LGBT people as a top national priority.
The Episcopal Conference of Malawi’s joint letter, “Mercy of God as a Path to Hope,” was released as part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy called for by Pope Francis. The bishops say they seek to contextualize mercy as it relates to their country and speak words of hope, but their words do not seem either merciful or hopeful to LGBT people and their supporters. Listed second among seventeen “areas of grave concern” is a section on family issues and LGBT rights which states:
“From this perspective, we agree with those who have faulted the Government for putting a moratorium on laws governing homosexual acts. This means that those guilty of homosexual acts or unions cannot be prosecuted. The Government has bowed down to pressure from donor community, international bodies and local human rights campaigners. As Pastors, we find this path very unfortunate. It is an act of betrayal on the part of those in power to sell our country to foreign practices and tendencies contrary to the will of God because of money. . .We call upon all Catholics and people of good will to stand up for what is morally right today in the face of the hugely funded campaign for homosexual rights and unions.”
This portion is preceded by a statement that the church does not judge someone based on sexual orientation, though same-sex activity is called “objectively evil and totally unacceptable.” The bishops follow the excerpt above with a statement condemning anti-LGBT violence:
“[W]e wish to condemn in strongest terms those inciting violence against homosexuals and those guilty of homosexual acts or unions. In this Jubilee of mercy, we recall with gratitude the words of St. John XXIII that indicate to us the path to follow as believers: ‘Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity’ (Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, 11).”
The bishops’ support for LGBT criminalization is well-documented and has been strongly condemned by LGBT advocates. Earlier this year, Malawi’s bishops made false claims about foreign aid pressures during U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People Randy Berry’s visit to their nation. Berry categorically refuted their claims. Individual bishops from this African country have made troubling remarks about homosexuality, too.
In the new pastoral letter, the bishops ignored the reality that criminalization leads to increased suffering by sexual and gender minorities. Their claims about respecting LGBT people and rejecting violence against them are basically meaningless when they encourage LGBT people’s imprisonment. Being gay in Malawi is illegal, and a conviction can lead to up to fourteen years of hard labor for men and up to five years imprisonment for women. Thankfully, there is a government moratorium on enforcement of such laws while they are reviewed.
Malawi’s bishops have significant influence in the country, despite Catholics composing just 20% of the population. Catholic leaders played a key role in the country’s 1992 transition to democracy and have been described by some as the conscience of their nation. The bishops could again be helpful pastoral leaders, given the real areas of grave concern Malawians face. The vast majority of this pastoral letter called attention to real injustices, such as food insecurity experienced by 2.8 million people and problems in government that leave the nation severely underdeveloped. But hunger is listed tenth and ecological justice, a hallmark of Pope Francis’ tenure, listed last despite the climate’s devastating effects on Malawi. As noted above, LGBT issues were listed second. This ranking hardly seems warranted and shows the bishops’ priorities are seriously amiss.
Equal civil rights do not pose a threat to Malawians’ well-being. Moreover, Catholic teaching does not support punishing people because of sexual orientation and/or sexual expression. Advocating for the criminalization of one’s identity undercuts the bishops’ otherwise valuable and needed call for social justice. That is a real tragedy for the Year of Mercy and for Malawi.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry