Intimate Conviction Conference Examines Religion’s Role in Criminalization Laws

Two weeks ago, I had the distinct honor of being a speaker at an international conference in Kingston, Jamaica, which focused on the role churches play in the enactment and repeal of laws that criminalize LGBT people.   I was the lone Roman Catholic among an impressive array of speakers from Anglican and Protestant churches from places like Canada, the United Kingdom, India, South Africa, Barbados, Jamaica, and many other nations that are or were part of the British Commonwealth.

The conference was organized by local and international groups, including the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Anglicans for Decriminalization, and St. Matthias Church.  It was hosted in collaboration with Very Reverend Father Sean Major-Campbell, Rector of Christ Church (Anglican) Vineyard Town and Area Dean for Kingston.

2017 is the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, the law that repealed anti-sodomy statutes in England and Wales. But, 38 out of 53 former British colonies in the Commonwealth still have laws criminalizing same-gender intimacy.

“We know from the experience of the United Kingdom that churches play a role not only in the creation of laws that impact LGBTQI people, but also in their repeal,” said Major-Campbell, referring to the fact that the Anglican Church in the U.K. was instrumental in repealing the anti-sodomy law in 1957.

Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry at the conference in Jamaica.

The following are some excerpts from my presentation, which focused on the idea that the Roman Catholic Church has two “faces” on criminalization laws, with some church leaders speaking out against them, while others speak out in support of them.  If you would like to read the entire text of the presentation, click here.

I began my talk by discussing how the the Catholic Church’s discussion of sexual minorities always gets caught up in the tension between the church’s social justice tradition (all must be respected) and sexual ethics tradition (only heterosexual intercourse in marriage is approved).  I framed the challenge church leaders then face:

“So, it comes down to: how does a church leader respect the human rights of LGBT people while not appearing to approve of sexual activity that the Church condemns?  Which tradition should govern this topic? For some bishops, this is not a problem.  But, too often other Catholic leaders have erred shamefully in prizing the sexual ethics tradition over the social justice tradition, and so they have remained silent, complicit, and even at times supportive of laws that criminalize LGBT people.

“But if a balance existed between these two traditions, then we should see Catholic leaders defending the human rights of LGBT people with the same vigor and forthrightness that they defend traditional heterosexual marriage. So, why don’t they? Beside the homophobia and transphobia that still plagues much of the Catholic hierarchy, some other forces are at work.”

Among those “other forces” is the false rumor about international development aid being tied to acceptance of marriage equality.  I described two interviews I had with church leaders when I was in Rome in 2015 covering the Vatican’s Synod on the Family.  I had asked Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle about criminalization laws and part of his answer included that false rumor:

He said a sticking point for bishops on LGBT issues is the refusal of foreign governments and foundations to send humanitarian aid unless marriage equality laws were passed.  Sadly, the archbishop and his confreres believe that notion, even though it is not true. Indeed, many bishops maintain that promoting LGBT equality is a threat to their national sovereignty

I also spoke with Cardinal Peter Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican, whose position on criminalization laws has been ambiguous. When I asked him to clarify it for me, his answer was similar to Palmer-Buckle’s.  He said:My position has had two parts.  Homosexuals cannot be criminalized. Neither can any state be victimized. So, let no state criminalize homosexuals, but let no state be victimized. No state should have aid denied because of this.” So, the untruth persists, and bishops too often allow this falsehood to prevent them from speaking up for LGBT rights, lest they appear to be bowing to foreign pressures.

Speakers for the Intimate Conviction conference gather for a photo.

I also discussed the failure of the “Francis effect” to influence political issues regarding LGBT topics:

Another factor influencing the Catholic discussion on criminalization is the so-called “Francis effect,” meaning a new spirit of openness about LGBT issues that has developed since the papacy of Pope Francis began in 2013. The pope’s new discourse is indeed a major step forward.  However, this new discourse is still very far away from entering into political discussions on LGBT human rights.  When Pope Francis visited Uganda in November 2015, he did not make a statement about the bleak legal situation of LGBT people in that predominantly Catholic nation.  Though he spoke out against oppression in the countries he visited, he would not directly name LGBT oppression.

I did offer some examples of hope, by naming Catholic leaders who have taken strong stands against criminalization laws:

“In India, when the idea of criminalization was reintroduced in 2013, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the president of the Indian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, was the only religious leader in India to speak out opposing such a possibility.

“Similarly, Bishop Gabriel Malzaire of the nearby island of Dominica said that his diocese affirmed the idea that free sexual acts between adult persons must not be treated as crimes to be punished by civil authorities.

“And there have been many more:  the Catholic bishops of South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Ghana, the Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya, the Apostolic Nuncio to Uganda, the Peace and Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, and a group of U.S. Catholic theologians. My own organization, New Ways Ministry, launched the #PopeSpeakOut Twitter campaign. Whenever criminalization laws become news, we ask our supporters on social media to tweet to the Pope to ask him to speak out against these injustices.”

The experience of the conference was one of great international and interfaith solidarity.  It was inspiring to be with so many passionate advocates who are working to end the criminalization of LGBT people.  It was agreed at the end of the meeting that this conference was just the beginning of working together to build a world of justice and equality.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 21, 2017

Related articles:

The Jamaica Gleaner:  “Sodom And Gomorrah Does Not Support Sodomy Law, Says Anglican Archbishop”

The Jamaica Observer: “Archbishop of the WI says Bible does not support anti-sodomy laws”

3 replies
  1. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    Thanks Frank. The simple fact that this conference was held, is an important reminder that even in the Caribbean and in Africa, there is an emerging activist movement for LGBT equality and inclusion – and that activist movement includes people from the faith communities.
    I’ve been engaged for the past few weeks in some major housekeeping at my blog, Queering the Church, which has had me revisiting much of the archived material covering the past nine years. It’s been striking just how much has changed in that short time. One of my first posts concerned John McNeill’s claim that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church was in a Kairos moment of change. On several occasions when I made the point, I was challenged by those claiming that this didn’t apply to the Caribbean and Africa. Reviewing my archives, I am more convinced than ever that McNeill was right.

  2. Bishop Carlos A Florido, osf
    Bishop Carlos A Florido, osf says:

    Thank you Francis De Bernardo, I learned much from your message. I met John McNeil years ago in San Francisco. I am very thankful for the work that you and others are doing for the LGBT community.
    Pax et bonum, +Carlos

  3. Miriam
    Miriam says:

    Thank you. I so much want to hear a strong statement from our church leaders against criminalization of private or personal sexual choices.


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