Last week’s wonderful news that India’s Supreme Court decriminalized consensual sex between adults, in effect decriminalizing lesbian and gay relations, has rightly been received by accolades from around the globe. The New York Times reported that the gay ban was one of the oldest in the world and that the court declared it “irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary.” The court’s decision also ordered that gay and lesbian Indians receive all of the protections of the nation’s Constitution.
Unmentioned, though, in all of the responses is the fact in 2013 when the court had declared lesbian and gay sexual activity as a “crime against nature,” setting off the recent debate, the only religious leader in India who spoke out for the rights of these sexual minorities was Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay, who at the time was also president of the Indian Catholic bishops’ conference. (He was re-elected president in February 2018.) Bondings 2.0 reported on Gracias’ support at the time, quoting his statement:
“[T]he Catholic Church has never been opposed to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, because we have never considered gay people criminals. As Christians, we express our full respect for homosexuals. The Catholic Church is opposed to the legalisation of gay marriage, but teaches that homosexuals have the same dignity of every human being and condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, harassment or abuse.”
In the same year, Gracias also directed his priests to speak more sensitively about LGBT people.
That wasn’t Gracias’ only intervention. In 2015, he stated in an interview with The Hindu Times:
“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.”
“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. . . .
“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.”
Also in 2015, in an exclusive interview with Bondings 2.0 during the Vatican’s synod on the family, Gracias said that his message to LGBT people is:
“The Church embraces you, wants you, and the Church needs you.”
In 2016, in an interview with The Hindustan Times, Gracias again spoke out against the criminalization law, saying:
“I have met some groups and associations of LGBTs and I had an understanding for them. I don’t want them to feel ostracised. . .I feel that homosexuality should not be criminalised. For me it’s a question of understanding that it’s an orientation. . .
“I believe maybe people have this orientation that God has given them and for this reason they should not be ostracised from society. The Church is concerned, and if you’re Christian or Catholic and if you’re part of the Church you have to have compassion, sympathy and understanding toward them.”
The law, known as Section 377, which India’s Supreme Court overturned was a hold over from the days of British colonial rule and was still being enforced. The New York Times report said
“. . .for gays in India, prison was only one of the risks. The law was often used as a cudgel to intimidate, blackmail and abuse. . . . Many gays feared that if they reported crimes like rape, they would be the ones arrested. Some gay people shared stories about being raped by police officers and then threatened with jail time if they ever came forward.”
The Times also made the observation that though the law has changed, there is still much work to be done in India in regard to social and cultural attitudes toward gay and lesbian people:
“. . . [H]owever historic the ruling of the court, considered a liberal counterweight to the conservative politics sweeping India, gay people here know that their landscape remains treacherous. Changing a law is one thing — changing deeply held mind-sets another. And few suggested that other major victories, like same-sex marriage, were on the near horizon.
“Many Indians are extremely socially conservative, going to great lengths to arrange marriages with the right families, of the right castes. Loved ones who try to rebel are often ostracized. Countless gays have been shunned by their parents and persecuted by society.”
Interestingly, the article points out, Hinduism, the dominant religion in India, is accepting of same-gender relationships. The Hindu political party in power, which is very conservative, did not take a stand on Section 377. It was Christian groups in India who put up the most aggressive defense of keeping the criminalization law in place.
It is precisely because of the Christian opposition homosexuality in India that makes Cardinal Gracias’ stand so significant. 28 million Christians live in India, making up only about 2.5% of the population. Of the 28 million, about 17 million are Catholic. So the cardinal’s stand can help to sway more than half of the Christian population of the country.
It is inspiring that Cardinal Gracias, who is a close advisor to Pope Francis, has made such strong statements for gay and lesbian acceptance. We wish bishops in other nations where LGBT people face oppressive and often violent discrimination would follow his example.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, September 11, 2018