Brazil’s bishops have expressed concern about a high court’s ruling that homophobia and transphobia should be criminalized as an offense equivalent to racism.
The nation’s Supreme Court ruled in mid-June that anti-LGBTQ violence and hate speech should be criminalized in the same way that race-based discrimination is. But church officials have said the ruling potentially imperils religious liberty. Crux reported that Archbishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo of Belo Horizonte, head of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (NCBB), defended Catholics’ ability to preach church teaching on marriage and sexuality unimpeded. He wrote:
“We hope the competent authorities recognize themselves as pilgrims in search of the truth – and not as the owners of the truth. Therefore, they will realize that the freedom of religion, secured by the Federal Constitution, presupposes the preservation of moral codes rooted in faith. This way, they will respect freedom of religion in judiciary decisions concerning the criminalization of homophobia. . .In this sense, the NCBB … asked for more clarity in the processes in action in the judiciary system, so that the limits of interpretation do not generate attacks to untouchable values based on faith.”
The Supreme Court, however, rejects the argument that religious liberty is being infringed. It affirmed in its decision that religious leaders may “freely preach and publicize, through word, images or any other means, their thought” as long as such preaching does not incite anti-LGBTQ hate crimes. Brazil’s Congress could act to change the criminalization ruling.
A scholar at São Paulo’s Pontifical Catholic University, Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, offered a moderate take on the ruling. He said the Supreme Court “pretty much protects the churches” in being able to preach LGBTQ-negative teachings. But Ribeiro Neto somewhat defended the bishops’ position, suggesting it was less extreme than Protestant leaders’ denunciations of the court ruling:
“According to Ribeiro Neto, the Brazilian episcopate generally accepts Pope Francis’s pastoral stance concerning the LGBT community, being open to welcome all persons without compromising the orthodox doctrine.
“‘Since the Military dictatorship [1964-1985], the Brazilian bishops have been welcoming people that, in other circumstances, could be seen as their opponents. So, they have a flexible way of dealing with many social groups, and that includes the LGBT community. There’s a tradition of dialogue.'”
While not every bishop may follow Pope Francis’ lead, several have. The secretary general of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Leonardo Steiner, endorsed civil unions for same-gender couples and identified pastoral accompaniment of LGBTQ people back in 2014. That same year, the Archdiocese of São Paulo’s Justice and Peace Commission released a statement for Pride which stated:
“We can not remain silent in the face of the reality experienced by this population that is the target of prejudice and victim of systematic violation of their fundamental rights, such as health, education, work, housing, culture, among others…[P]eople of good will, and in particular all Christians, reflect on this deeply unfair reality of LGBT people and to actively engage in their overcoming it, guided by the supreme principle of human dignity.”
More recently, there are reports that a handful of dioceses have initiated LGBTQ pastoral programs. And bishops’ efforts are supported by many Brazilian Catholics, 60% of whom responded to a survey that church teaching on homosexuality needed to re-evaluated.
Brazil’s bishops are in a delicate situation. There is no defense for criminalizing church leaders’ respectful and responsible stating of teachings on homosexuality, marriage, etc. If the Supreme Court’s ruling were interpreted as such, there may be merit to the bishops’ concerns. But their concerns must be balanced by a firm commitment to LGBTQ human rights in a country which is led by one of the world’s most homophobia leaders, Jair Bolsonaro, and which has one of the world’s highest anti-LGBTQ murder rates. They cannot forget that resisting anti-LGBTQ discrimination is an important part of church teaching on homosexuality.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 7, 2019