With Pope Francis’ appointment of more cardinals from the Global South, are LGBTQ issues set to be downplayed in the church? Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter makes this claim when analyzing the prelates to be created cardinals on October 5th. But Winters’ analysis takes a very narrow view of the LGBTQ discussion in the church.
One of Winter’s main claims is that “the most significant change in the College of Cardinals that Francis has effected is not so much ideological as it is geographic.” He’s right. Appointing more cardinals from non-Western countries will lead to “a shift in ecclesiological focus” which in Winter’s view means more focus on the poor than their Western counterparts have shown. Western bishops have different priorities, he says:
“In the U.S., the culture warriors on the right focus on fidelity to traditional sexual morality. Culture warriors on the left focus on the same issues, albeit reaching the opposite conclusions. But if you are a cardinal from Indonesia or Guatemala or Congo, restricting or enlarging LGBT rights is not at the top of your agenda. Making sure your flock does not go hungry matters more than whom they go to bed with.”
Winters is correct that Pope Francis’ intends the church to become a “poorer church for the poor,” one led more and more by church leaders on the peripheries. These efforts are indeed good, and why I remain a committed supporter of Francis and his reform agenda. But Winters’ mention of hunger being more important “than whom they go to bed with” indicates that he agrees with non-Western bishops who want to compartmentalize LGBTQ issues only as questions of sexual morality without looking at the social implications of discrimination. LGBTQ equality is foremost about social justice, a cause fully in keeping with the pope’s pursuit of a just church pursuing justice in the world. Helping LGBTQ people, whether in the Western world or the developing world, means protecting their dignity, their safety, and their freedom.
By not seeing that LGBTQ people in the developing world are a special case of the “poor,” with whom the church is called to be in solidarity, Winters and non-Western bishops miss the mark. In 72 nations, it is criminal to be LGBTQ. Some of those nations punish homosexuality with the death penalty. LGBTQ people in these nations, and many others where homo/transphobic attitudes persist, face severe violence and threats of violence on a daily basis. Transgender and gender non-conforming people are among the most likely of any marginalized community to be subjected to attacks. Nearly 3,000 have been murdered in the last decade, and these numbers are rising dramatically, reports the Trans Murder Monitoring Project. Worldwide, LGBTQ people face widespread discrimination that curtails their flourishing. These communities are economically poorer than heterosexual and cisgender counterparts. To separate out suffering LGBTQ communities from the “poor” is to, once again, erase the very marginalized peoples Pope Francis demands the church accompany.
Winters’ strategy of opposing social issues to sexual ones, and Western bishops to those in the developing world clouds the complexity of how church leaders in the Global South have engaged LGBTQ issues. Far from being unconcerned with whom people in their nations “go to bed with,” many prelates from the Global South are obsessed with LGBTQ issues far exceeding their Western counterparts. Recently, some of the most vicious anti-LGBTQ statements from Catholic leaders have come from these parts of the world. Yet, there have also been prelates on record opposing anti-LGBTQ criminalization and advocating for non-discrimination protections. New Ways Ministry’s list of church leaders’ responses on criminalization issues shows the mixture of positive and negative voices coming from Catholic bishops in the Global South. Like any context, how Catholics engage LGBTQ issues is diverse. But in contradiction to Winters’ belief that LGBTQ issues are not high on these bishops’ agenda, we have seen too many bishops from places like Indonesia and Guatemala and Congo who are concerned with LGBTQ issues.
Winters omits an important reality: LGBTQ equality will continue to be an issue on the church’s agenda because the faithful wish it to be so. While historically that may be truer of the faithful in the Western church, realities are changing quickly around the globe. Attending the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics assembly earlier this summer, I powerfully witnessed that LGBTQ equality is no longer a Western issue, if it ever was. LGBTQ Catholics in the Philippines, Uganda, Mexico, and other Global South nations are demanding their place not only in society, but in the church. Pope Francis has focused on appointing pastoral bishops, bishops far more invested in accompaniment than exclusion. In doing so, he is ensuring that the cries of LGBTQ people worldwide will not go unheeded.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 16, 2019