A bishop in the Caribbean has called for laws in his country that criminalize homosexuality to be made “null and void.”
Bishop Francis Alleyne of Georgetown, Guyana, made his comments as the keynote speaker at “Intimate Conviction 2: Continuing the Decriminalization Conference,” a gathering that focused on the relationship between religious groups and anti-LGBTQ laws in the Global South. The conference occurred via Zoom from November 25-27, 2020.
Alleyne spoke about his experiences in Guyana, as well as those of his brother bishops in the Antilles Episcopal Conference, which covers 19 dioceses in the Caribbean. The bishop said that in Guyana, criminalization laws are rarely enforced, but when they are, the enforcement is usually done cruelly. Alleyne then stated:
“There is no doubt in my mind that these laws in Guyana should be made null and void.”
The bishop added that in speaking with other Caribbean bishops, eleven of whom serve dioceses where homosexuality is criminalized, the question is “not a front burner issue for them,” but “generally they would have no objection having these laws removed from the books.”
Alleyne’s described his aim in addressing the conference was to offer “something to an important discussion, something that can be freeing, life-giving, and hopefully add to the vocabulary.” Much of his address, therefore, was dedicated to possible pastoral initiatives. Citing a 2013 study on attitudes surrounding homosexuality in the Caribbean, the bishop said even people who condemned lesbian and gay people in the abstract were far more accepting when it came to a loved one or co-worker.
The bishop told the story of a woman estranged from her gay nephew. Yet, when he was dying of AIDS, she overcame the “struggle between her loyalty to church teachings and loyalty to family” and visited him. This act, Alleyne said, “would be an example of a person’s vocabulary increasing while putting fears to rest.” That is precisely what Christians should be doing, he observed.
The Guyanese bishop also spoke about using Scripture responsibly, comparing the conversation on criminalizing homosexuality to a different conversation held in Guyana about corporal punishment. Alleyne commented on how quickly proponents of physical abuse turned to the Bible. He said:
“So often the default response to the topic is to find a scriptural reference and to quote it authoritatively…in doing so, we hide behind texts. We sidestep our responsibility to real people, in real circumstances, in real time. . .If we are going to draw from the texts of Scripture in Christianity, particularly the gospels, they are there to push back boundaries [and to open the possibility of flourishing to all people].”
Alleyne concluded his talk by noting, “The way of love asks much more of us.” It asks us to accompany people, be available to them, and be patient, affirming, and encouraging throughout.
In 2017, Bishop Alleyne co-hosted an interfaith prayer service with the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination to kick off Pride celebrations that year, an event held at the local Catholic Life Centre. The bishop at the time described homosexuality as a “volatile” issue given there was “a lot of fear and insufficient listening to expect an objective response from people.” Alleyne’s response sharply contrasted with, and was criticized by, more conservative Christian groups who made anti-LGBTQ statements about Pride.
Other speakers at both this conference addressed Catholicism and criminalization. Carlos Navarro, co-chair of Mexico Network of Rainbow Catholics (REDCAM), spoke on decriminalization efforts in Latin America. He shared that the day of his presentation at the conference was his tenth wedding anniversary, and encouraged LGBTQ people to avail themselves of their rights once ratified in law. On founding one of Mexico’s first Catholic LGBTQ groups, Navarro said:
“I wanted to go back to my Catholic practice as I had always known it but with people who were like me, and even more important, [to be able to speak about] the way I was.”
Navarro also told attendees about a meeting this year between REDCAM and Mexican church leaders, including Archbishop Rogelio Cabrera López of Monterrey (for Bondings 2.0’s report on that meeting, click here). He concluded that the Catholic Church has often “been a force against LGBTQ rights,” yet he added
“. . . But I’ve also had a chance to talk to cardinals and work with them and bishops conferences. One thing that I have concluded is that these people in positions of power are just as feeble and as limited as we all are. And they just need encouragement. They need to be put in a position that they can actually change things. What I have seen in the Catholic Church, and in our government, and in the U.S. government, is a great potential for good. I think that when they [religious and civic leaders] want to do that, and we press them to do certain things. . .I have seen a church that works for the poor and provides a spiritual accompaniment.”
“Sinnette used his own experiences to make that point that emotional problems for LGBT people are caused not only by homophobic church teachings, but also also by families and schools paying no attention to gay youths’ experiences.
“He told of the isolation, confusion and alienation he experienced when he first felt same-sex attractions as a teenager. The Roman Catholic Church, which had been [‘]a source of comfort’, became a ‘a burdensome place that I painfully endured.’ . . .
“He was not confronted with anti-gay statements at church or in his family. Instead, the topic was never mentioned — as if ‘it were not real and so I believed it was not’.”
These experiences and intensified bullying led Sinnette to engage in self-harm, and he explained about leaving the church, “I was sure that if I wanted to be a good Catholic I would end up killing myself.”
At the first Intimate Conviction conference three years ago, New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo gave an address recounting the all-too-varied ways that Catholic bishops have addressed LGBTQ criminalization laws around the globe, with some opposing the laws while others supported them. You can find his talk here.
Bishop Alleyne’s decision to prioritize the church’s commitment to human rights for all people over a condemnatory sexual ethics is the right approach, and it is the approach that saves lives. When being LGBTQ remains criminalized in 70-plus countries around the globe, more church leaders, especially those in these nations, need to echo Alleyne’s clear call for an end to such discriminatory laws.
New Ways Ministry provides several resources for decriminalization efforts on its website, which are available here. These resources include a chronology of Catholic responses to anti-LGBTQ criminalization since 2009, quotes from Catholics on why they oppose criminalization, and a prayer to end these injustices against LGBTQ people.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 4, 2020