Jesuit Says Politicians Use Anti-LGBTQ+ Criminalization to Distract from Real Problems

Fr. Joseph Loïc Mben, SJ

A Catholic priest has criticized certain political leaders in Africa for using the criminalization of homosexuality as a diversion from addressing real social problems.  And in a related story, a well-known priest-theologian has made positive comments on Pope Francis’ recent comments on the topic.

Fr. Joseph Loïc Mben, SJ, made his comments in an interview with La Croix International about Pope Francis’ repeated denouncement of anti-LGBTQ+ criminalization laws in late January and early February. Mben, a theologian at the Theological Institute of the Society of Jesus in Ivory Coast, said that while church teaching on homosexuality has not evolved under this pope, it is a “positive thing” that acceptance of gay people is expanding in the church.

Asked about bishops favoring criminalization in view of Francis’ remarks, Mben used the opportunity to critique leaders for neglecting real issues when they focus on anti-LGBTQ+ laws:

“Homosexuality is already criminalized in our African countries in one way or another. The proof is that homosexual marriage, for example, is not allowed and homosexual acts are criminally punished. ‘Criminalization’ adds nothing and is rather part of a political one-upmanship in which governments lacking inspiration in the face of the real problems of our societies seek outlets. We won’t solve the problems of poverty, corruption, nepotism, insecurity and the bad governance that plague our countries by imprisoning gays or lesbians.”

Mben also drew a distinction between questions of criminalization and marriage equality, which are sometimes conflated by LGBTQ-negative leaders to justify their positions:

“For the Church, marriage is a union between one man and one woman. Any other vision contradicts the divine plan that we find in the first two chapters of Genesis. In fact, decriminalization means that a person cannot be prosecuted for a homosexual orientation or acts. This means that, from a legal standpoint, homosexual acts are no longer illegal. But this does not automatically lead to the legal recognition of same-sex unions. The recent history of Western countries is instructive in this regard. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s that same-sex couples were given legal status.”

Previously, Bondings 2.0 reported on other African voices supporting the pope, including Frank Mugisha of Uganda. You can read that report here.

Fr. James Alison

In a related essay, James Alison, a gay priest and theologian, wrote on the significance of Pope Francis’ remarks for The Body. The essay is extensive and worth reading in full. At one point, Alison stated:

“My perspective on these events is that we should ‘take the win’ in two senses. The first is the obvious one: For the first time, the leader of one of the world’s major religious groups has made it clear that whatever one may think of the sinfulness of homosexual acts, none of this justifies criminalizing them.

“Secondly, and less obviously, he bent over backwards, as far as he could, to point out that any sinfulness involved is the same as that of all of us, and certainly not something to be pointed at as characterizing an ‘out group.’ In this, he is entirely different in tone from many of the U.S. Catholic bishops, who seem obsessed with this issue. For reasons that Freud explains, no doubt.”

Much of Alison’s essay traces the history of how church teaching and civil society evolved (or not) on homosexuality, and he reminded readers in the “Anglosphere” that it was not too long ago their own societies still criminalized being LGBTQ+. He concluded:

“I’ve been at this coalface for 35 years, and if you’d told me 15 years ago that we’d be as near as we are now to all of this becoming common sense in the Catholic Church, I would have wanted to know what hallucinogen you were on. But, in fact, as I hope the discussion around the Pope’s calling for decriminalization shows, we’re catching up faster than I could have possibly imagined.”

For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of Pope Francis’ anti-criminalization remarks, click here. For a listing of Catholic leaders’ responses to anti-LGBTQ+ criminalization in recent years, click here. For New Ways Ministry’s resources on ending criminalization, click here.

Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, February 22, 2023

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