An international conference examining the church and anti-sodomy laws across the Commonwealth
University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica
October 12, 2017
Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry
Good afternoon. It is an honor to be among such an august group of presenters who have been passionately working to end oppression against LGBT people which is too often fueled by incorrect understandings of religious ideas.
My name is Francis DeBernardo, and I am from the United States where I serve as the executive director of New Ways Ministry, a national Roman Catholic ministry of justice and reconciliation which builds bridges between the LGBT community and the Roman Catholic Church. So I bring greetings and a report from across the Tiber!
I would like to briefly present some thoughts about the Roman Catholic tradition and how some of its leaders have used our tradition to both support and oppose criminalization laws: a very schizophrenic situation. I will give you some theology, an analysis of the current hierarchical atmosphere, and some hopes for the future.
The reason that some Roman Catholic leaders have taken opposite positions about criminalization laws is because my church’s discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity is influenced by two moral traditions which sometimes come into conflict with each other: the social justice tradition and the sexual ethics tradition.
Briefly, the Catholic social justice tradition promotes the idea that the human dignity of all people, regardless of their state and condition in life, deserves respect and protection by law and by actions. All people are considered equal in dignity, with those who are poor or marginalized deserving the Church’s preferential treatment. Church documents have acknowledged this tradition applies to the situation of LGBT people, particularly in situations where their human rights are denied. In fact, in 2008, the Vatican’s representative to the UN General Assembly said that the Holy See “continues to advocate that every sign of unjust discrimination towards homosexual persons should be avoided and urges states to do away with criminal penalties against them.”
Yet, LGBT issues in Catholicism are also considered through the lens of the church’s sexual ethics tradition, which states that all human beings are either male or female, that procreative possibility is essential for all sexual activity, and that sexual activity is permitted only within the context of heterosexual marriage.
So, it comes down to: how does a church leader respect the human rights of LGBT people while not appearing to approve of sexual activity that the Church condemns? Which tradition should govern this topic? For some bishops, this is not a problem. But, too often other Catholic leaders have erred shamefully in prizing the sexual ethics tradition over the social justice tradition, and so they have remained silent, complicit, and even at times supportive of laws that criminalize LGBT people.
But if a balance existed between these two traditions, then we should see Catholic leaders defending the human rights of LGBT people with the same vigor and forthrightness that they defend traditional heterosexual marriage. So, why don’t they? Beside the homophobia and transphobia that still plagues much of the Catholic hierarchy, some other forces are at work.
In 2015, I received press credentials to cover the Vatican’s Synod on the Family, an international gathering of bishops in Rome which discussed sexuality, marriage, and family. At a press conference, I addressed Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle, the archbishop of Accra in Ghana, and I pointed out to him that while many African bishops have spoken vocally against marriage for lesbian and gay couples, many fewer have spoken as vocally against criminalization laws against gay and lesbian people. I asked him “Do you think that the African bishops, or indeed any bishops, would support a statement from the synod condemning the criminalization of lesbian and gay people?”
He said a sticking point for bishops on LGBT issues is the refusal of foreign governments and foundations to send humanitarian aid unless marriage equality laws were passed. Sadly, the archbishop and his confreres believe that notion, even though it is not true. Indeed, many bishops maintain that promoting LGBT equality is a threat to their national sovereignty
I also spoke with Cardinal Peter Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican, whose position on criminalization laws has been ambiguous. When I asked him to clarify it for me, his answer was similar to Palmer-Buckle’s. He said: “My position has had two parts. Homosexuals cannot be criminalized. Neither can any state be victimized. So, let no state criminalize homosexuals, but let no state be victimized. No state should have aid denied because of this.” So, the untruth persists, and bishops too often allow this falsehood to prevent them from speaking up for LGBT rights, lest they appear to be bowing to foreign pressures.
Another factor influencing the Catholic discussion on criminalization is the so-called “Francis effect,” meaning a new spirit of openness about LGBT issues that has developed since the papacy of Pope Francis began in 2013. The pope’s new discourse is indeed a major step forward. However, this new discourse is still very far away from entering into political discussions on LGBT human rights. When Pope Francis visited Uganda in November 2015, he did not make a statement about the bleak legal situation of LGBT people in that predominantly Catholic nation. Though he spoke out against oppression in the countries he visited, he would not directly name LGBT oppression.
In a similar vein, Cardinal Turkson echoed the pope’s reserve on this issue when I asked him what he would say to politicians who supported criminalization laws. Turkson’s answer: “I don’t think that we should be condemning anybody. People need to grow.” That kind of sympathy for politicians is never evident in Catholic hierarchical statements on issues like abortion and birth control.
Another dimension of the Francis effect has been the pope’s move to decentralize church authority away from the Vatican and out to local bishops. While such a policy allows for better decision-making on many church matters, in regard to criminalization laws, it allows local ignorance and fear of LGBT issues to perpetuate injustices.
So, in this vague and ambiguous ecclesial environment, we have seen Roman Catholic bishops in Malawi, Uganda, Cameroon, and Nigeria supporting criminalization laws, and in other situations, including here in Jamaica under the previous archbishop, bishops have refused to speak out against them. Still, there is room for hope, thanks to some brave leaders and individuals. In India, when the idea of criminalization was reintroduced in 2013, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the president of the Indian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, was the only religious leader in India to speak out opposing such a possibility.
Similarly, Bishop Gabriel Malzaire of the nearby island of Dominica said that his diocese affirmed the idea that free sexual acts between adult persons must not be treated as crimes to be punished by civil authorities.
And there have been many more: the Catholic bishops of South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Ghana, the Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya, the Apostolic Nuncio to Uganda, the Peace and Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, and a group of U.S. Catholic theologians. My own organization, New Ways Ministry, launched the #PopeSpeakOut Twitter campaign. Whenever criminalization laws become news, we ask our supporters on social media to tweet to the Pope to ask him to speak out against these injustices. (See: https://www.newwaysministry.org/2014/01/23/tweet-the-pope-to-save-lgbt-people-around-the-world/ ) On New Ways Ministry’s daily blog about Catholic LGBT issues, we cover criminalization news and opinion about church leaders, and we have a category for these stories which will filter out these posts for you. (See: https://www.newwaysministry.org/category/criminalization-laws/ )
In closing, I’d like to say that in its Catholic social justice tradition, Roman Catholicism has the tools to oppose criminalization laws against LGBT people. No doctrinal argument prevents bishops from speaking out, and in fact, our tradition actually compels them to do so. Catholic leaders should defend LGBT human rights because these leaders are Catholic, not in spite of their Catholic identity. Catholic bishops need to live up to the best ideals of our tradition, move past homophobia and transphobia, and bad information, so they can help build the reign of God on earth, where all are equal and free.
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