Anti-LGBTQ Criminalization & the Catholic Church: A Chronology
Despite clear indications that criminalizing a person because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression violates Church teaching, responses from Catholics to anti-LGBTQ human rights abuses have been a mixed bag of both support for and opposition to punitive laws. The Vatican made its opposition to anti-LGBTQ criminalization known as early as 2009. Yet, to this day, some bishops have voiced their support for discriminatory laws.
The following is a chronology of notable statements, publications, and actions related to anti-LGBTQ criminalization. If any important items are missing, please send the information to info@NewWaysMinistry.org.
Compiled by Robert Shine, Associate Director, New Ways Ministry
(Last updated: July 14, 2019)
January 2009: The Vatican calls for the decriminalization of homosexuality and condemns all forms of violence and “unjust discrimination,” including the death penalty and torture, against lesbian and gay people. Yet, the Holy See refuses to back a United Nations resolution towards that end because the resolution uses the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” which the Holy See perceives as problematic under international law.
December 2009: Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga of Kampala rejects attempts to pass an Anti-Homosexuality bill in Uganda, saying during a Christmas address that the legislation “does not pass a test of a Christian caring approach to this issue,” in part because it seeks the death penalty for lesbian and gay people.
March 2012: Speaking at New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, criticizes Church teaching for contributing to anti-LGBTQ human rights violations.
June 2012: Uganda’s bishops reverse their opposition to proposed legislation to further criminalize homosexuality, joining an ecumenical statement in support of such a law which at one point had included the death penalty.
July 2012: Twenty-eight prominent Catholics join a solidarity letter from U.S. Christian leaders to LGBTQ people in Uganda who were facing renewed efforts at criminalizing homosexuality.
August 2012: Thomas Patrick Melady, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, urges religious leaders to condemn efforts to criminalize homosexuality, noting that a key impetus of such efforts are U.S. missionaries who act “contrary to the Christian tradition.”
November 2012: Students at Yale University and the University of Notre Dame organize petitions that call on U.S. Catholic leaders to urge their Ugandan counterparts to oppose efforts at further criminalizing homosexuality.
December 2012: The Equally Blessed coalition releases a statement to the U.S. bishops asking them to intervene with Uganda’s bishops against proposed legislation in that nation which would make homosexuality punishable by death. The proposed legislation, the coalition states, “clearly conflicts with the values expressed by the Vatican [in 2009] and held deeply by faithful Catholics.”
July 2013: Archbishop Charles Daniel Balvo, papal nuncio to Kenya, appeals to Kenyans not to discriminate against lesbian and gay people. But Cardinal John Njue, president of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, contradicts Balvo, rebuking U.S. President Barack Obama who had called on African nations to decriminalize homosexuality. Njue says Kenyans needed to live according to their own traditions and faith and that “those people who have already ruined their society…let them not become our teachers to tell us where to go.”
December 2013: Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, then head of Indian bishops’ conference, is one of India’s only religious leaders who publicly criticizes the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate a ban on homosexuality. Gracias says the Church “has never been opposed to the decriminalization of homosexuality, because we have never considered gay people criminals.”
December 2013: Archbishop Michael Blume, papal nuncio to Uganda, responds to the email of a New Ways Ministry volunteer concerned with that nation’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Blume responds that he is monitoring the situation and emphasizes the Ugandan bishops’ previous opposition to such measures in 2009.
January 2014: New Ways Ministry launches the #PopeSpeakOut campaign which calls on Pope Francis to condemn publicly the criminalization of homosexuality and other anti-LGBTQ laws.
February 2014: Southern Cross, the weekly newspaper of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, publishes an editorial against “draconian legislation aimed at criminalising homosexuals” which have the potential “to tear at the fabric of society.” In an essay which is later reposted by the Vatican’s official news source, the editors write, “. . . [T]he Church should present herself as compassionate and courageous in standing with the those living in fear. African bishops especially ought to speak out, as loudly as they do on same-sex marriage, against the discriminatory legislation and violence directed at homosexuals, many of whom are fellow Catholics. Where is the prophetic voice of the Church in condemning the general homophobia in society?”
February 2014: Nigeria’s Catholic bishops applaud the passage of legislation which imposes up to a 14-year prison sentence for people who enter a same-gender marriage and threatens to jail LGBTQ who gather together for up to a decade. Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos describes the law as “a courageous one and a clear indication” of the nation’s high values. Other bishops join him with their own statements.
February 2014: America publishes an editorial against Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Law claiming “the church’s support for traditional marriage, moreover, must be accompanied by advocacy for the human rights of gays and lesbians in equal measure.” It continued: “The church must oppose violence against gay persons and should strongly advocate for the decriminalization of homosexuality. No one should be subject to a criminal penalty simply for being gay. If laws like these do not constitute the ‘unjust discrimination’ against gay people that the church rightly denounces, then what possibly could?”
February 2014: Fr. James Martin, SJ, denounces Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality bill and similar legislation, posting on Facebook, ““Every Catholic, every Christian, every person, should oppose these laws. Every Catholic, every Christian, every person is called to love their brothers and sisters–straight or gay. Period.”
February 2014: The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), affiliated with the English bishops’ conference, condemns Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Law as its fears the law will lead to increased violence against lesbian and gay people or those people who are suspected of being lesbian or gay.
February 2014: Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, states his opposition to the criminalization of homosexuality as an affront to human dignity.
April 2014: Uganda’s bishops celebrate passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Law which intensifies punishments against people convicted of homosexuality. For instance, during his Easter Sunday homily, Bishop Charles Wamika of Jinja reportedly encouraged parents to turn their lesbian and gay children into police so they could be rewarded in heaven. Elsewhere, Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga joined an interfaith contingent in honoring the nation’s president for his role in signing the new anti-LGBTQ law.
August 2014: Monsignor Robert Vitillo, an HIV/AIDS advisor to Caritas International, said during the 20th International AIDS Conference that anti-LGBTQ laws often cause “more discrimination, even violence, against sexual minorities” and nothing in Catholic teaching condones such abuse.
August 2014: After reports that six LGBTQ people were stoned to death, Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu says Ugandans “should not take laws into our hands to harm and hate the homosexuals because we all have weaknesses.” This comment was the first time a bishop in Uganda had spoken in defense of LGBTQ people’s human rights since renewed efforts to criminalize homosexuality in the nation began four years prior.
June 2015: The Global Network of Rainbow Catholics responds to the Instrumentum Laboris for the 2015 Synod on the Family with proposed language for the bishops to unequivocally condemn the criminalization of and violence towards LGBTQ people globally.
July 2015: Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, says decriminalizing homosexuality leads to “festering of the homosexual culture/subculture.”
October 2015: At a press conference during the Synod on the Family, Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana was asked by New Ways Ministry’s Francis DeBernardo about whether bishops would support a statement that condemns anti-LGBTQ criminalization. He repeated that LGBTQ people need to have their dignity “respected and upheld,” but appealed for others to “be patient with Africa” on these issues because “we are growing.”
October 2015: Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay tells New Ways Ministry’s Francis DeBernardo during the Synod on the Family that he is convinced homosexuality will be decriminalized as it is only “a question of time” and that “this is what the Church would want.”
October 2015: Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, tells New Ways Ministry’s Francis DeBernardo at the Synod on the Family that “homosexuals cannot be criminalized,” but that non-Western countries are still growing in acceptance and “it can take time.” He adds, “I would tell them that [homosexual] people are not criminals. It is not a crime. A crime is something that hurts another human being. This is not a situation where people are getting hurt.”
December 2015: Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay reiterates his opposition to India’s Section 377 law that criminalizes homosexuality, a position which the cardinal says is backed by the Vatican.
December 2015: LGBTQ advocates criticize Pope Francis for not publicly supporting LGBTQ human rights during his Apostolic Voyage to Kenya, Uganda, and Central African Republic. The pope’s silence, says Ugandan activist Frank Mugisha, “will go down in history.” But Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi explains that in one of the pope’s calls for people to build a just society, a reference to “without excluding anyone” would, in Lombardi’s words, “also include people with homosexual tendencies.”
February 2016: The National Episcopal Conference of Cameroon unanimously approves a statement of “zero tolerance” on homosexuality that describes being lesbian or gay as “this abominable thing that goes against nature risks becoming a social outbreak.” Cameroon criminalizes homosexuality and has been identified as one of Africa’s most dangerous countries for LGBTQ people.
March 2016: Malawi’s bishops released a pastoral letter for the Jubilee Year of Mercy in which they described their government’s decision to put a moratorium on homosexuality prosecutions as an “act of betrayal” by those who “sell our country to foreign practices and tendencies contrary to the will of God.”
July 2016: Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, expresses hope that India’s Supreme Court will legalize homosexuality. Gracias says, “I feel that homosexuality should not be criminalised. For me, it’s a question of understanding that it’s an orientation.”
November 2016: The Global Network of Rainbow Catholics chooses the theme of “Hear a Just Cause” (Psalm 17:1) for its second assembly, in part to highlight the plight of LGBTQ people globally who suffer from the criminalization of homosexuality and call on Pope Francis to speak clearly against such laws.
January 2017: Malawi’s bishops play a leading role in a coalition of anti-LGBTQ groups that marches against, among other social issues, the legalization of homosexuality, something which the coalition describes as a “direct attack” on family life.
May 2017: Addressing New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Ugandan LGBTQ activist Frank Mugisha exhorts Catholics to “stand up, speak out” after detailing the daily abuses LGBTQ people face in his country where homosexuality is criminalized.
April 2017: LGBT+ Catholics Westminster, an official pastoral ministry of the Diocese of Westminster, organizes behind Godfrey Kawalya, a member who is seeking asylum because he is gay. Top Catholic leaders sign a petition calling on the British government to not deport Kawalya back to Uganda.
August 2017: Church leaders in Cameroon claim that a bishop who police say likely died by suicide was actually murdered by gay priests. Bishop George Nkuo compared the bishop’s death to Christ’s crucifixion, saying “it’s a beautiful way to die” when standing up for truth. These leaders comments potentially amplify already heated prejudices in Cameroon, which considered one of the most dangerous nations for LGBTQ people.
March 2018: Bishop Lawrence Nicasio of Belize City-Belmopan, Belize withdraws the Church’s appeal of a court’s 2016 ruling that struck down that nation’s anti-sodomy law, ending challenges to decriminalization there.
March 2018: Ssenfuka Joanita Warry, a lesbian activist from Uganda, makes an impassioned call for Pope Francis and Church leaders to oppose the criminalization of homosexuality. During an event for International Women’s Day, Warry stated, “Our religious leaders hold the key to saving lives of many LGBT people – and not only in Africa. If the Vatican calls out against the criminalization of homosexuality and defends gay people who are ultimately being violated just for who they are, then we could have some hope.”
April 2018: Responding to a Trinidad and Tobago court’s decision to overturn a law criminalizing homosexuality, Archbishop Jason Gordon of Port-of-Spain says the Church “does not believe that buggery should be criminalised at this time” and that “any country that has buggery as a criminal offence, that the church should find ways to remove it from statute books.”
September 2018: Archbishop William Goh of Singapore publishes a letter on the country’s Section 377A which criminalizes homosexuality. While saying he supports decriminalizing homosexuality generally, repealing this specific law without certain conditions would be a “slippery path of no return” towards further LGBTQ rights and even the criminalization of people who oppose LGBTQ equality. He calls on Catholics to firmly oppose efforts at repeal as a result.
November 2018: Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, and Sr. Jeannine Gramick, its co-founder, sign an open letter from faith leaders that calls on government officials in nine Caribbean nations to decriminalize homosexuality.
December 2018: Cardinal Polycarp Pengo of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania announces during Mass that “it is better to die of hunger than to receive aid and be compelled to do things that are contrary to God’s desire,” a reference to accepting homosexuality. Pengo also praised the government’s stance of criminalizing homosexuality. His comments came amid renewed persecution of LGBTQ people in Tanzania that caused hundreds to flee or go into hiding.
April 2019: Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, meets with 50 LGBTQ advocates who present him with preliminary research on anti-LGBTQ criminalization in the Caribbean. The meeting is called a “great step forward” by New Ways Ministry, but LGBTQ advocates are clear it is only the first step when more action by Church leaders is urgently needed.
June 2019: Two bishops in Kenya, Cardinal John Njue and Bishop Alfred Rotich, applaud a ruling by that nation’s High Court which keeps homosexuality criminalized.