A Catholic Perspective on LGBT Criminalisation Laws

Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director of the New Ways Ministry, at the conference “When Identity Becomes a Crime: The Criminalization of Homosexuality Globally” in the Capitoline Museum (Rome, Italy) on 11 October 2014

Buona sera! I must begin by noting that it’s a double honor for me to be here tonight. First, because my academic background is in classical rhetoric, it is a special honor for me to be able to give a speech on the Capitoline Hill, overlooking the Forum. I hope that the spirit of that famous Roman orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, will assist me tonight.
But, more importantly, it is a humbling honor to share the podium this evening with such a distinguished group of courageous human rights leaders. Their witness and testimony is inspiring many people around the globe, including myself.

I am here before you tonight primarily because I am a Catholic. My work with New Ways Ministry in the United States and internationally on LGBT issues all stems from my faith identity. I work for justice and equality for LGBT people because I am a Catholic, not in spite of being Catholic. My inspiration comes from my church’s legacy of saints and ordinary people who have struggled and worked for the human rights of all people. I am talking of people like Archbishop Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, Pope John XXIII, Dorothy Day, Robert Kennedy, Mother Catherine Drexel of Philadelphia, Franz Jaegerstatter, and Latin America’s Mothers of the Disappeared. For my generation, the question of human rights has focused on sexual orientation and gender identity, and the same Catholic tradition of social justice, human dignity, and equal respect applies to these topics, as it has in the past for the issues of race, creed, national origin, and social class.

Since the 1970s, when the question of sexual and gender minorities first began to be discussed in the United States and Western Europe, Catholics began to apply the church’s social justice tradition to this group of long-oppressed minorities. The Catholic Church teaches that all people are born with human dignity, and that all people, regardless of their situation in life, must be respected and treated equally. There are no exceptions. The Catholic Church teaches that people’s human rights must be defended, especially by the state. Catholic teaching explicitly condemns discrimination and prejudice against gay and lesbian people. Over the years the message of LGBT dignity and equality began to trickle down from academic and ecclesiastical circles to the people in the pews. And these people support the human rights of LGBT people because they are Catholic, not in spite of being Catholic.

Yet, when it comes to applying Catholic human rights teaching to the topic of criminalization laws, the Catholic Church has had two faces. While some Catholics have opposed the repressive laws, others have supported them. This duplicity reveals the tension that exists in Catholic teaching about homosexuality between the social justice tradition which promotes human rights, and the sexual ethics tradition which does not approve homosexual relationships. Additionally, a great deal of cultural homophobia has also entered the discussion.

As for those bishops who have supported repressive laws, I don’t want to give their messages the dignity of being repeated here tonight because they are so harmful. I will say simply that there is a terrible record of local bishops giving their blessings in several nations to repressive and discriminatory laws which violate the human rights of lesbian and gay people.

Catholic leaders have supported these laws not only by their verbal statements, but with their public gestures. Pope Benedict XVI received Ugandan legislator Rebecca Kagada in the Vatican at the time that the anti-gay bill she was promoting was being debated in her country. Even Pope Francis received Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan soon after he signed that country’s anti-gay bill, and the pope said nothing to him about the matter other than a vague reference to promoting human rights. Such mixed signals and vague statements fuel the homophobia that is causing violence.

But Catholics have also opposed these laws, and have even criticized their leaders for their complicity in such legislation. A Catholic South African newspaper criticized the bishops of that continent for their involvement with the legislation by either outright support or by remaining cowardly on the sidelines when such laws are being discussed. The newspaper’s editorial stated:

Alas, the Church has been silent, in some cases even quietly complicit, in the discourse on new homophobic laws. This absence of intervention for justice may well be interpreted, wrongly or not, as approval of injustice, in line with the maxim, “Qui tacet, consentire videtur.” (silence gives consent).

The editorial went on to specifically criticize the Ugandan bishops in no uncertain terms, saying of them:

Their position is in conflict with Catholic teachings. The Church cannot sponsor the criminalisation of matters of private morality, and much less the advocacy of human rights. Prejudice and the persecution of homosexuals are in defiance of Catholic doctrine. Jailing homosexuals for being gay and insisting on their human rights, or even for having sex, self-evidently is a sign of “unjust discrimination” that lacks in respect and compassion.

Similar statements have come from Catholic leaders, including the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and CAFOD, the UK’s Catholic international relief organization. Many lay Catholic associations have done similarly. But the Church needs to amplify this voice by speaking clearly and strongly. When they don’t, the results are disastrous.

Just this past week at the synod here in Rome, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Nigeria, explained that the Catholic bishops did not support that country’s anti-gay bill. This was a surprise to many, since Kaigama himself and other Nigerian bishops initially praised the bill and President Jonathan for signing it. This week, Kaigama explained that he had not been supporting the bill in its entirety, but only the portions that applied to outlawing marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Perhaps that is true, but the archbishop must take responsibility for the fact that in a volatile political debate, his supposedly nuanced comments were insufficient and ineffective in condemning the abusive sections of the bill. Why didn’t he speak out clearly and strongly against the portions of the bill that imposed harsh penalties for orientation? If indeed he did not support the bill in its entirety, why did he praise it for the parts he liked but not condemn the parts he did not like? Why don’t church leaders defend the human rights of lesbian and gay people with the same vigor and forthrightness that they defend traditional heterosexual marriage?

Bishops like Kaigama must learn the lessons of history that whenever laws have restricted people’s freedoms or viewed certain groups as second class citizens, it doesn’t take long for human rights abuses and violence to break out. Jim Crow America and Nazi Germany spring quickly to mind. Laws which restrict freedom or create second class categories give the state and its citizenry permission to enact hateful acts. When religious leaders voice their support of such laws or promote misinformation about people’s lives, they not only give permission for people to commit hateful acts, but, in fact, they encourage such behavior.
I have seen this in my own nation of the United States, where the American bishops continue to speak out strongly and harshly against marriage equality for lesbian and gay people, but never speak out at all to promote laws which would suppress bullying of lesbian and gay youth or discrimination against lesbian and gay adults. In effect, the message the bishops send to Catholics and others is that lesbian and gay people do not deserve the same human rights as everyone else.

In a more positive light, there is hope in the fact that Pope Francis has been trying to get the church back on a human rights trajectory after too many decades when human rights and social justice took a back seat to concerns about sexuality as the only important issue of morality. But if the Pope wants to speak for the oppressed, one of the best places he can start is to speak for oppressed gay and lesbian people. My organization, New Ways Ministry, has initiated a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #PopeSpeakOut, where we are asking people all over the globe to send a tweet to Pope Francis urging him to speak out against laws which oppress LGBT people.

The pope must speak out clearly. Vague statements are not enough. We need our Catholic bishops to be bold and courageous. We need bishops to speak clearly and certainly on human rights issues, with the same force that they have spoken on sexuality issues. For a church with such a strong pro-life record, it is astonishing that many bishops do not see this is a pro-life issues. With bishops gathered here in Rome at the synod, it is a perfect time for them to issue a strong and clear statement opposing anti-LGBT laws, as a way of protecting and defending families with LGBT members.

Another important step that Pope Francis can take is to establish a program to educate bishops, cardinals, and other church leaders about the basic facts of sexual orientation and the basic principles of Catholic social teaching on human rights. The language that some bishops have used about lesbian and gay people reveal a shocking ignorance of both basic information about homosexuality and also the ways that official doctrine defends the human rights of lesbian and gay people Without such education, the hierarchy’s ignorance will continue to fuel human rights abuses and violence against LGBT people.
The bishops’ ignorance on these matters may be pitied, but it cannot be tolerated. Too many lives hang in the balance.

Thank you.