The determination of some commentators to scrape the barrel in their attempt to depict the Catholic Church as a homophobic institution reached yet another new low last weekend when the Guardian and online ‘gay news service’ Pink News ran articles (‘The disgrace of papal blessing for Ugandan homophobia’ and ‘The leadership of the Catholic Church are hate-fuelled bigots’) which bizarrely alleged that the Pope endorses the criminalising of homosexuality in Africa.
The opposite is true: the Vatican seeks to end criminal penalties and any other unjust forms of discrimination against gay people.
Jill Filipovic’s Guardian piece, hailed as ‘excellent’ by George Monbiot, could hardly have been less accurate or more error-strewn. It centred on the defamatory claim that in the eyes of the Catholic Church, “pushing for legislation that kills gay people is worthy of a blessing.”
“Just around the same time the pope was drafting his first tweet,” writes Filipovic, “he met with Ugandan parliamentary speaker Rebecca Kadaga, who had earlier promised to level the death penalty for gays as a ‘Christmas present’ to the Ugandan people (minus, one assumes, the Ugandans who will be murdered because of their sexual orientation). She received a private audience with the pope, and a blessing.”
Filipovic supports her claim by citing a piece by the US-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which has the good grace to admit ignorance as to what words passed between the Pope and Speaker Kadaga; and which recognises that, whatever the Pope did or did not bless, it’s unlikely that he blessed the anti-gay legislation currently being considered by Uganda’s parliament.
Filipovic’s column displays no such caution; in this she was in predictable company. “The Catholic Church in Uganda actively called on the government to pass the notorious ‘kill the gays’ bill,” wrote Adrian Bennett in Pink News the following day, adding “Pope Benedict even blessed the speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, a clear endorsement of the draconian bill that would imprison even relatives who refuse to inform on gay family members.”
A few moments’ research would have revealed the falseness of these claims, which would have been hard to reconcile with Catholic teaching requiring that homosexual people “be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” and which laments as deplorable the fact that “homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action.”
So what actually happened? Some early reports claimed that Ms Kadaga met the Pope after a 13 December Mass in Rome attended by thousands of pilgrims, including a delegation of Ugandan legislators attending the World Parliamentary Conference on Human Rights. But Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi has since clarified that Ms Kadaga received neither a private audience with the Pope nor a blessing from him.
“Relations with the delegation were not outside the normal framework and there was no blessing,” Father Lombardi explained. “The group of Ugandan delegates greeted the Pope, as did many other persons who attended the audience with the Pope, which in no case is a specific sign of approval of the actions or proposals of Ms Kadaga.”
The Ugandan Anti-homosexuality bill, which originally proposed the death penalty for what it termed ‘aggravated homosexuality’ was first proposed on 14 October 2009, when Uganda’s bishops were in Rome as part of the Synod of African Bishops, discussing the injustices that blight Africa. On 23 December 2009, the Ugandan Archbishop of Kampala Cyprian K. Lwanga (pictured) issued a Christmas statement in which he publicly condemned the bill, saying:
“The Catholic Church is clear in its teaching on homosexuality. Church teaching remains that homosexual acts are immoral and are violations of divine and natural law. […] However, the Church equally teaches the Christian message of respect, compassion, and sensitivity. The Church has always asked its followers to hate the sin but to love the sinner. […] The recently tabled Anti-Homosexuality Bill does not pass a test of a Christian caring approach to this issue. The targeting of the sinner, not the sin, is the core flaw of the proposed Bill. The introduction of the death penalty and imprisonment for homosexual acts targets people rather than seeking to counsel and to reach out in compassion to those who need conversion, repentance, support and hope.”
Archbishop Lwanga also condemned the proposed criminalization of those who would reach out in such a way towards homosexual people.
That the Holy See has refrained from making any direct and explicit official statements regarding the proposed Ugandan law is unsurprising; it has a policy not to intervene in countries’ internal political affairs, in part in order not to eclipse the voice of national bishops’ conferences. But the Vatican will often express itself to those bishops’ conferences; and it is worth noting that Archbishop Lwanga’s statement followed meetings between American and Vatican diplomats.
A leaked American diplomatic cable records how Cardinal Antonelli Ennio, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family (pictured), reaffirmed the Church’s position that legal curbs on homosexuality are inappropriate and that Catholic bishops do not support the criminalization of homosexuality. From the very start of the Church’s history, theologians have distinguished between sins and crimes.
Displaying a far surer understanding of Rome’s position than Filipovic or Pink News, the diplomatic cable noted:
“A challenge for the Vatican is to make sure that bishops, other clergy, and Catholics in cultures with strong prejudices against LGBT persons understand that the Church condemns homosexual acts but upholds the freedom of individuals to make their own moral choices about their sexuality.
The Vatican likely will not want bishops in Uganda to support the criminalization of homosexuality, so Embassy efforts may well translate into Vatican officials communicating with bishops in Uganda to reaffirm the Church teaching that homosexuality is a personal moral decision, which should not be penalized in any way by judicial authorities.”
Far from favouring the criminalisation of homosexual acts, the Church in Britain publicly welcomed the 1957 Wolfenden Report, which urged the decriminalisation of private homosexual acts, and as recently as December 2008 the Holy See stated to the United Nations that globally:
“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.”
Clearing the Ground, February’s parliamentary report on Christians in the UK, found that there was a deep and widespread level of religious illiteracy in British public life; Filipovic’s Guardian and Bennett’s Pink News pieces are classic instances of this. But ignorance is not an excuse for failure to carry out basic research.