With five now-famous words, “Who am I to judge?” Pope Francis offered a fresh embodiment of the Catholic teaching that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” Tragically, we live in a world where people are not only judged harshly for their sexual orientation but are also targeted and punished for it. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni recently signed a bill that criminalizes and punishes “the promotion or recognition” of same-sex relationships. A first offense could result in a prison sentence of 14 years; repeated offenses could result in a life sentence. Nigeria had already enacted a law that prescribes a 10-year prison sentence for those who “directly or indirectly” make a “public show” of a homosexual relationship. The law also punishes those who are even marginally affiliated with gay clubs or similar organizations.
These laws have led to scores of arrests and have precipitated a wave of violence—often ignored by police—against anyone even suspected of being homosexual. The laws are so vague that anyone can be accused of being gay solely because of their speech, dress or friendships. Gay and lesbian people in these countries are living under a sword of Damocles, constantly afraid that they may be discovered and persecuted at any moment. Many are driven to despair, even suicide. It is clear that many factors have contributed to this situation: a deep-seated fear that homosexuality constitutes a mortal threat to society, a too-literal and highly selective interpretation of the Bible, popular African opposition to a neo-colonial imposition of “Western” liberal values and the interests of cynical politicians who want to strengthen their hold on power.
It is especially disturbing that such legislation is immensely popular in predominately Christian countries like Uganda, where 40 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and the Catholic bishops have sent mixed signals about the legislation. When the bill was first considered in 2009, Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga of Kampala, speaking on behalf of the Catholic bishops’ conference, said it was “at odds with the core values” of Christianity. When the bill was reintroduced in 2012, however, the Uganda Joint Christian Council, which includes Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox bishops, expressed support for the bill. Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, meanwhile, has praised President Goodluck Jonathan for his “courageous and wise decision” to sign the new law in that country.
Christian concern for preserving the traditional institution of marriage cannot justify these excessive and punitive measures, which extend far beyond simply codifying a definition of marriage. It is not inconsistent, therefore, to support traditional marriage and to oppose these measures, which are unjustifiable assaults on the human rights and inherent dignity of gay and lesbian people. Lest anyone be led to believe otherwise, supporters of traditional marriage have, in fact, a special obligation to loudly denounce any unjust discrimination against homosexuals.
We add our voice to this swelling chorus. Pope Francis has described gay people as “socially wounded” because “they feel like the church has always condemned them.” Catholics must examine how we contribute, perhaps even inadvertently, to a culture of fear and shame. In a field hospital after battle, a basic responsibility of the caregivers is to “do no harm.” 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?
This article from the U.S. Jesuit publication, ‘America’, reminding us of Pope Francis’ now-famous words, “Who am I to judge?” , when asked his view on homosexuality, bears poignant reference to the recent proscriptive law against homosexuals in Uganda signed into legislation by President Yoweri Museveni.
What should worry Christians around the world is that this attack on intrinsically Gay people in African countries of the world- and other places where similar draconian laws are directed against the LGBT community – is completely out of synch with the Gospel imperative to care for the marginalised of society – especially those who have no other way of being and living out their lives.
The new legislation, brought in under the cloak of traditional support for heterosexual marriage, uses this pretext as an opportunity to persecute the minority of Gay and Lesbian people in the community – to the extent that no gay person is safe from being betrayed by other people to the police, with the inevitable consequence of imprisonment and violence being exacted against them. Not only the immediate families of gay people, but also their friends and neighbours are under threat of punishment for not surrendering them to the police. Such psychological terrorism and its attendant climate of fear, is the inevitable result of the latest legislation.
The saddest thing is that the Churches in Uganda – including the leadership of the Anglican Church in Uganda – have been supportive of the government’s move against homosexuals, actually congratulating the President for his firm stand against Gays. I think it is high time that our Province of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa/New Zealand – together with other Anglican Provinces of the Church around the world – should register a strong protest against the homophobic attitudes of fellow Christians in Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, and other countries where this sort of oppression against Gays continues, causing suffering to those unfortunate enough to have been born ‘different’.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand