The recent assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family has brought renewed attention to Catholic approaches to gay and lesbian persons. During the synod, church leaders discussed pastoral and theological perspectives regarding the place of homosexual persons in the church, and church teaching vis-à-vis homosexuality. Given the text of the midterm report and the final report, called a relatio, much of the conversation focused on the extent to which homosexual persons were welcome within the church and in local parishes.
Despite a significant opening in dialogue, the synod discussions made relatively little mention of the violence that sexual and gender minorities regularly face in communities around the world. (In this essay I use the term sexual and gender minorities as a shorthand to refer to all individuals who identify as something other than heterosexual or cisgender.) Sadly, violence is still a lived reality for Catholics and non-Catholics who fail to conform to certain expressions of sexuality or gender. International entities like the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have noted alarming rates of physical aggression against these individuals. Additionally, in at least 76 countries, laws still criminalize particular expressions of sexuality and gender. These laws often make people vulnerable to prosecution by the state, as well as to attack and persecution by members of the public. Governments often use sexual and gender minority groups as convenient scapegoats for social, political and economic ills, thus increasing their vulnerability.
Growing awareness of such discriminatory practices underscores the importance of having Catholics reiterate a message of care and nonviolence toward these individuals when discussing issues of sexuality and gender. As church leaders have noted, these calls are consistent with Catholic doctrine on the dignity of all human beings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls on Catholics to treat “homosexual persons” with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.” The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s letter “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” (1986) mandates respect for the intrinsic dignity of each person in word, in action and in law and condemns violence against homosexual people. While some church leaders and faith communities have stressed a message of dignity and respect, many others have not. In recent years, both religious and lay Catholics, through their actions and words, have promoted policies and practices that seem to contribute to a climate of indifference or even hostility, in which violence against members of sexual and gender minorities can occur.
Since his election in March of 2013, Pope Francis has repeatedly voiced his concern for the most vulnerable people in society. In his first apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” the pope emphasized the need to “draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ.” The pope cited Jesus’ example in Matthew 25, explaining the need to identify with the downtrodden. In less formal public statements, Pope Francis has frequently repeated this message as central to the Christian life.
Pope Francis seems to have been applying this concern for the vulnerable to his treatment of sexual and gender minorities. In summer 2013, when asked about gay priests in the church, the pope famously replied, “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” In a subsequent interview published in America, he elaborated on these remarks, emphasizing the need to love and accompany gay people, not categorically reject and condemn them.
Other church leaders have more explicitly spoken out against the physical violence and harassment experienced by sexual and gender minorities. Last summer, for instance, the Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya, Archbishop Charles Daniel Balvo, stressed that while the church does not approve of homosexual conduct, it recognizes and respects everyone’s individual dignity. In the wake of growing reports of anti-gay violence in parts of Africa, the archbishop said that “homosexuals should be defended against violation of their dignity and human rights; they are human beings like any one of us.” In Brazil, the Peace and Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of São Paulo, a group composed of both lay people and clergy, strongly condemned the alarming number of attacks against sexual and gender minorities reported in the country.
Others have spoken out against laws criminalizing sexual acts. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Mumbai, has openly criticized India’s anti-sodomy law. After India’s Supreme Court reinstated the law, the archbishop was quoted as saying that the church “is opposed to the legalization of gay marriage, but teaches that homosexuals have the same dignity as every human being, and condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, harassment or abuse.” According to the archbishop, this includes the criminalization of consenting sexual acts between people of the same sex, because the church “has never considered gay people criminals.”
Bishop Gabriel Malzaire of Roseau, Dominica, and Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council on Peace and Justice, have made similar comments regarding the criminalization of sodomy in Dominica and Uganda, respectively. Bishops in South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland and Ghana have called on Catholics this year to stand with the powerless in the face of draconian legislation being passed around the African continent.
Numerous Catholic communities have also embraced sexual and gender minorities, creating a safe space for them in the church and in society at large. In the United States, for instance, an unofficial survey by Catholic groups found over 200 “gay-friendly” parishes across the country. U.S. priests have reported growing acceptance of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (often grouped together under the acronym LGBT)—particularly among younger parishioners. Even church leaders who have publicly opposed same-sex relationships on moral grounds have called for respect and compassion toward LGBT people. In New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan welcomed the move to allow LGBT groups to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City. Cardinal Dolan, who has publicly opposed same-sex marriage, will be the parade’s grand marshal next year.
Similar trends have also been observed in Europe. Earlier this year, the bishops’ conferences in Germany and Switzerland published reports on the beliefs and practices of parishioners. The reports were based on extensive surveys of German and Swiss parishes and were put together in preparation for the Synod of Bishops on the Family. In both cases, parishioners voiced considerable support for homosexuals. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the German bishops’ conference, has said that the church “has not always adopted the right tone” toward homosexuals, and he has promoted a more welcoming approach.
The meaning and scope of unjust discrimination against homosexual persons is still subject to debate in Catholic circles. But church teaching suggests that, at a minimum, this includes a need to refrain from and condemn violence against people on account of their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender expression. As Catholic leaders have noted, this includes the criminalization of consenting sexual behavior among adults.
In 1986, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote: “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs.” Subsequent teachings by local bishops’ conferences, including a letter by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reiterated this message of condemning violence.
While this message is not official teaching, the Holy See has also publicly opposed unjust criminal penalties for homosexual people. In 2008, at the U.N. General Assembly, the Vatican representative publicly stated that it “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. Governments should do away with unjust criminal penalties.”
Although the statement did not give examples of these unjust criminal penalties, the Vatican spokesperson pointed out that they include “not only the death penalty, but all violent or discriminatory penal legislation in relation to homosexuals.” At a United Nations side event in New York in 2009, the Holy See reiterated its opposition to all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual people, including discriminatory penal legislation that undermines the inherent dignity of the human person.
Despite these positive examples, many Catholic leaders and communities have ignored or seemingly contravened the church’s stated position toward sexual and gender minorities. Instead of upholding church teaching on sexual ethics while decrying violence and a respect for human dignity, many have remained silent in the face of terrible atrocities committed against vulnerable minorities.
In Cameroon, for example, human rights organizations have routinely reported on citizens who are arrested and prosecuted simply for “being gay”—ostensibly determined by their dress, mannerisms or personal tastes. Organizations that work to defend the rights of sexual and gender minorities face horrific attacks. Last year, a well-known human rights activist, Eric Lembembe, was brutally tortured and murdered.
Archbishop Samuel Kleda of Cameroon has not only failed to denounce these deplorable acts; he has actively contributed to an environment of hostility toward sexual and gender minorities. In February 2013 Archbishop Kleda joined a group of Catholic legal professionals to publicly endorse the government’s criminalization of homosexuality. During a panel discussion with jurists, the archbishop cited a passage from Lv 20:13 that calls for the death penalty for sexual relations between two men. In Cameroon’s penal code, a person who engages in “sexual relations with a person of the same sex” can already face a prison term of up to five years.
Since 2006 politicians in Nigeria have debated a series of statutory measures that would criminalize same-sex civil marriage, impose harsh penalties on same-sex couples and even criminalize participation in a group that advocates the rights of sexual and gender minorities. Earlier this year, in a letter to President Goodluck Jonathan on behalf of the Nigerian Catholic Church, Nigerian clergy praised a new law that imposes severe criminal penalties on public displays of affection between people of the same sex as “courageous and wise.” Nigerian church leaders have made no effort to condemn violent attacks against sexual and gender minorities after the law was passed earlier this year.
In Uganda the Catholic Church has wavered in its position on a similar bill. In December 2009 Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga opposed Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which initially proposed the death penalty for same-sex sexual acts. Archbishop Lwanga called the bill “at odds with Christian values” like “respect, compassion and sensitivity.” At the time the Holy See also condemned the bill as unjust discrimination. In June 2012, however, a coalition of Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches asked the Ugandan parliament to speed up the process of enacting a version of this same bill.
The Ugandan bill was passed in early 2014. It contained provisions calling for more severe sanctions against people who engage in homosexual acts, including life in prison. The bill also criminalized related offenses like the promotion of homosexuality and the “attempt to commit homosexuality.” Human rights groups reported an escalation in evictions, violence and discrimination against sexual and gender minorities after the bill became law.
Rather than condemn these attacks, several Ugandan bishops categorically supported the legislation during their Easter homilies. Some came close to tacitly endorsing—or at least excusing—acts of violence. Archbishop Lwanga has more recently published a manuscript noting the need to respect and care for homosexual people, yet as of this writing, the Ugandan church as a whole has done little to condemn the abuses that sexual and gender minorities face. While the 2014 law was struck down by Uganda’s Constitutional Court in August, Ugandan lawmakers have proposed a similar bill, which they intend to pass before the end of the year.
In the Caribbean, the archbishop of Kingston, Jamaica, Charles Dufour, has also refused to condemn both the endemic violence sexual and gender minorities face in Jamaica and the Jamaican government’s criminalization of private sexual acts between consenting adults. In recent years, human rights organizations, the Organization of American States, the U.S. State Department and other governments and organizations have criticized this violence. Beatings, police brutality, torture and murder of people in sexual and gender minorities are commonplace.
As in other parts of the Caribbean, local advocacy groups are challenging Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law. When asked by advocates to clarify the Catholic Church’s position on the criminalization of consensual acts between same-sex partners, Archbishop Dufour said he felt no “need to make any special declaration” regarding the debate in Jamaica. Archbishop Dufour, however, did call attention to the vilification and persecution of religious groups that oppose rights for sexual and gender minorities. Such statements are disheartening. Archbishop Dufour and other leaders in the Jamaican church missed an important opportunity to give substance to the Holy See’s position.
The statements and actions of church leaders have a profound impact on the social environment in which people belonging to sexual and gender minorities live. Church leaders need to distinguish between morally condemning certain acts and relationships and implicitly or explicitly condoning violence and persecution. The failure to do so not only contravenes church teaching, but contributes to a climate of hostility that threatens lives. In the upcoming year, the Synod of Bishops will continue to discuss the church’s family pastoral practices. As church leaders continue to discuss the morality of same-sex unions and whether homosexuals are to be welcomed into the church, they would also do well to condemn clearly and categorically the violence that sexual and gender minorities face in communities around the world.
Celso Perez is a Gruber Fellow at Human Rights Watch. He received a J.D. from Yale Law School, and an M.A. and B.A. in theological ethics from Boston College.