The remarks about Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Law made by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana at a recent conference on human rights organized by the Vatican are a welcome intervention in a debate that has become dangerously overheated. Calling for the Law signed by President Yoweri Museveni in February to be repealed, the Cardinal said that "homosexuals are not criminals" and shouldn't be sentenced to life in prison.
On one level this is a repeat of the position the Catholic Church has always maintained: that it opposes discrimination against homosexuals. On another level it's a very welcome addition to a growing chorus of concern about extended criminalization of homosexuality. Cardinal Turkson's comments echo a statement made last December by the Archbishop of Mumbai, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, in response to the recriminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults by the Indian Supreme Court. Cardinal Gracias, a member of the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis on Curial reform, was quoted as saying that "the Catholic Church has never been opposed to the decriminalization of homosexuality, because we have never considered gay people criminals."
This is a definite shift from the sort of rhetoric we've heard in the past. Only in February last year Cardinal Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and a potential candidate for the papacy, no doubt with countries like Uganda and Nigeria in mind, called for cultures which stigmatized homosexuality to be "respected" and took to task the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, for his condemnation of anti-gay laws, asking "[w]hen you're talking about what's called 'an alternative lifestyle,' are those human rights?"
It's heartening to read the more recent remarks by those churchmen close to the Pope. They are an encouraging sign that my Church, or at least high-ranking members of it, is evolving from its previous ambiguousness, an evolution which may have a great deal to do with the beliefs of Pope Francis himself. But do they go far enough?
The threat to the lives and livelihoods of LGBT people, their families and friends across the world from what amounts to state-sponsored persecution has never been so grave. As one of a tiny number of out gay Ugandans still living here I know this. So far the response to it from established churches has been muted. In my own country, Uganda's Episcopal Conference fell silent once the law there was passed. They merely re-enforced their position that they "don't support homosexuality." As a Catholic I've always considered the Church one of the most powerful voices for good in the Global South. If ever there was a moment when it needed to speak out unequivocally and magisterially against the systemic persecution of LGBT people it's now. With draconian laws rolling out in Uganda, Nigeria and Russia, not to mention the Indian Supreme Court's retrograde step last year, and with levels of violence against gay men, lesbians and transsexuals, sanctioned by laws and prosecutions in predominantly Catholic countries like Cameroon, the extreme plight of LGBT people is a matter for everyone.
Take the example of President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia, whose recent threats to fight homosexuals "the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively," make for chilling reading, effectively calling for the extermination of LGBT people. Unhappily for those of us who profess the Christian faith, much of this extreme homophobia is fed by Christian congregations and individuals, particularly from US evangelical churches who have launched missions to places like Uganda with the often specific purpose of targeting those countries' already beleaguered LGBT communities, a bitter irony which proves that it's homophobia that is the foreign import, not homosexuality, as is so often proposed by those behind the persecutions in Africa and elsewhere. The Catholic Church is in a prime position to counter this negative propaganda and to make clear to Christians - Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant - the determined message of its own Catechism, that LGBT people "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity" and that "[e]very sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."
The Catholic Church is not the authoritarian monolith it once was, but the Vatican still has enormous authority. Catholic people everywhere should be warned against the cruel vanity of homophobia; those who promote laws criminalizing same-sex sexual conduct and all the evils that flow thereby, and churchmen who support them should be censured; the compassion of the Church, which is its greatest and most beautiful asset, should not be watered-down with vague statements and wait-and-see policies. In the words of the Catholic US Secretary of State John Kerry, "[w]hat is happening in Uganda is atrocious and it presents all of us with an enormous challenge because LGBT rights are human rights and the signing of this anti-homosexuality law is flat out morally wrong."