Two recent meetings of bishops’ conferences in Africa reveal some interesting insights about the way that LGBT issues are viewed by both the Vatican and by Catholic leaders on this continent.
In the Republic of the Congo’s capital, Brazzaville, the Association of Episcopal Conferences of Central Africa (ACERAC) met and heard from Fr. Andrea Ciucci, a staff member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family. In discussing, marriage and the family, Fr. Ciucci explained that one of the biggest threats to this social unit is “gender theory.” African human rights advocate and blogger Denis Nzioka posted a news story about Ciucci’s comments which described the priest’s position:
He explained that gender identity is an ”increasing problem” for the family in Africa, and is something that is not a natural phenomenon, but rather is being learned through technology and the internet.
“(T)his way of understanding life is not an African problem, but all young African people are connected to the internet, so the younger ones are listening to this” and seeing this “way of humanity, sexuality, and the relationship between a man a woman.”
Although the theory of the internet is “just a hypothesis,” the priest explained that questions regarding gender are very common in African youth, and Church leaders there are “trying to understand this problem and how this culture of gender is penetrating in Africa and in the different generations of Africans.”
The news story did not elaborate on what Ciucci might have meant by the gender identity problem. Could it mean new understandings of gender roles or perhaps the more controversial areas of transgender issues or same-sex relationships ?
A comment from Congo’s Cardinal Portella Mbouyou, who is the current chair of ACERAC might elucidate Ciucci’s remarks. In discussing marriage, he said:
‘it behooves on us to exercise our doctrinal and pastoral caution to the exogenous threats from the new world ethics which has the goal to deconstruct the moral order regarded as simple socio-cultural construction of an era without any natural basis and therefore likely to be modified at the mercy of desires and individuals, groups and generations.’
Mbouyou’s quote seems to indicate that the conference is more concerned with the more controversial issues.
One thing that both Mbouyou’s and Ciucci’s comments reveal is an underlying assumption that ideas about sexuality are cultural imports. Many scholars have pointed out that homosexuality was a part of African culture before Christian missionaries arrived, and that what was imported was not homosexuality, but homophobia. The recent movements in Uganda and Nigeria to institute harsh penalties on lesbian and gay people have borne out this theory by the fact that it was American fundamentalist churches which fueled and funded the anti-gay ideology.
At the second African meeting, bishops who are members of the Association of Member Episcopal Conference in Eastern Africa (AMECEA) met in Lilongwe, Malawi, also discussed marriage and family issues, including a specific discussion of homosexuality, according to a news report on AllAfrica.com.
Fr. Andrew Kaufa, a communications officer of AMCEA, struck the note that homosexuality is an imported phenomenon to Africa:
“The church has observed that there are a number of challenges that many families from different African countries are facing which is affecting the preaching of the gospel.
“Many rich countries are imposing strange cultures in poor nations, an issue that calls for discussion and intervention,” Fr. Kaufa said.
He added: “As we try to search for solutions in regard to family matters, the Bishops will also pay attention to the issue of same sex which is at the helm.”
But the news report said that the discussion of homosexuality was “tabled,” which might mean that some bishops had disagreement about certain parts of the conversation. Malawi, the meeting’s host nation, recently decided not to arrest gay people and to review its anti-gay laws, though homosexuality is still considered criminal in that country. One of the other member nations of AMCEA is Uganda, which last year added draconian punishments for lesbian and gay people–measures which were implicitly supported by the country’s Catholic bishops.
Speaking at the AMCEA conference was Archbishop Vincent Paglia, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family. (You can read the entire text of his talk here.)Paglia made headlines when he spoke favorably of legal protections for same-gender couples.
The archbishop highlighted the same theme that Ciucci mentioned at ACERAC,namely that one of the external forces impacting negatively on African families was the “ideology and theory of gender.”
Paglia also struck out at “individualism” as a threat to the family:
The question of marriage and the family is to be considered in the light of the “individualization” of contemporary society. Over the last several centuries, we have seen the rise of subjectivity, which is in some ways a positive development because it has made possible the affirmation of the dignity of the individual, but excessive attention to the individual takes society down a dangerous path. It seems that the “me” is everywhere prevailing over the “us,” and individual over society.
While it is interesting that nowhere in his talk did he mention same-gender relationships or homosexuality, this reference to “individualism,” and later references to “relativism,” are sometimes used by church leaders as references to lesbian and gay perspectives.
On the other hand, in a long talk about marriage and family, there are very few references to reproduction as a feature of these relationships, which can be seen as moving away from that as a primary focus of the marital bond.
Transgender issues did not receive such a favorable treatment in Paglia’s talk. Towards the end of his speech he again mentions “gender identity” as an evil, explaining:
“. . . there are a number of cultural and political questions that we cannot avoid, for example gender identity, that is, what does it mean today to be a man or a woman. We need to be able to give a clear and convincing response to the elimination of sexual differentiation that is being proposed by the new “gender” culture prevailing today in all international contexts.”
Most interesting of all in my read of Paglia’s talk is that all of the positive things he says about marriage and family, all of the hopes families have, and all the challenges that families face, can easily be said about families with LGBT members in them. When church leaders take off their heterosexist blinders, they will see that LGBT relationships and families are not threats to society, but equally valuable building blocks of our social life together.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry