Sometimes ignorance on a topic is to be pitied, and the best response to it is not anger, but an effort to educate the person with more accurate information. But we must not forget that ignorance can cause great damage because it can blossom into attitudes and policies which lead to violence and human rights abuses. The public statements of two Catholic leaders recently illustrate these principles.
In Spain, Cardinal Fernando Sebastian, who is the retired archbishop of Pamplona, gave an interview to Diario Sur newspaper in which he called homosexuality a “defect” that can be cured. [Note: the previous link will bring you to the original Spanish-language interview.] New York’s Daily News reported on the Spanish interview:
” ‘Homosexuality is a defective manner of expressing sexuality, because this has a structure and a purpose, which is procreation,’ he said in an interview to Diario Sur.
” ‘A homosexual who can’t achieve this (procreation) is failing,’ he added, before saying, ‘Our bodies have many defects. I have high blood pressure.’
“Sebastian said it was ’a defect I have to try and correct in whatever way I can.’
” ‘To say that homosexuality is a defect is not an insult: it helps because in many cases of homosexuality it is possible to recover and become normal with the right treatment.’ “
Such comments betray the depth of the ignorance which is obviously at work in the minds of many church leaders. It is shocking and pitiable, and it helps us to see why church teaching and practice is so harsh on LGBT issues. This ignorance needs to be corrected, not only for the cardinal’s sake, but for the sake of LGBT people throughout the world.
A case which shows how lack of understanding LGBT issues can be harmful came out in the headlines in the African nation of Nigeria, which last week enacted a law which outlawed same-sex marriage and also outlawed the establishment of gay and lesbian organizations.Soon after the law was signed, Nigeria’s Cardinal John Oniyekan stated that he supported the measure. According to PMnewsNigeria.com:
“The Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, has commended Nigeria’s Federal Government for its uncompromising stand on the anti-gay law in spite of criticisms from a section of the international community.
“Onaiyekan, briefing newsmen on activities to mark his 70th birthday in Abuja on Friday, said Nigeria, being an independent country, should stand firm on its culture, tradition and morals.
“ ‘The church accepts people as they are, we condemn homosexuality, Nigeria is an independent country and we do not beg for food.’ “
The cardinal, like many in Nigeria, have framed the issue of homosexuality as one where Western liberal nations are trying to impose their values on African culture, hence his comment about not begging for food. But the cardinal seems ignorant of the basics of Catholic social teaching which respects the dignity, equality, and liberty of all people–even those with whom one might disagree. While he certainly has an obligation to respect Nigerian culture, he also has an obligation to defend Catholic principles on basic human rights.
Bishop Hassan Kukah of Nigeria’s Sokoto Diocese also publicly supported the new anti-gay law.
One needs to ask if these bishops have learned nothing from history. Whenever laws have restricted people’s freedoms or viewed certain groups as second class citizens, it doesn’t take long for violence and human rights abuses to occur. Nazi Germany and Jim Crow America spring quickly to mind. Laws which restrict freedom or create second class categories give people permission to enact hateful acts. When religious leaders voice their support of such laws or promote misguided theories about people’s lives, they not only give permission for people to commit hateful acts, but, in fact, they encourage such behavior.
Pope Francis has indicated a more respectful attitude toward LGBT people than any of his predecessors had ever done. Some people have wondered how he will put that attitude into practice. One way he can begin is by educating bishops, cardinals, and other church leaders about the basic facts of sexual orientation and the basic principles of Catholic social teaching. Without such education, their ignorance will fuel violence and human rights abuses against LGBT people.
Ignorance may be pitied, but it cannot be tolerated. Too many lives hang in the balance.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry