It’s pretty rare, and thus news, when a Catholic bishop makes statements about gay and lesbian people that equally anger both liberals and conservatives. It’s even rarer to hear a Catholic bishop apologize for any of his statements.
Yet, a bishop in Colombia did both those things this past week. Bishop Juan Vicente Córdoba of Fontibón, Colombia, created a stir last week, when during a university talk about same-sex marriage, he proposed the idea that one of the Apostles was perhaps gay and Mary Magdalene might have been a lesbian.
In his talk, he also suggested that gay and lesbian couples be respected, though he did not support marriage or adoption rights for them. But, he also gave a positive evaluation of homosexuality. The message he offered was very mixed, and a bit confusing.
As a result, according to Crux, the bishop’s words and message were not well-received by either progressives or conservatives. The news report stated:
“To illustrate his point, he used a pejorative Spanish term for a gay man, offending members of Colombia‘s gay community during a speech intended to denounce discrimination based on sexual orientation. . . . Conservatives, meanwhile, raised an eyebrow when the bishop said that homosexuality is not a sin and that gays are welcomed by the church.”
In his original speech, Córdoba spoke very positively about gay and lesbian people. The following, according to Crux, are some of his statements:
“ ‘No one chooses to be gay or straight,’ Córdoba said. ‘One simply feels, loves, experiments, is attracted, and no attraction is bad.’. . .
“Although Córdoba reiterated Church teaching when it comes to marriage – that it’s a union between a man and a woman, permanent, and open to children – he said that homosexuality isn’t a sin.
“ ‘Sin is something else. It’s not respecting the dignity of others. Not loving God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, not feeding the hungry, not giving water to the thirsty,’ Córdoba said.
“According to local reports, Córdoba said that in the Bible there’s no explicit rejection of homosexuality, suggesting there’s no basis for making a condemnation of homosexuality a Church doctrine. . . .
“Córdoba asked those in favor of the gay rights bill not to call the opposition ‘recalcitrant, dinosaurs, cavemen, retarded, because we also have the right to present our ideas and our emotions with respect.’
” ‘There will come a time when the Catholic Church is a minority that will be crushed by the majority,’ he warned. ‘Let us respect each other, without using adjectives or telling anyone they’re sick or disordered.’ “
Yet, the bishop did return to the language of “disorder” when he issued his apology and clarification of what he originally had said. A follow-up Crux article reported on his change of mind:
“ ‘Even if homosexuality as an inclination doesn’t constitute a sin, it’s regarded as a disordered conduct,’ he said.
“Córdoba said that his words were not intended to modify the ‘solid and unchangeable moral position of the Church,’ but to express respect in an auditorium which, according to the prelate, was mostly composed of leaders and members of the LGBT community. “
The bishop also apologized for his use of “unfortunate colloquial expressions,” and explained the use of the pejorative in terms of the situation of his speech:
“The bishop also admitted that he didn’t know there were members of the press present at the event, and that he only used such colloquial expressions because of the academic and dialogic context of the encounter, adding that they had no theological or moral value.”
It is difficult to assess this controversy. The bishop seems to have been sincerely interested in building bridges with the lesbian and gay community in Colombia, a nation which is currently debating legalizing marriage equality. His use of a derogatory word was certainly ill-advised, at the least, but his apology for it seems sincere.
It is curious, however, that the bishop’s apology and clarification in which he reverts to traditional hierarchical language was issued not by his diocese but, according to the news report, by the Colombian bishops’ conference. That seems to indicate that his second set of remarks were motivated by someone from that organization.
What is important, though, is that even in this more conservative clarification, the bishop offered some very positive statements about lesbian and gay people:
“ ‘With a mother’s love, the Church welcomes every man and woman, whatever their condition, conscious that regardless of their sexual inclination – and even sexual behavior – every person has the same fundamental dignity,’ Córdoba said.“Regardless of the controversy it may have generated, Córdoba said, Thursday’s encounter at the University of Los Andes was the first public encounter between a Colombian bishop and the LGBT community.
“ ‘It proves that it’s possible to establish an honest and frank dialogue that could allow us to bring down the walls and discover each other as brothers,’ the bishop wrote in the letter.”
I think the bishop’s heart wanted genuinely to do something positive towards the LGBT community. It is unfortunate that his message became so muddled by his use of a harmful slur and his pulling back from his favorable evaluation. This was the first encounter between the church hierarchy and the Colombian LGBT community. Let’s hope it is not the last, and that Bishop Córdoba’s original intention to show respect and outreach will be manifested more clearly in the future.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry