New Ways Ministry and its supporters, through our #PopeSpeakOut campaign has called upon Pope Francis to use the occasion of his visit to Africa to make clear that Catholic Church teaching does not support the criminalization of sexual orientation/gender identity and that discrimination and violence against LGBT people is morally wrong and should be opposed vigorously. The Pope’s voice is needed because African bishops have been mostly silent when it comes to these particular issues.
In two separate gatherings yesterday–an ecumenical meeting in Kenya and at a Mass at the University of Nairobi, the pope made general reference to protecting human dignity and opposing prejudice, though he did not make specific reference to LGBT people. At the first meeting, he said:
“In this light, and in an increasingly interdependent world, we see ever more clearly the need for interreligious understanding, friendship and collaboration in defending the God-given dignity of individuals and peoples, and their right to live in freedom and happiness. By upholding respect for that dignity and those rights, the religions play an essential role in forming consciences, instilling in the young the profound spiritual values of our respective traditions, and training good citizens, capable of infusing civil society with honesty, integrity and a world view which values the human person over power and material gain.”
At the second meeting, he said:
“Let the great values of Africa’s traditions, the wisdom and truth of God’s word, and the generous idealism of your youth guide you in working to shape a society which is ever more just, inclusive and respectful of human dignity. May you always be concerned for the needs of the poor, and reject everything that leads to prejudice and discrimination, for these things, we know, are not of God.”
It is easy to see how these references could be applied to LGBT people.
In a similarly general way, Ugandan Catholics have not been without some guidance from their bishops in moral and political decision-making. In August 2015, the Uganda Episcopal Conference issued a pastoral letter that unequivocally calls for respect, tolerance and love towards all Ugandans, though it does not mention sexual or gender minorities specifically.
The document, Free and Fair Elections: Our Common Mission to Consolidating Democratic Gains in Uganda was written in anticipation of Uganda’s national elections in 2016. In it, the bishops concerned themselves with “how citizens and various institutions concerned with [the election] process should conduct themselves during this period.”
Free and Fair Elections focuses on the electoral process itself, noting that “elections guarantee peace, stability and prosperity as they offer avenues for alternative ideas and approaches for the development of society.”
The bishops first identified what they see as the critical issues. While noting a variety of topics, they confined themselves to speaking about “more contextual and pressing” issues” that “requir[e] urgent action if peace and harmony is to prevail before, during and after the 2016 general elections.” The specific issues the bishops addressed were conflict within political parties, the commercialization of elections, voter apathy, intolerance in politics and the role of Ugandan police and seeming legitimization of para-military groups.
Next, the bishops presented a set of guiding principles for the election process. These guiding principles are reverence and humility in leaders, active citizenship, unity in diversity, love and respect, and justice and fairness. It is in this section where a clear message of respect, tolerance and love for all Ugandans can be found.
The bishops first called for servant leaders, that is, men and women with a demonstrated passion for leading the crusade for “the dignity of every human person . . . commitment to the common good as the purpose and guiding criterion for political life.” Servant leaders exhibit humility, love and respect.
Viewing renewal of the temporal order as part of Christ’s redemptive work, the bishops next called for Catholic Christians to be active citizens and to be led by their conscience. The bishops state that Christians are “bound by” their conscience “to elect people who demonstrate commitment to our common aspirations, namely, restoring our country to the divine path and a life of respect and dignity.”
Cognizant of “divergent political ideologies and agenda” that exist in the country, the bishops called all Ugandans to “one mission, to make our country a place befitting all its citizens.” In order to succeed, “we will need to appreciate this diversity and focus more on our common mission than the agenda of our individual parties and candidates. We will be required, in the spirit of the Scriptures . . . to cultivate a spirit of unity, tolerance and coexistence in order that every Ugandan will have an opportunity to express himself or herself without fear of reprisal.”
For the Ugandan bishops, being patriotic is tantamount to loving “our country and our fellow citizens.” The bishops offered 1 Cor. 13:4-6, St. Paul’s famous definition of love, as explicit guidance:
“Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceitedness or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable. Love does not keep a record of wrongs. Love is not happy with evil but is happy with the truth”
It is clear that nothing in these principles would exclude support of LGBT people’s human rights and personal safety. If Ugandan bishops would follow their own advice, they would be speaking out more boldly in support of sexual and gender minorities in their country.
While the focus of the pastoral letter is the electoral process itself, the principles expressed by the bishops can guide individual as well as political conduct. Ugandan Catholics should be heartened by “Free and Fair Elections,” and its call to respect, tolerate and love their fellow citizens, including LGBT Ugandans.
–Cynthia Nordone, New Ways Ministry