Resignation of Bishop Is An Opportunity for LGBT Reconciliation

A bishop with a harsh anti-LGBT record has prematurely resigned, creating an opportunity for his successor to heal wounds in the province related to gender and sexuality debates.

>Bishop Fred Henry says the church has a lot to apologize for, but remains a tremendous source of good.
Bishop Fred Henry

Canada’s Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary, Alberta, resigned due to health reasons, ending twenty years in office, with much controversy in recent years. Last year, Henry described Alberta’s new education guidelines aimed at protecting transgender students as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic.” He then refused to apologize, saying any retraction was “simply not going to happen.

The bishop’s comments were offered amid wider debates in Alberta about Catholic education and LGBTQ supports that were, at times, quite heated. Indeed, Archbishop Richard W. Smith publicly thanked Henry upon news of his resignation for “the outstanding contribution he has made in the field of Catholic education in both Alberta and across the country,” according to Global News.

Pope Francis has now appointed Bishop William Terrence McGrattan as Henry’s successor in Calgary, reported CTV News. This transition has some LGBT advocates hopeful that a new page can be turned, while others remain skeptical of any change.

Kristopher Wells, director of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies, said Henry had been “no friend to the LGBT community” but hoped “a new bishop will seek to build bridges and use faith as a way to include rather than exclude.”

“‘I’m really hoping that new bishop is open to dialogue with the LGBT community. One of the things Catholic LBGT and Catholic allies say is welcoming LGBT people into your lives and your communities is not in conflict with Catholic teachings.'”

Rebecca Sullivan, who directs the University of Calgary’s Women’s Studies Program was somewhat harsher in her assesesment, stating that “the grand old men of the Catholic Church are going quietly into the bleak night they created for themselves.” Yet, Sullivan thinks this resignation could signal “a brighter future for what Catholicism could stand for, not what Henry has stood for.” Another professor at the University of Calgary, Juliet Guichon, expressed the following:

“I hope that the incoming bishop engages with Catholics and the greater community and focuses on Pope Francis’ main messages, which are mercy, love and following one’s conscience.”

But not everyone is optimistic, reported Metro News. Jan Buterman, a transgender man who was fired from a Catholic school in 2008 after transitioning, does not expect much to change:

“‘I see no reason to believe that there will be any kind of change that substantively supports trans people in that particular faith. . .I see absolutely no statements from higher-ups suggesting that trans people are welcome in their faith.'”

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Bishop William Terrence McGrattan

There are no indications about how Bishop McGrattan will respond to LGBT issues in Alberta after his February installation. But he would be unwise to squander this opportunity to undo the harm Bishop Henry inflicted and to initiate a diocesan path more in keeping with Pope Francis’ model.

A first step could be apologizing for the harsh remarks Bishop Henry made last year, followed by concrete actions to show that the local church in Calgary will work to support LGBT people in parishes and in Catholic education. Let us pray for Bishop McGrattan and the local church in Calgary that they may find a new path forward in this new year.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 10, 2017

For National Migration Week, Bishops Must Learn Realities of LGBT Immigrants and Refugees

This week is National Migration Week, an annual event convened by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to focus attention on the plight of migrants, refugees, and victims of human trafficking in our world. This year’s theme for National Migration week, drawn from Pope Francis, is “Creating a Culture of Encounter.” And in this work of migration justice, it is past time for the Catholic Church to engage with the realities LGBT migrants, too.

national-migration-week-2017-poster-470x609While the bishops’ solidarity with migrants is strong and consistent, they have largely abandoned LGBT migrants, thus undercutting the church’s institutional witness. In 2013, the USCCB threatened to withdraw support for immigration reform over a provision granting benefits to same-gender couples. A number of individual bishops, like Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, reiterated this threat to stop supporting comprehensive legislation because of LGBT rights. That same year, funding through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development was withdrawn from an immigrant rights organization because the organization was in a coalition with other organizations who supported marriage equality.

Most recently, the U.S. bishops remained largely silent about the racist and xenophobic comments that were hallmarks of the president-elect’s campaign, a silence one theologian described as a “stunning lack of leadership.” Where Pope Francis seems capable of differentiating between being gay and being xenophobic, to paraphrase theologian Massimo Faggioli, the U.S. bishops seem incapable of doing the same.

But the theme of “encounter,” together with an incoming presidential administration hostile to both migrants and LGBT people and the refugee crisis globally, provides an opportunity for bishops in the U.S. to educate themselves about and initiate explicit support for LGBT immigrants and refugees.

Such a shift is quite feasible. The bishops’ language about migrants is equally true for LGBT people. For instance, a statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says the following:

“With respect to migrants, too often in our contemporary culture we fail to encounter them as persons, and instead look at them as others or render them invisible. We do not take the time to engage migrants in a meaningful way, as fellow children of God, but remain aloof to their presence and suspicious of their intentions.”

These words describe well the way many church leaders approach LGBT people, who are not encountered but treated in the abstract as distant and often invisible objects. Just as the bishops exhort others to engage migrants as subjects with whom one is in close relationship, they could turn their words inward and encounter LGBT people in the same way. The power of encounter is profound, and some church leaders have testified to this power, like Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna who said his friendship with a gay man had “melted away prejudices.

The same analysis can be applied to the bishops’ call for responding to immigrants’ needs withr hospitality and accompaniment. Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, commented that Migration Week is “an excellent opportunity to highlight Biblical tradition and our mission to welcome the newcomer” and “a vital time to show welcome, compassion, and solidarity with our migrant and refugee brothers and sisters.” It is, again, easy to understand how the bishops could apply this thinking to practice greater hospitality to and accompaniment with LGBT people and their loved ones.

The shift is not only feasible, but it must happen because the situation of LGBT migrants is often dire.

Given that more than 70 nations criminalize homosexuality and other nations restrict LGBT rights, some refugees are seeking asylum based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. How many such refugees apply for asylum in the U.S. is unclear as these numbers are not tracked by the federal government, according to a report from the LGBT Freedom and Asylum Network. But regardless of their numbers, such refugees are fleeing harsh persecution in their home country that may include discrimination, imprisonment, physical and sexual violence, and torture.

LGBT victims of human trafficking have unique needs, as stigma and specific health issues make their liberation and recovery more difficult. LGBT people, particularly youth, may be more susceptible to traffickers because of economic disadvantage and/or being ostracized from families and communities. The world’s human trafficking is one which the Catholic Church has responded well to, but the response can be improved by providing informed and competent care to LGBT victims.

Finally, too often LGBT migrants, refugees, and victims of human trafficking are subjected to immigration processes and detention facilities in the U.S. which, failing to account for the unique needs of sexual and gender minorities, actually make these communities more vulnerable. For instance, trans detainees can be misidentified and held in a facility that does not match with their gender identity.

If the U.S. bishops could take the time and be willing to truly encounter LGBT migrants, listening to their realities and learning about the specific issues affecting them, the bishops would understand that LGBT concerns must be included, and even given a preferential option, in the church’s larger witness for just and humane migration.

This National Migration Week, may all Catholics — the bishops, LGBT Catholics and their families, and immigrants — encounter one another in new ways. This coming year will prove difficult for marginalized communities (as I wrote about over the weekend here and here), and greater solidarity will be needed by all to confront further discrimination and oppression.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 9, 2017

With LGBT Rights Under Attack in 2017, Catholics Must Seek Justice with Renewed Vigor (Part II)

Today’s post is the second half of an analysis of how Catholic LGBT issues in the United States will play out in the new year, and with a new president taking office. Yesterday’s post, which you can read here, discussed emerging issues at the state and local level, contrasting the responses of two Catholic politicians in Virginia as an example.

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LGBT advocates rallying outside the U.S. Capitol

I turn now to the national landscape. Writing for Religion Dispatches, Sunnivie Brydum has identified areas at the federal government level where LGBT rights are likely to be threatened. In reading her article, we again ask: what can Catholics expect in the church and in society? And how can Catholics respond effectively?

First Amendment Defense Act

First, Brydum says the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) “is all but certain to become law.” This bill “exemplifies the ways in which the bedrock principle of religious freedom” has been weaponized to block the advance of LGBT equality.”

FADA is a federal version of the “right to discriminate” legislation which has appeared in state legislatures, allowing people and corporations to deny services to LGBT people if the person or corporation acts according to their religious beliefs. Brydum suggested that FADA’s passage in Congress will strengthen local efforts to enact “right to discriminate” laws.

Unfortunately, U.S. Catholic bishops have been leading figures in misusing religious liberty, particularly in regard to LGBT issues. Brydum noted that it was in a letter to Catholics that President-elect Trump said he would support FADA’s passage. These realities mean LGBT Catholics and their allies will have to challenge not only political but ecclesial forces in the coming year. We have to demand that church leaders adhere more closely to Catholic teaching which supports non-discrimination protections for LGBT people and the equality of persons rooted in human dignity.

Attacks on Healthcare Access

Brydum identified healthcare access as a second threatened area. She specifically identified the impact that proposed Secretary of Health and Services Tom Price will have. Price, a congressman from Georgia, has repeatedly voted against LGBT rights and “defended false equivalencies between pedophilia and homosexuality as nothing more than harmless ‘Christian beliefs regarding proper sexual ethics.'” Brydum continued:

“Crucially, Price also denounced the Obama administration’s landmark support for transgender students as an ‘absurd’ and ‘clear invasion of privacy.’. . .For the first time under the [Affordable Care Act], transgender Americans could not be denied gender-affirming health care simply because they were transgender.”

For sexual and gender minorities, changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could eliminate vital programs which help many Americans, and particularly vulnerable populations, to obtain healthcare. One study estimated that 36,000 people would die each year if the ACA is repealed. Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, is quoted by Brydum saying, “If confirmed, Tom Price would steer HHS in a dangerous direction that’s motivated by profit and the desire to control our bodies.”

Again, despite Catholic teaching affirming healthcare as a human right, it has been Catholic bishops and political operatives who have repeatedly tried to stop passage of and then undermine the ACA. Healthcare that is affordable and informed about gender and sexuality issues is not always accessible to LGBT people, but many steps were taken under President Barack Obama to address systemic problems. Catholics will have to challenge any movement to reverse these lifesaving measures, and again demand that church leaders shift their focus.

Curtailed Civil Rights

The third and final national area Brydum addressed are LGBT civil rights, and, specifically, the impact changes at the Department of Justice might have. Brydum wrote:

“President Trump’s Department of Justice may use the muscle that agency developed under Obama to suppress voting rights, privatize education, and strip away existing civil rights protections. That last provision is particularly important for LGBT Americans, who enjoyed an unprecedented growth in legal equality under President Obama.”

However, Brydum said, the approval of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General would mean “the fate of American civil rights law is effectively sealed” and the Department of Justice would become “a powerful foe.”

Catholics in the United States have repeatedly proven to be among the most LGBT- supportive religious believers, and Catholic politicians like Governor McAuliffe who have done much to advance LGBT rights in civil law. Civil rights is one area where it would be easy for church leaders to raise their voices; human rights are a settled matter in church teaching. The chilling silence of most U.S. bishops after 49 people were massacred at an LGBT club in Orlando cannot be repeated.

Looking Ahead in 2017

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The road ahead will be much harder than it was under the previous presidential administration.Wherever civil rights come under attack, Catholics must step forward. Catholic LGBT advocates must be in solidarity with Muslim Americans, communities of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, women, and other marginalized groups who may come under attack. It is helpful to keep in mind these words from the Catholic Committee on Appalachia:

“Catholics are called by God to oppose discrimination in all of its forms. No religious conviction justifies our treatment of anyone as a second-class citizen.  All are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, religious freedom does not trump civil rights, as both are important and should be protected equally.”

Now, more than ever, we must cultivate deeper roots of faith in Jesus Christ in which to ground our witness for equality in the church and in the world.

For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to Bondings 2.0 in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 8, 2017

With LGBT Rights Under Attack in 2017, Catholics Must Seek Justice with Renewed Vigor (Part I)

In the last few years, LGBT rights have expanded rapidly in the United States. But 2017 will almost certainly have a different tenor as progress stalls and previously established rights come under attack.

In today’s and tomorrow’s posts, I explore the year ahead as it relates to Catholic LGBT issues. What can Catholics expect in the church and in society? And how can Catholics respond effectively? Today’s post focuses in on local politics, while tomorrow looks at the national landscape.

Contrasting Catholic Politicians in Virginia

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Governor Terry McAuliffe at the signing of Executive Order 61

An example of the contrasting responses which Catholics offer to LGBT people comes from Virginia. The state’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, who is Catholic, signed an executive order last week which prohibits employers contracted by state government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Executive Order 61 establishes stipulations in contracts over $10,000 that prohibit “discrimination by the contractor, in its employment practices, subcontracting practices, and delivery of goods or services. . .”, and the order bans state employees from discriminating during the contracting process. McAuliffe commented in a statement:

“‘As my first act as governor, I signed Executive Order 1 to ban discrimination in the state workforce based on sexual orientation, take divisive social issue battles off the table and help build an open and welcoming economy.'”

But battles over LGBT rights have not stopped in Virginia. Indeed, just as McAuliffe signed his executive order, a fellow Catholic in the state legislature sought to curtail LGBT rights.

Delegate Robert Marshall introduced a bill that would “force transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate,” according to the Times-Dispatch. It would also “require school principals to notify a student’s parents if the student makes any attempt to be ‘treated as the opposite sex.'”

The proposed legislation is similar to North Carolina’s HB 2 law and other state-level restrictions targeting LGBT people.  Marshall’s proposal is not likely to pass, and Governor McAuliffe has promised to veto it if the General Assembly somehow approves the bill.

Increased Local Efforts to Stop LGBT Rights

LGBT advocates can expect many state-level political battles similar to what is playing out in Virginia, according to Sunnivie Brydum of Religion Dispatcheswho wrote:

“Even before Trump’s unlikely electoral victory, each new legislative session brought a cornucopia of anti-LGBT bills introduced in state legislatures around the country. . .municipal involvement is going to be our best bet to resist Trump’s agenda. While it may seem counter-intuitive to focus a national resistance on regional or state offices, the truth is that local elections matter, and local politicians are often easier to access than high-ranking administration officials.”

Catholics in the United States now have a decision to make in the coming year. Will we act like Governor McAuliffe to ensure every LGBT person attains their human rights to the fullest extent possible? Will we act like Delegate Marshall by abandoning church teaching in the service of anti-LGBT ideology? Will we remain indifferent?

Thankfully, Catholics have previously proven to be willing and effective local advocates for LGBT rights. States with high numbers of Catholics were the first to pass marriage equality laws, and Catholics have successfully organized in recent elections to pass pro-LGBT referenda while stopping many anti-equality proposals. These local Catholic networks will have to re-organize themselves in offering a witness against attempts to roll back hard won rights. Beginning with town ordinances and state laws, Catholics must begin anew the hard work of achieving LGBT justice.

Tomorrow’s post will look at Catholic LGBT issues as they may play out on the national level, and offer some overall analysis about what may happen in 2017.

For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to Bondings 2.0 in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 7, 2017

As LGBT Protections Overturned, Transgender Patient Claims Discrimination by Catholic Hospital

A transgender man has filed a discrimination lawsuit against a Catholic hospital just at the same time that a federal judge blocked new healthcare policies implemented by President Barack Obama to protect LGBT people.

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Jionni Conforti

In a lawsuit, Jionni Conforti claimed that St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey denied him a surgery which was “medically necessary as part of his gender transition,” reported ABC News.

A nurse initially told Conforti the surgery would be scheduled. Then Fr. Martin Rooney, the director of mission services at St. Joseph’s, intervened against it. He said in an email to Conforti’s doctor that a hysterectomy was not possible due to the institution’s religious identity. ABC News reported the especially troubling fact that the surgery had been denied “despite the fact that the hospital’s ‘patient bill of rights’ guarantees medical services without discrimination based on ‘gender identity or expression.'” Neither the hospital nor Fr. Rooney will comment on the incident and subsequent lawsuit.

Conforti, however, is clear about both the damage this alleged discrimination has caused and his reasons for suing, saying:

“‘I felt completely disrespected as a person. . .That’s not how any hospital should treat any person regardless of who they are. A hospital is a place where you should feel safe and taken care of. Instead I felt like I was rejected and humiliated.'”

The lawsuit, which beyond financial compensation hopes “to require the hospital perform any needed medical care for transgender patients,” helps to contribute to the important work of combating endemic problems related to trans people accessing healthcare. ABC News explained:

“While he had the procedure performed three months later at a different hospital, Conforti said he’s pursuing the lawsuit so that no one else has to go through what he did. . .[he] cites the problem of suicide in the transgender community.

” ‘Anything can trigger that. Something may seem small, but to a trans person, it’s not. . .This is a big thing that happened. I want it to change. I don’t want other trans people to have to go through and feel what I felt.'”

Conforti’s story has come to light just as policies initiated by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to protect LGBT patients have been blocked by a federal judge. This ruling by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor may mean more trans patients face discrimination by religiously-affiliated hospitals.

Religious groups had filed lawsuits against the federal government over the HHS regulations which, congruent with the Affordable Care Act, prohibit discrimination based on a number of protected classes, including gender identity. Buzzfeed News reported:

“O’Connor, the same judge who blocked federal government protections allowing students in public schools to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity last year, halted enforcement of the rule one day before it was supposed to go into effect, on January 1, 2017. . .

“One plaintiff in the lawsuit, a private hospital system called the Franciscan Alliance, said that, consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church, ‘a person’s sex is ascertained biologically, and not by one’s beliefs, desires, or feelings.’

“The hospital group argued that treating or referring patients for transition-related care would constitute ‘impermissible material cooperation with evil.'”

The plaintiffs, which include Christian organizations and several states, claimed the regulation infringes upon their religious liberty as it does not include a religious exemption from providing healthcare required by transgender people, which the plaintiffs claimed violate their religious beliefs. Yet, according to new standards of care and the American Psychiatric Association’s new 2012 diagnosis of gender dysphoria, providing gender-affirming surgeries, hormone treatments, and counseling is increasingly understood to be valid and necessary medical care.

Catholic plaintiffs who are part of the several lawsuits against the HHS regulation have included the Catholic Benefits Association (CBA), the Diocese of Fargo, Catholic Charities North Dakota, the University of St. Mary, the Sisters of Mercy in North Dakota, and SMP Healthcare.

As I noted earlier this week, Catholic healthcare leaders’ opposition to non-discrimination protections are entirely out of step with Catholic teaching. Healthcare in church teaching is not only a good, it is a human right. Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris was groundbreaking in human rights advocacy for his affirmation of this truth.

St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City strongly affirmed this truth when it implemented a non-discrimination policy to protect lesbian and gay people  in 1973, becoming the first Catholic institution to do so. Such protections are good, but they are meaningless if, as with St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center, they are merely words. Catholic healthcare systems should stop fighting legal protections and instead proactively implement policies by which they will abide that live out the first rule of medicine: do no harm.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 6, 2017

 

 

Catholics in India Help Found New School for Transgender Students

Catholic ministers in India recently formed a group to offer pastoral care for transgender people, reported ucanews.com, and they are already making an impact by helping to found a new school for trans students.

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Attendees, including Catholic religious, at the opening ceremony for Sahaj International School

Clergy, religious, and lay people in the Indian state of Kerala have joined together to establish “one of the few outreach programs for the transgender community by the institutional church in India.”

According to Fr. Paul Madassey, head of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council’s Pro-Life Support ministry, under which the transgender initiative is carried out, transgender people in the state are particularly vulnerable. Sex traffickers in northern India prey on trans people who are discriminated against and economically disadvantaged.

Fr. Madassey explained that the transgender initiative had been inspired by Pope Francis’ call to accompany the LGBT community and that “the whole church has a big role to play” in providing such pastoral support.

One project by the group has been helping found a new school inclusive of trans people called Sahaj International School. It opened last week with ten students seeking their high school certificate. Catch News explained further:

“Led by six [transgender people] from TransIndia Foundation with activist Vijayaraja Mallika at the helm, the school promises to provide residential facilities for a short period, free textbooks, gender neutral toilets, a meal for those in need, and tuition to pass Class X and XII. . .

“Mallika says that zir [a gender-neutral possessive pronoun] efforts are focused on introducing inclusive education. . .[Mallika said] ‘We are providing them a safe space for security and sustainable education.'”

The need for such a school is immense. Of the estimated 25,000 trans people in the state of Kerala, 57% did not complete a high school education, according to Mallika. There are also issues of social discrimination, family rejection, and derogatory language.

Mallika, who previously worked on transgender pastoral care with the Archdiocese of Bombay, said the church has been “very supportive” and that “[r]eligion plays an important role in social and behavioral change at the grass-roots level.” The church’s role in the school was instrumental, according to ucanews.com:

“In mid-December, Sisters of the Congregation of Mother Carmel offered their buildings to form an exclusive school for dropouts among transgender people, considered the first of its kind in the country.

“The nuns offered their venue after at least 50 building owners declined to let out their buildings, indicating the discrimination prevalent in the society, says Father Madassey.”

This work in Kerala comes quickly after Caritas India, the official development agency of the nation’s bishops, announced it would be initiating more transgender-inclusive policies and outreach programs. Though Caritas India’s approach is not perfect, the announcement of the program is a key moment for the global church.

The Catholic Church in India is widely respected for charitable efforts, despite Catholics being less than two percent of the nation’s population. The church has been a positive voice for LGBT communities, too, as when Bombay’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias twice spoke against the criminalization of gay people. In an exclusive interview with Bondings 2.0, Gracias said that the church embraces, wants, and needs LGBT people. Virginia Saldanha, an Indian lay woman who formerly led the Office of Laity for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said the 2015 Synod on the Family needed to bring LGBT “in from the cold.

Earlier this week, I suggested that findings from the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey were a helpful pastoral examination for all Catholics about our awareness of and advocacy for trans equality in the church. These efforts in India are helpful models, too, for how the church can and should be responding to the urgent pastoral needs of trans communities — and how we can become more receptive of the gifts and contributions which trans Catholics are making to our church’s mission.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 5, 2017

 

Malawi Bishops Lead March Against LGBT Rights

Catholic bishops in Malawi joined other religious leaders last month in a protest march against LGBT rights, an issue on which the nation’s Catholic officials have already opined quite negatively.

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Marchers in Malawi

The Citizens’ March for Life and Family was actually a series of smaller marches throughout the country, reported The Tablet. In addition to protesting homosexuality, these marches, which involved some 60 denominations and more than 50 Christian organizations, also included protests against expanded abortion rights.

Organizers said the Citizens’ March for Life and Family urged Malawians to oppose legalizing homosexuality, an act they referred to as “a direct attack” on family life. Catholics played a leading role in the March, which was sponsored in part by the (Catholic) Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) and chaired by Martin Chiphwanya, the National Secretary for the Catholic Commission for Justice, reported Nyasa Times.

Catholic church leaders were also active locally. According to MalayMail OnlineFr. Francis Tambala told marchers in the major city of Blantyre, “We say no to gay and lesbian unions. (Lawmakers) must vote no to homosexuality as history will judge us harshly if we don’t stand against abortion and same-sex marriages.”

LGBT advocates have pushed back against the church-backed protests, questioning why religious leaders were focused on condemning LGBT people when real issues needed attention. Gift Trapence, an advocate who leads the Centre for Development of People, said such protests shifted the focus of “suffering Malawians away from real issues of power blackouts, crumbled economy and corruption.”

It is also noteworthy, too, that following the protests in December, a senior member of the Malawi Law Commission chided religious leaders behind the March, reported the Maravi Post. Mike Chinoko, the deputy chief law reform officer for the Commission, said, “What the men or women of God should know is that there is a big difference between the church and the state.”

Actions by Catholic officials come about nine months after Malawi’s bishops called for the government to begin enforcing the nation’s ban on homosexuality. In its pastoral letter for the Year of Mercy, “Mercy of God as a Path to Hope,” the ECM called for the government to begin enforcing the nation’s law against homosexuality and stop bowing down “to pressure from donor community, international bodies and local human rights campaigners.”

The bishops’ lengthy support for LGBT criminalization is well-documented and has been strongly condemned by LGBT advocates. Last year, Malawi’s bishops also made false claims about alleged foreign aid pressure during U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People Randy Berry’s visit to their nation.  Berry categorically refuted their claims. Individual bishops from this African country have made other troubling remarks about homosexuality, too.

Malawi’s bishops have significant influence in the country, despite Catholics composing just 20% of the population. Catholic leaders played a key role in the country’s 1992 transition to democracy and have been described by some as the conscience of their nation. In a nation where LGBT people remain illegal and marginalized, the bishops should be using their moral authority to foster greater respect and equality for all persons.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 4, 2017