A recent interview with Nigeria’s Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja, illustrates one important reason why LGBT people still do not have full equality in the Catholic Church: Church leaders do not know their own teaching and they publicly speak mistakes about it.
The cardinal was interviewed recently by The Sun, a national newspaper in Nigeria. During the interview, the reporter asked:
“Do you foresee the Catholic Church sustaining its stance on gay marriage in the future?”
The cardinal’s complete answer to the question was:
“Unfortunately, we are living in a world where these things have now become quite acceptable but for the fact that they are acceptable doesn’t mean that they are right. The Catholic Church considers itself as carrying the banner of the truth in the world that has allowed itself to be so badly deceived.
“On gay marriage or homosexuality in general, everybody knows that the Catholic Church is about the only group that among the Christian groups that has stood very firmly against it and we insist that it is against God’s will. Therefore, it is not a question of something for us to discuss and decide whether we shall accept it or not. Even if people don’t like us for it, our church has always said homosexuality is unnatural and marriage is between a man and a woman. There is no such thing as marriage between two men or marriage between two women. Whatever they do among themselves should not be called marriage. There is no question of the Catholic Church changing its positions on this matter.”
What’s wrong with that statement? Well, for one thing, church teaching does not state that homosexuality is “unnatural.” In one of the earliest Vatican statements on homosexuality in the modern era, 1975’s Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) wrote:
“A distinction is drawn, and it seems with some reason, between homosexuals whose tenecy. . . is transitory or at least no incurable; and homosexuals who are definitively such because of some kind of innate instinct. . . “
The particular term, “innate instinct,” indicates that the Vatican does not label a homosexual orientation as “unnatural.” In The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which appeared almost two decades later, the Vatican discussed homosexuality, saying, in part:
“Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.”
“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible.”
While the CDF also used the term “objective disorder” to describe a homosexual orientation, it is important to underline that the term does not refer to a medical or psychological condition, but to moral evaluation. In the 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, the CDF wrote:
“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”
Moreover, Church teaching never makes a blanket against “homosexuality,” as Cardinal Onaiyekan does. Church teaching makes a distinction between homosexual people and homosexual acts. As the above quotation indicates, the Church does not morally disapprove of homosexual people (“not a sin”), but it does not morally approve of homosexual activity. Lumping both people and acts under the title “homosexuality” is not responsible use of language, and neither does it show a careful awareness of Church teaching.
Thus, though Church teaching, based on natural law philosophy, does not approve of any sexual activity between people of the same gender, it does not describe either the act or the person as “unnatural.” I grant that this is a very fine, nuanced distinction, and, even at that, is still problematic. But it is important to make the distinction to see that someone like Cardinal Onaiyekan either does not understand the Church’s official position or is describing this position carelessly, perhaps influenced by his own prejudiced opinions on the matter.
Personally, I do not like splitting hairs like this theologically, but it is important to do so because of the tremendous harm that the cardinal’s words can have, especially in a nation like Nigeria where homosexuality is criminalized. Such ignorance or carelessness on the part of a Church official fuels the homophobia that causes violence.
Finally, some comments in regard to the cardinal’s statement:
“On gay marriage or homosexuality in general, everybody knows that the Catholic Church is about the only group that among the Christian groups that has stood very firmly against it and we insist that it is against God’s will.”
First of all, in Africa, as elsewhere, the Catholic Church is not the only religious institution which opposes same-gender marriage, and, as we saw above, the Church does not condemn “homosexuality in general.” More importantly, though, using language to describe homosexuality as “against God’s will” again strengthens negative attitudes which often lead to physical and emotional harm. In fact, the Catechism says of homosexual people:
“These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives. . . ”
“They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Cardinal Onaiyekan, and, indeed, other Church leaders, have expressed statements that reveal more ignorance than wisdom on the topic. For an earlier post about this topic, click here.
It is astonishing that someone in Cardinal Onaiyekan’s position would be so ignorant or careless regarding Church teaching. To me, it is an indication that cultural attitudes and personal biases, unfortunately, creep into our church’s official rhetoric. Such mis-education is harmful to LGBT people, the wider Church, and Cardinal Onaiyekan himself.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry