I am not by any means the only person giving testimony about how Pope Francis's silence regarding the threat to LGBT lives in Africa radically undermines his "reform" agenda for the Catholic church. Today's New York Times carries an essay by papal biographer Paul Vallely entitled "The Pope's Failure in Africa." Vallely's testimony is critically important because he has been a strong defender of Francis and a promoter of his reform agenda.
Here's Vallely's take on Pope Francis's "deafening silence" regarding the threat to LGBT lives in Africa, and what this deafening silence portends for his agenda of reform and for the future of the Catholic church:
Pope Francis, now safely back in Rome, missed a major opportunity on his trip to Africa. His pleas for peace and reconciliation between the continent’s Christians and Muslims were well-received, by both faiths. His castigation of the indifference of the rich, as he stood amid a cardboard slum, was apt. He was widely applauded when he warned of catastrophe if this week’s Paris climate negotiations do not succeed. But when it came to the way gay people are treated on a continent in which homosexuality is illegal in many countries, he offered only a deafening silence
His defenders will say that gay rights are a Western obsession and that it would have been counterproductive for Francis to raise the matter on such a brief visit to a continent which is hostile to the pope’s desire to make the Roman Catholic Church more welcoming to people who are gay, or divorced or cohabiting without being married. But that is wrong. How gays are treated is fundamental to the future of the universal church — and Pope Francis knows it. . . .
Africa is set to become an increasing force within Catholicism. Pope Francis missed the chance to underscore the breadth of the message of love, mercy and inclusion it needs to embrace to become an accepted member of the universal church.
How gays are treated is fundamental to the future of the universal church — and Pope Francis knows it. . . . Africa is set to become an increasing force within Catholicism. Pope Francis missed the chance to underscore the breadth of the message of love, mercy and inclusion it needs to embrace to become an accepted member of the universal church. This is hardly a light criticism: it points to a glaring and cruel omission in the pastoral outreach of top Catholic leaders, one that undercuts their talk about love, mercy, and inclusion in the most fundamental way possible.
Quite simply, Vallely's analysis suggests — as I have repeatedly done in one posting after another at this blog site — that Christian pastoral leaders cannot credibly proclaim good news to the world and preach about social justice and human rights while pretending that LGBT human beings do not exist, and that their lives are not made deeply problematic due to the denial of their rights in many parts of the world.
As I have done, Vallely also notes that the deafening silence of the pope about these matters on a pastoral visit to Africa, where, as he points out, homosexuality is outlawed in many nations and the very humanity of LGBT people is assaulted by brutal prejudice, is particularly disconcerting. It is, in no uncertain terms, a gross abdication of pastoral responsibility, and those Catholic "liberals" who continue to defend this ugly game as top Catholic pastoral leaders continue to play at it are, as Vallely suggests, not in the least contributing to a bright and viable future for their church.
They are irresponsibily allowing their pastoral leaders to pretend that it's possible to talk about issues like poverty, maltreatment of minority groups, marginalization and exploitation, social justice, and human rights, while refusing to address the application of their social teaching to a minority group that is at present among those experiencing the most egregious maltreatment in many societies in the world. When the top pastoral leader of a Christian church can be permitted to go to the continent of Africa and remain totally silent about this issue as he speaks about social justice and human rights, and when those defending his reform agenda collude in this callous program by which LGBT humanity is made invisible as that church talks about social justice and human rights, the future of that church cannot be bright, if its agenda is, as it proclaims, to heal the world with its good news.
Further witness: here's Patricia Miller at Religion Dispatches:
Apparently finding a way to bend church rules to allow divorced Catholics to receive communion is a more pressing concern for Pope Francis than the life-and-death issue of AIDS. The pope who has bent over backwards to find a "pastoral" solution to the problem of divorced Catholics showed no such compassion for those living with HIV/AIDS when asked on his return flight from his African visit if the church should change its prohibition on condom use given the continued spread of the virus.
As Patricia Miller correctly notes, what's under discussion here — what's under discussion as the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection is being considered — is a "life-and-death issue." As she also notes, the evasive response that the pope gave to the question of a reporter about this life-and-death issue, which suggests that the "real" problems we should be discussing instead are hunger, exploitation of workers, threats to the enrivornment, etc., is "astounding" in its diversonary attempt to disguise the life-and-death issue under consideration.
Especially in the case of Africa: as she points out, citing data of the World Health Organization,
[T]here are currently 37 million people living with HIV/AIDS and some two million people were newly infected in 2014. Sub-Saharan African remains the global hot spot, with 26 million infected people and 70 percent of new infections." A large percentage of these are women infected by their male sexual partners, and the children to whom they give birth.
Despite these abundantly clear data, one of the leading "liberal" defenders of Pope Francis, National Catholic Reporter's Michael Sean Winters, has just chosen to shake his finger at "certain left-of-center" Catholics who, as he thinks, want the pope to "throw out the Church’s long reflection on the sixth commandment" by engaging the question of condom use to save lives forthrightly, with honest attention to the life-or-death dimensions of the discussion.
Winters characterizes those who have criticized the pope's deafening silence about LGBT people in Africa and his non-answer to a journalist's question about condom use as members of a "leftie Catholic chorus" obsessed with pelvic morality. But Patricia Miller again: Francis's response to the question about condom use and HIV infection was "astounding" because this is not a discussion about the sixth commandment and pelvic morality. This is a discussion about life-or-death issues.
This is a discussion about saving lives. This is a discussion about saving the lives of women who are infected with HIV because their sexual partners have not made wise sexual choices. It is a discussion about preventing the transmission of the HIV virus to children in utero by mothers who have been infected with the virus by their male partners.
There is a certain disingenuousness, isn't there — there's an outright obscenity — in seeking to reduce this discussion to one about "long reflection on the sixth commandment" in the Catholic tradition, when it's not in the least a discussion about that commandment, but about one of the most central commandments of all in the Judaeo-Christian tradition: Choose life, not death; heal the world. Surely Mr. Winters knows all of this, just as he knows that the church's "long reflection on the sixth commandment" has comprised all sorts of ugly baggage about which the magisterium now rightly chooses to be silent, from the contention that rape is less morally deplorable than masturbation to the assertion that women are misbegotten males.
Not everything in the Catholic church's "long reflection on the sixth commandment" is — by a very long shot — salubrious or tenable today, and I daresay that Michael Sean Winters is fully aware of this, just as he's fully aware of the significant, necessary role that theological dissent and criticism of magisterial teaching have played in the development of more adequate thinking about sixth-commandment matters in the Catholic tradition.
Given that NCR gives such a high profile to Michael Sean Winters, I'm perplexed that this Catholic journal can simultaneously publish such a dismissive attack on a large contingent of Catholics seeking to build a better, more gospel-oriented church, and, at the very same time, publish an editorial encouraging U.S. Catholics to mount an "industrious campaign" of church reform emphasizing "encounter with others" and blurring the borders of a police-state style of Catholicism that's all about maintaining hard insider-outsider boundaries. In what precise way does Michael Sean Winters's nasty attack on "leftie" Catholics (and this is a persistent attack) contribute to an "industrious campaign" of church reform emphasizing "encounter with others" and softening the insider-outsider lines that had characterized the Catholicism of the previous two papacies?
What encounter with others, when publications like NCR do not even provide column space to people offering a countervailing view of the pope's silence about LGBT issues in Africa? And what softening of boundaries, when LGBT human beings are, in Michael Sean Winters's defense of Francis, treated as non-existent, as dispensable, as a huge obstacle to the pope's rhetoric about social justice and human rights, insofar as they and people defending them dare to raise their voices and say that this rhetoric should apply to these people, too?
Or, to put the question differently, how can such toxic game-playing, which has characterized the way the Catholic church does business at a pastoral level for a long time now — in particular, with LGBT human beings — possibly build a better, more viable, more justice-oriented and welcoming church? And why do "liberal" Catholic journals and the journalists they promote persist in such toxic game-playing at the very same time that they claim to be promoting an agenda of reform that is about mercy and justice?