Wednesday, December 30, 2009

NCR on Uganda: The Scandal of Catholic Silence

News analysis of the ongoing deliberations about the fate of gay citizens in Uganda has died down in the holiday season, though Box Turtle Bulletin continues to do outstanding work in monitoring the situation. Because there has been a lull in reporting on the Ugandan story, I was particularly happy to see National Catholic Reporter devoting its 23 December editorial to the Ugandan story.

NCR offers an interesting take on what’s occurring in Uganda. The editorial contrasts the Ugandan legislature’s consideration of a bill that would make homosexuality a capital crime with Houston’s recent election of an openly lesbian mayor. In one case, we see “a growing civility toward and acceptance of” those who are gay or lesbian.

In the other case—in parts of Africa today—we see “the extremes to which some can take the homophobic theology of major religions.” NCR notes that though some analysts “contend that anti-homosexuality in Africa is a cultural matter and that Ugandans resist the outside world’s horror at the proposed laws because they see it as one more act of oppressive imperialists,” Western societies and churches have had not hesitated to name some long-accepted (and church-endorsed) cultural practices as abhorrent and contrary to gospel values.

We once burned witches and enslaved those with dark skin. We no longer do so, because we have come to the consensus that these practices are aberrations, rather than authentic expressions, of religious values and the civic values necessary to build a humane society.

I read NCR’s statements here as a response to the thesis advanced by their own writer, John Allen, that the rise in homophobia in some parts of Africa today is an “equal-and-opposite reaction” to imperialistic pressure from Western societies to repudiate homophobia. I appreciate NCR’s insistence that some cultural norms—e.g., recognition of the full personhood of women and of LGBT folks, rejection of slavery and of execution of “witches”—should transcend particular cultural settings, because they are sine qua non for any humane society, anywhere in the world.

I also find the NCR editorial’s frank recognition that what is happening in Uganda today is a direct result of the involvement of some American right-wing religious groups refreshing. As I’ve noted in previous postings, John Allen’s reporting on the African church never alludes to this significant and incontrovertible fact about the Ugandan situation.

And, finally, I take heart from NCR’s unambiguous conclusion that “[i]t is a scandal that the Catholic church has not spoken out more forcefully against the proposed legislation.” Pope Benedict’s homily at his Christmas midnight Mass called for resolution of conflict and social healing in a number of nations in the world. Conspicuously missing from the list was Uganda. Benedict chooses to remain silent.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Archbishop of Uganda, Cyprian Lwanga, did address the legislation before his nation’s legislature in his own Christmas homily. However, as Jim Burroway has noted at Box Turtle Bulletin, Archbishop Lwanga framed his denunciation of violence against LGBT persons with doublespeak that has become typical of official Catholic statements about the human rights of gay persons.

While denouncing outright physical violence against gays, Archbishop Lwanga did not denounce the manifold forms of social and legislative violence against gay persons that occur in both African societies and elsewhere in the world. His omission of any statement condemning the criminalization of homosexuality—indeed, his homily appears to support laws that already criminalize homosexuality in Uganda—undercuts his condemnation of violence against those who are gay.

And this is the rock and hard place between which official Catholic teaching now finds itself, as a result of its adamant refusal to reconsider its biologistic natural-law teachings about human sexuality. Because Rome has chosen to hinge its claim to teach universally binding, unchanging truth on its refusal to reconsider what it says about issues like artificial contraception and homosexuality, the church finds itself caught between its obligation to defend human rights consistently, and its determination to deny human rights to those who are gay.

The tragic silence of the pope, as a nation that is over 40% Catholic now considers the death penalty for those who are gay, is the end result of this determination. This silence completely undermines anything the church wishes to say about human rights anywhere in the world. It is impossible to defend the human rights of all oppressed minorities while denying the rights of a particular oppressed minority.

The approach that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has taken to the Ugandan situation stands in sharp contrast to the approach taken by Benedict. In my view, one approach points to models of what Christian pastoral behavior should be about. The other models the antithesis of Christian pastoral behavior.

As Jim Burroway has noted, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s press secretary has stated that Rowan Williams is “very clear that the private Member’s Bill being discussed in Uganda as drafted is entirely unacceptable from a pastoral, moral and legal point of view.” Entirely unacceptable from a pastoral, moral, and legal point of view: though it would be impressive if the Archbishop of Canterbury made such a statement publicly and not through his press secretary, and if he went on to urge resistance to the impending legislation on the part of Anglican clergy in Uganda, even so, he has at least spoken unambiguously here. And with pastoral clarity.

And that is, unfortunately, more than one can say for the leader of the world’s Catholic community, who has not spoken at all. NCR is correct to call this silence scandalous. The silence of Christian pastoral leaders in the face of deliberations to execute a stigmatized minority is a skandalon, a stumbling block, to anyone who seeks to encounter God through the ministry and teaching of the church.