Friday, December 11, 2009

The Vatican Finally Speaks: Vatican Statement about Uganda? to the U.N.

More on the breaking story of representatives of major religions (e.g., Rick Warren on Wednesday) speaking out—at long last—against the fiercely anti-gay legislation now under consideration by the Ugandan legislature. News reports earlier in the week indicate that the proposed death penalty for gay citizens of Uganda may have been tabled, while other provisions of the proposed legislation, including mandatory “conversion therapy” for gays, which has long been promoted by the American evangelicals who have promoted the Ugandan legislation, are still on the table.

Timothy Kincaid and Jim Burroway at Box Turtle Bulletin have done a formidable job of following this story from its inception. In a posting yesterday, Box Turtle notes that a Vatican representative to the United Nations read a statement by webcast to a U.N. panel on anti-gay violence Thursday.

It’s not clear to me precisely which Vatican representative (Archbishop Celestino Migliore?) read this statement. I don’t find many other news outlets reporting on this story; the few that do say only what Box Turtle reports—that a Vatican representative to the U.N. made a statement to the panel on anti-gay violence.

According to Timothy Kincaid, while the Vatican statement didn’t mention Uganda, the Vatican statement opposes all grave violations of human rights against homosexual persons, such as the use of the death penalty, torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.” The Vatican statement noted as well that “[t]he Holy See also opposes all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation which undermines the inherent dignity of the human person.”

As Timothy Kincaid notes, it’s important to read the preceding statement in light of the Vatican’s refusal a year ago to support a European Union appeal for a U.N. declaration condemning the decriminalization of homosexuality anywhere such criminalization is legally enacted. In its official teaching about homosexuality in the papal regimes of John Paul II and Benedict, the Catholic church has walked a fine line, one which calls for opposition to acts of violence against LGBT persons, but which also calls on the church to oppose, in general, any and all extensions of human rights to LGBT citizens around the world.

This fine line was crafted by the current pope when, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he headed the church’s orthodoxy watchdog office the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithful. In his 1986 statement on the pastoral care of homosexual persons, Ratzinger developed a fateful term that had not been characteristic of Catholic teaching about LGBT persons in the past. He characterized all who are gay as “intrinsically disordered”—disordered in their very nature and constitution as human beings.

In the view of many theologians and others commenting on Ratzinger’s anti-gay theology—which has now been enshrined in official Catholic teaching about homosexuality—this language is in and of itself intrinsically violent, so that it is disingenuous for the Catholic church to condemn violence against LGBT persons, while it creates the linguistic structures that foster violence against those stigmatized by a major religion as unnatural and less than human. (See Sarah Posner’s powerful statement on this topic at Religion Dispatches yesterday.)

In short (my own reflection on this teaching and the inability of the pope to speak forcefully about the Ugandan situation now follows), the church has locked itself, at an official level, into a very unhappy corner, vis-à-vis pastoral outreach to gay and lesbian members, and its ability to deal with the human rights of gay persons. While very strong currents of social change around the world are pointing increasingly to eradication of all barriers to the human rights of those who are LGBT, the Catholic church wishes to defend human rights in general, while rejecting, quite specifically, the movement to accord LGBT persons full human rights.

The church has shut itself up on the sacred reserve on which it has sought to confine those who are LGBT, and its teaching appears to make sense only to the true believers who live on that sacred preserve—a dwindling subset of Catholics. Its teaching about human rights, with the wink-nudge approach to the human rights of LGBT persons, is not taken seriously, because of the glaring inconsistency between what the Catholic church wants to say about human rights, and how it actually treats its gay members (as well as its female members).

I do not expect Benedict to speak out about Uganda—though that nation is now over 40% Catholic and will, by mid-century, be one of the largest Catholic countries in the world. In my view, this U.N. statement is probably the best we will get from the Vatican.

I am grateful for this tiny glimmer of sound moral insight. I am unhappy, though, that the leader of the Catholic church, whose voice could—and should—count when egregious human rights violations are occurring anywhere in the world, has boxed himself into a corner of silence. We’re talking, after all, about a situation in which people have begun to deliberate seriously about instituting the death penalty against those born gay or lesbian!

Benedict grew up during the Third Reich. He was a Nazi Youth. One would think he might know from first-hand experience what can happen when any nation anywhere begins to talk about exterminating those considered inferior, Other in a demeaned way—human cockroaches, as some Ugandan legislators have recently called gay persons.

And one would think Benedict would know first hand what can happen to the credibility of churches in nations that consider such measures, and in which the churches do not speak loudly and unambiguously as the voice of conscience as inhumanity takes center stage in the state. What has happened in Uganda this year should be a wake-up call to the whole world about the continued fragility of our social protections of the human rights of LGBT people anywhere in the world. Particularly when there is abundant evidence that the Ugandan legislation has, to a considerable degree, been urged on, if not crafted outright, by right-wing American evangelicals.

For a valuable summary of Box Turtle Bulletin’s extensive and very fine reporting on the Ugandan situation, see the links that follow Timothy Kincaid’s article cited at the start of this posting. And on Rachel Maddow’s summary of her outstanding reports on Rev. Rick Warren’s connection to the Ugandan story, see her comments yesterday on Rick Warren’s condemnation of the Ugandan legislation, to which Joe.My.God links.