Friday, December 18, 2009

Why Catholics Are Silent: John Allen on Catholic Response to Ugandan Situation

In this week’s issue of National Catholic Reporter, John Allen tackles the question of Catholic silence (institutional Catholic silence) about what’s taking place in Uganda. And, as he does so, he unfortunately deepens rather than resolves critical questions about why Catholic officials are unable to address the Ugandan situation forthrightly and unambiguously—indeed, about why leading Catholic officials have been unable to say anything at all about Uganda, when even Rick Warren, some Manhattan Declaration signatories, members of the Family, and the Archbishop of Canterbury have found words to critique the legislation pending before the Ugandan parliament.

Rome’s silence is problematic. It is clearly problematic for Allen, who is, in general, a Vatican apologist—and an ally of neoconservative political and religious movements in the U.S. that have a vested interest in polishing up the Vatican’s image when they need more overt Catholic support in their culture-war battles to keep women in their place and punish gays.

It’s important to keep in mind this overweening objective of Allen’s article about Catholic silence re: the Ugandan situation: it’s first and foremost an apologetic article designed to let the Vatican—and the Ugandan bishops and African Catholics in general—off the hook. As one world leader after another—both political and religious—speaks out against legislation that is absolutely indefensible on any Christian moral ground, legislation that seeks to impose the death penalty on human beings simply because they are born gay, the silence of Benedict appears more perplexing each day.

More than that: it appears downright evil—silent complicity with what many people of good will can see as an unambiguous evil that deserves unambiguous moral condemnation by people of faith. John Allen needs desperately to find ways to let Benedict off the hook, as the mainstream media in Western nations sound the alarm about Uganda and dissect the incontrovertible role that various religious groups in Western nations—including Catholics—have played in setting the stage for what is now taking place in Uganda.

Allen on “Anti-Gay Bill in Uganda Challenges Catholics to Take a Stand”

These concerns—the concern to find ways to justify a Catholic silence that cannot be justified, as well as the concern to deflect attention from the role that neocon politics and the religious right (including Catholics) have played in creating conditions for anti-gay violence in Africa—were already apparent in an article Allen wrote for NCR at the end of November on the Ugandan situation.

In this article, entitled “Anti-Gay Bill in Uganda Challenges Catholics to Take a Stand,” Allen employs a tactic that is characteristic of his musings on the Catholic church in Africa—he seeks to shift the blame for the surging anti-gay sentiment in Africa from Africans themselves and onto the shoulders of progressives in the West who are, he maintains, seeking to impose Western cultural values antithetical to traditional African values on the people of that continent:

Today, however, there is an increasingly punitive mood on the continent, which many analysts regard as an equal-and-opposite reaction to the culture wars in the West: the more Europe and the States insist on gay rights, the more African societies push back.

What is remarkable about this argument is that it totally ignores the abundant and rapidly increasing body of evidence that the West has been actively promoting not tolerant attitudes towards LGBT human beings in Africa, but virulently hateful ones. By the end of November, when Allen wrote the preceding statement, Public Eye had published the whistle-blowing report of Zambian Anglican priest Kapya Kaoma (and here and here), which exposes the longstanding attempts of right-wing Christian groups in the West—including the Institute on Religion and Democracy, founded largely by American Catholic neocon activists—to stir resentment in Africa about the purported push of Western progressives to challenge homophobia and misogyny in African culture.

Kaoma notes,

Amid the utter hysteria, any sense that homosexuality has been in Africa from time immemorial was lost. While hardly embraced, and indeed illegal in many countries, at least LGBT people were not hounded by churches and police alike – until American culture warriors came to Africa.

The “utter hysteria” to which Kaoma is referring here is what happened in March 2009 when Scott Lively, right-wing evangelist and president of an anti-gay hate group in the U.S., visited Uganda, warning that gays posed a threat to Ugandan children and families. The current capital-punishment-for-gays bill was introduced shortly after Lively’s inflammatory visit to Uganda. Those introducing the bill met with Lively before they drafted the legislation. Lively is, by the way, a recent signer of the Manhattan Declaration.

Not a peep of any of this in John Allen’s musings on Catholic silence in Uganda at the end of November—though by this time, Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, had begun making the rounds of mainstream media circuits to discuss the involvement of the powerful right-wing evangelical-political group the Family in Uganda; evangelical activist Warren Throckmorton had written a powerful article for calling on American Christians to speak out; and Rachel Maddow was doughtily pursuing the story of American religious groups’ responsibility for the Ugandan situation in nightly broadcasts at (For documentation of the preceding claims, I refer readers once again to the stellar work of Box Turtle Bulletin on the Ugandan story, summarized here).

Though a compelling body of evidence had begun to prove that the Ugandan anti-gay legislation was, to a great degree, a product of anti-gay Western religious groups intent on exporting a Western culture war to Africa, at the end of November, as he tried to parse the puzzling Catholic silence about Uganda, John Allen wanted to convince his readers that the Ugandan situation was a response, instead, to the efforts of progressive groups in the West to push against homophobia in African nations!

Allen’s end of November statement is noteworthy, too, because it indicates Allen’s primary (and growing) concern in his coverage of the Ugandan-and-Catholic-silence story. As he notes,

As time goes on, Catholic silence will be increasingly unsustainable, especially if the bill comes up for a vote.

Indeed. As it turns out, Allen was absolutely correct in his intuition here. The more the mainstream media have pursued this story in the final months of the year, and the more world leaders have spoken out, the more indefensible Catholic silence—particularly the silence of Pope Benedict—has come to appear. And so Allen’s latest article, “Why Catholics Aren’t Speaking Up in Uganda about Anti-Gay Bill” (link provided above), which seeks implicitly to defend and excuse that silence with a set of arguments that compound the problem of Catholic silence rather than solve it.

Allen on “Why Catholics Aren’t Speaking Up in Uganda about Anti-Gay Bill”

Allen begins by acknowledging that even “fairly conservative” Christian leaders like Rick Warren and some Manhattan Declaration signers have spoken out to condemn the Ugandan anti-gay legislation. Obviously, these developments raise serious questions about the continued Catholic silence.

And there’s more:

The latest development is that in mid-December, the Interreligious Council of Uganda, the country’s major inter-faith body – one which includes the Catholic Church – came out in support of the bill.

Got that? This article’s title suggests that the problem we need to address is why Catholics aren’t speaking up about legislation that would apply the death penalty to gays in Uganda. But the reality is that “the Interreligious Council of Uganda, the country’s major inter-faith body—one which includes the Catholic Church—[just] came out in support of the bill.”

The reality is that Ugandan Catholics support this legislation. The problem to be explained is not the silence of Catholics supposedly critical of use of the death penalty against homosexuals. The problem is to explain Catholic support for capital punishment of a minority group, use of the death penalty to eradicate a whole group of human beings from society solely because of who they were born to be. The problem is to explain the silence of the leader of the Catholic church, Benedict, when strong evidence suggests that his flock in a country seeking to impose the death penalty on a sexual minority widely support such a move.

As Allen goes on to note, Uganda is over 40% Catholic, and it appears that among that significant segment of the population, there is “some grassroots Catholic support” for the Ugandan legislation. As a matter of fact, Catholic support for the Ugandan kill-the-gays bill is considerably more widespread than Allen suggests with that offhand phrase about “some” grassroots Catholic support.

Allen goes on to report that he had recently spoken with Deo Rubumba Nkunzingoma, a Catholic attorney who chairs the Uganda Law Society’s Legislation Committee and the Catholic Association of Professionals of Uganda. Nkunzingoma told Allen that the anti-gay bill “is being received very well, with a lot of support from the cross section of people I have talked to.” Homosexuality, he said, “is largely considered an abnormality in our setting.”

And so we get to the real heart of the problem facing Allen, despite what the misleading title of the article wants us to assume—the problem of understanding why Catholics are not merely silent about, but appear actively to be supporting, this legislation:

From the outside, the lack of any critical Catholic reaction to the most punitive elements of the bill can seem almost inexplicable. At least the death penalty provision, and the prospect of criminalizing even routine pastoral contact with homosexuals, would seem like no-brainers for Catholic protest.

Since this problem clearly implicates the Vatican—tacere, consentire—and since Allen is a Vatican insider whose work consistently spins indefensible Vatican actions or teachings as thinkable and explicable, his next step is to address the Vatican’s silence. He does so by implying—without a scrap of credible evidence—that the Vatican would dearly love to help Ugandan Catholics take a bold stand about this legislation, but has found itself in a predicament.

As I’ve noted in a previous posting, the sole Vatican statement that has been made thus far about the Ugandan situation is a weak and ambiguous, if welcome, condemnation of violence against LGBT persons and the use of the death penalty. This statement, which was made by webcast to a U.N. committee, did not even mention Uganda, and came from a low-level Vatican official.

Here’s John Allen’s take on it:

The Vatican has even offered a bit of “cover” for Catholics in Uganda to speak up.

On Dec. 10, a Vatican diplomat addressed a United Nations panel on anti-gay violence, saying that “the Holy See continues to oppose all grave violations of human rights against homosexual persons, such as the use of the death penalty … [and] discriminatory penal legislation.” Though there was no direct reference to Uganda, the context seemed clear enough, especially since the Ugandan legislation was a major focus of the panel’s deliberations.

The poor vexed Vatican, which will be damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t speak out, has tried to offer “cover” for Ugandan Catholics who find themselves tongue-tied as they confront legislation that would apply the death penalty to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters—though Ugandans are the major religious group in the nation, and a powerful presence in Ugandan government and society.

And so, Allen is now compelled to ask: “Why the reticence of Ugandan Catholic leaders?” And here, we get the same tired—and inexplicably ill-informed—argument that African Christians have no choice except to push back against Western intrusion. Here, Allen offers us once again the “colonial experience” argument—the claim that progressive groups promoting Western sexual ideas are interfering in African culture like 18th- and 19th-century colonists, trampling on “traditional” African values and seeking to remake the continent in the image of the West.

What’s absolutely baffling about this argument is the way in which it totally ignores—as with Allen’s late-November article, it’s completely silent on this point—the abundant, incontrovertible evidence that the colonizing and meddling which have been taking place in Uganda and elsewhere are taking place at the hands of right-wing politico-religious groups rather than progressive ones—groups in the U.S. and elsewhere intent on exporting America’s culture wars to Africa, so that these political and religious groups can then turn around and tell progressive Christians in the West that advocating for humane treatment of gays and lesbians in the West will divide the global church. And that such advocacy is imperialistic, racist, and not respectful of cultural diversity.

It is, in fact, precisely these American right-wing political and religious groups that have developed the argument Allen is using here, and who have successfully seeded it in the mainstream media for some time now—the argument that tolerance and acceptance of gays and lesbians is peculiar to the West, and that Western progressives are blindly seeking to impose their peculiar cultural norms on the “traditional” cultures of developing nations, which are impervious to such tolerance and acceptance. In continuing to promote this rhetoric to excuse African Catholic (and Vatican) silence about Uganda, Allen is carrying water for the American religious right—and for the Vatican.

And it gets stranger: as have apologists for Pius XII’s twisted, inexplicable silence while the death penalty was being imposed on Jews, gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, and others in Nazi Germany, Allen seeks to argue, in conclusion, that the Vatican is holding its tongue because making a statement about the Ugandan situation might “backfire”:

My hunch is that the Vatican and national bishops’ conferences around the world would be eager to lend their support should the Ugandan bishops say something, but they also realize that any effort to compel a statement could easily backfire.

How might a statement by the world’s Catholic leaders about what is happening in Uganda “backfire”? Well, there’s that culture-war thing again:

Africa’s Catholic leaders have an opportunity to carve out a distinctive approach to what the West knows as the “culture wars,” one that blends traditional positions on sexual ethics with a holistic embrace of the church’s broader social justice concerns. That may indeed require bucking conventional wisdom in the West – but it may also require challenging some social conventions at home, too.

In short, we in the West—we who are faithful Catholics—need the homophobia of African nations. It’s “traditional.” It’s consonant with “traditional family values”—a religious-right buzz-phrase Allen actually uses in reporting on the African church and its much-needed contributions to the West.

We want and need the homophobia, because it’s part and parcel of our defense of “traditional family values” in the culture wars of the West. But we don’t want and need the violence, the hatred, the capital punishment and imprisonment of gays and lesbians. Though we’ve incited precisely all of this by encouraging “traditional family values” in Africa, in order to score points in our Western culture wars. And though the violence and hatred are part and parcel of the rhetoric about “traditional family values” and how gays are a threat to those values.

Quite a pickle, isn’t it? But it’s precisely where the Catholic church has worked hard to place itself for some decades now, and it does little good to pretend that the bitter fruits being borne now in Uganda aren’t, to a certain extent (to a large extent, if we’re honest), Catholic fruits.

It does little good to pretend . . . . That’s what the preceding argument is: it’s pretense. It asks us to go down the rabbit hole with Alice and enter wonderland, as we scratch our heads and try to figure out the perplexing silence of Pope Benedict, of other leading Catholic figures, and of Ugandan Catholics, as the death penalty is debated for gays in Uganda.

And that, readers, will be my starting point in a subsequent posting about Allen’s NCR essay—one that pays attention to his previous articles about African Catholicism, which will document more extensively my claim that John Allen has, for some time now, been developing the religious right argument that it is Western progressives and not conservatives who are inciting homophobia in Africa. And that Catholics in the West need the “traditional family values” of Africa—an argument Benedict himself has made forcefully, and which is deeply interwoven with the homophobia now manifesting itself in places like Uganda. Hence Benedict’s inability to condemn that homophobia even when it is moving in the direction of capital punishment . . . .