Monday, December 21, 2009

Why Catholics Are Silent: John Allen on Ugandan Situation (2)

In my posting summarizing John Allen’s reflections on Catholic silence about the situation in Uganda, I argued that Allen’s commentary masks the real problem that must be confronted by apologists for Catholic church leaders: this is not, as Allen implies, the question of why Ugandan bishops have failed to follow the Vatican’s lead (the “cover” Allen insists the Vatican has given them) in condemning legislation that would impose the death penalty on gay people. It is, instead, the ongoing silence of the Vatican, and, in particular, of Pope Benedict, about draconian legislation that much of the rest of the world has come to see as morally unjustifiable. As evil . . . .

Neoconservative Political Background to Allen’s Reporting on the African Church

As I noted, Allen’s journalism suffers from his unacknowledged entanglement in the presuppositions and commitments of the American religious right and of Catholic church leaders who have made common cause with the religious right around sexual ethical issues. These include the presupposition that African culture has held onto “traditional family values” (a religious right buzz-phrase that Allen uses in his work) at a point in history at which many Western believers are abdicating those values for an ethic open to homosexuality (and to women’s rights).

The American religious right and Catholic church leaders not only presuppose that African Christianity offers a valuable corrective to the purported abandonment of “traditional family values” by many Western Christians. They go further and involve themselves actively in African religious and political discussions, to bolster those “traditional family values”—as well as hostility to and fear of those who are gay—in order to use African culture and religion as a weapon to invalidate gay-affirming or gay-welcoming stances in churches of the West.

This has been a highly effective political and media strategy of powerful neoconservative anti-gay activist groups in the U.S., including the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), which was founded by Catholic neoconservatives to divide mainline Protestant churches over issues like homosexuality in order to mute the economic critique of these churches in American politics. Central to the tactic of marginalizing the social witness of mainline Protestant churches in order to mute their voices in socioeconomic debates has been an ongoing, deliberate attempt to use the churches of Africa as tools to divide Western churches.

This use of the gay issue and the African churches to divide mainline Protestant churches and block their social witness is evident from the moment one logs into the IRD website and sees its welcome statement announcing that IRD is “an ecumenical alliance of Christians working to reform their churches’ social witness.” As Andrew J. Weaver and Nicole Seibert demonstrate in a 2004 article entitled “Church and Scaife” (and see here), what “reform” really means here is “attack.” Weaver and Seibert note that IRD is a “pseudo-religious think-tank that carries out the goals of its secular funders that are opposed to the churches’ historic social witness.”

They also note that two of the three founders of the organization were key Catholic leaders of the radical right wing of the neoconservative movement, Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel. Both were influential in the Bush administration, and both were overtly involved in the American government’s attempt to discredit and destroy the Catholic liberation theology movement in developing nations.

IRD’s current president, Mark Tooley, is a former CIA employee. The thick connections between IRD and right-wing political groups are extensively documented in Stephen Swecker’s Hard Ball on Holy Ground (2005), which concludes that the bottom line of IRD and its funders is to promote neoconservative economic policy, and to shred governmental regulation of business and of social safety nets (and see here).

As these and other scholars tracking the IRD’s activities, political connections, and funders note, one of the primary ways that this political organization seeks to undercut the social teaching of mainline churches is by inducing schism in those churches over issues like gay rights. Again, visit IRD’s website and click on the link to “Issues” of primary concern to IRD as it tries to “reform” the churches’ social witness, and the very first link you’ll find—it’s at the top of the list, indicating its importance to IRD’s political agenda—is “Marriage.”

And what do you find when you click that link? You immediately discover yourself launched into a discussion of an African Christian statement about marriage presented to the UMC General Conference in 2008, which announces that the only thinkable pattern for marriage is a lifelong union of one man and one woman. This statement is followed immediately with a slighting reference to Bishop Gene Robinson’s “marriage” (IRD uses the quotation marks), which, IRD suggests, is celebrated by decadent Western Christians who have departed from an orthodoxy that African Christianity maintains in the face of Western imperialism.

There you have it in a nutshell: African Christianity traditional and good; progressive currents in Western Christianity heretical and bad. The use of African people and African churches to further a right-wing political agenda in the West, which is intent to divide the churches in order to “reform” their social witness, could not be more evident.

And so the serious threat posed to groups like IRD by the growing worldwide abhorrence of the Ugandan legislation, and by voices like Rev. Kapya Kaoma’s in his whistle-blowing report about the activities of right-wing Western politico-religious groups stirring anti-gay hatred in Africa. On 24 November, Jeff Walton, IRD’s communications director, filed an IRD report about Rev. Kaoma’s Globalizing the Culture Wars, whose publisher Political Research Associates clearly identifies it as written by Kapya Kaoma.

But if you were relying on IRD for information about this report, you wouldn’t know, without careful digging and tortured exegesis, that an African Anglican priest, Kapya Kaoma, authored the report. Walton begins his analysis (second paragraph) by stating that Globalizing the Culture Wars was “authored by Political Research Associates.” We’re then treated to seven paragraphs of vituperation against PRA before we read that Kapya Kaoma is actually the report’s author—and then we get several more paragraphs of personal attack on Kaoma, which seek to portray him as a bogus African who has, IRD suggests, practically destroyed the parish he pastors in the U.S.

Nor would you know, as you read this report, that IRD’s reporter Jeff Walton has political-religious baggage and telling commitments of his own. Go to his biography on the IRD website, though, and you find that he’s actively involved in the movement to split the worldwide Anglican communion over gay issues, and that he has been systems administrator for Virginia Republican Congressman Frank Wolf and legislative correspondent for the Republican Representative from North Carolina Virginia Foxx, who disgraced herself (and, in my view, her fellow Catholics) on the House floor this past April by maintaining that Matthew Shepard was not murdered because he was gay, while Shepard’s mother sat across from her.

Groups like the IRD have been highly effective at planting in mainstream media discourse a forceful narrative suggesting that churches that welcome and affirm gay people are abandoning the gospel and Christian tradition, and that only those churches which hold the line against gays are thriving today. A corollary of this narrative is the claim that only a minority of Western Christians welcome and affirm gay people, while the vast majority of Christians in the developing nations—who stoutly hold “traditional family values” in the face of strong pressures from the West to abandon those values—remain committed to tradition and to the gospel.

John Allen’s Reporting on the African Church: Reinforcing the Neocon Narrative

John Allen’s reporting about the African church stands against a backdrop of these neoconservative presuppositions and commitments, and it has consistently sought to further the dominant narrative I have just described, and to strengthen its power in the mainstream media, where Allen is considered a premier spokesperson on matters Catholic in the U.S. What is happening in Uganda now—and, in particular, the deafening silence of Benedict about this situation—represents a serious challenge to those neoconservative thinkers and groups that have developed the meme of African church = fidelity to the gospel, Western progressive churches = abandonment of the gospel.

As I noted Friday, in my view, Allen’s attempt to explain the silence of Catholic leaders about the Ugandan situation is unconvincing in the extreme, because it fails to grapple with the central problem confronting Catholic apologists. This is Benedict’s ongoing silence. It is clear that one of Allen’s key underlying intents is to deflect attention from Benedict’s silence about Uganda—to explain it away; to justify it—though he never mentions the pope at all in his article (and that in itself is interesting for what it suggests about Allen’s wish to shield the pope from criticism). In fact, he mentions the Vatican only three times.

The burden of the article’s argument is that Ugandan Catholics have been strangely silent—though Allen himself cites evidence that, far from being silent about the impending legislation to make gay people susceptible to capital punishment, Ugandan Catholics are actually happy about the legislation, on the whole.

Ugandan Catholics are silent, Allen implies, because the “colonial experience” sensitizes them to the imperialistic efforts of Western progressives to push against homophobia in African cultures. They are silent because they are committed to “traditional positions on sexual ethics” that they are loath to give up, even when those positions are now implicated in legislation that would make merely being gay or lesbian cause for capital punishment.

Note how this argument lets Benedict and the Vatican off the hook. It implies that, in a highly top-down hierarchical church which the present pope has sought to make even more top-down, those with the chief responsibility to speak out are Ugandan Catholics themselves! And they can’t do so because they’re being pressed by Western progressives who act like colonizers.

This argument totally overlooks—it shields by silence—the responsibility of leaders of Christian churches to point the way, when such moral threats arise anywhere in the world. It totally overlooks the responsibility of Christian leaders to make unambiguous, strong, public statements in the face of impending evil like a nation’s decision to adopt legislation that makes a minority group susceptible to capital punishment.

Allen is employing the kind of argument that corporate leaders or apologists for those leaders always use when they want to deflect attention from leaders responsibility for bad decisions or inaction at times of crisis. He is shifting the burden to those at the bottom, who have nowhere near the power Benedict has to make a dent in the mind of the Ugandan legislature as this legislation is under consideration. He is permitting the Vatican to slough off any responsibility for its silence by his argument that a single ambiguous statement by a low-level Vatican official, which did not even mention Uganda, was an attempt of the Vatican to provide “cover” for Ugandan Catholics to speak out.

As if the Vatican dearly wishes to make a public statement, but finds itself compelled to be silent, for fear of placing Ugandan Catholics in a tight spot, for fear of making them susceptible to reprisal for bucking the social trend. If this bogus argument about the Vatican’s silence re: the Ugandan situation sounds familiar, that’s because it is familiar.

It is precisely the same argument that has been advanced to justify the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. Though Benedict has just declared Pius XII venerable (the first step to sainthood), there remains strong criticism from many quarters, including the Jewish community, of Pius’s silence as the Holocaust took place. Apologists for Pius argue that he personally intervened to save the lives of several Jews during the Holocaust, that he was unable to speak out without endangering more lives, and that he worked quietly and diplomatically behind the scenes to oppose the Holocaust.

Critics—including many Catholics—argue that nothing can excuse the silence of the premier moral voice of the church at a time when targeted minorities were being murdered in “Christian” nations. Those who find Pius’s silence abhorrent argue that the pope’s unambiguous, decisive voice urging Catholics everywhere to combat mass murder would have galvanized resistance in Nazi-occupied nations whose Catholic population was either mostly silent during the Holocaust, or actively in support of it.

The critical assessment of Pius’s role during the Nazi years points to the undeniable and strong anti-Semitism in many Catholic nations, and suggests that one of the shameful reasons that Pius found it impossible to speak unambiguously and decisively against the Holocaust was that the church itself is deeply implicated in anti-Jewish prejudice from which it was unwilling to extricate itself as Christian nations executed Jews during the Nazi period.

Obviously, the historical context of Pius XII’s silence during the Holocaust makes Benedict’s silence about Uganda now all the more perplexing—and exceptionally dangerous to him and others who wish to defend the Catholic church’s teachings about LGBT persons or on human rights. When one remembers that Benedict grew up in the Nazi period in Germany and was a Hitler Youth, one sees immediately that, in remaining silent as Uganda debates putting gay people to death, Benedict courts strong criticism that may undermine his effectiveness as a moral leader even more decisively than the silence of Catholic leaders about clerical molestation of children has already done.

Benedict’s Silence: A Serious Problem for the Neocon Narrative

And so the problem with which John Allen is grappling in his reporting on the Ugandan situation: in what is now occurring in Uganda, we see the practical consequences of years of involvement of the American religious right (with strong, overt support from Catholic leaders including Benedict) in the churches in Africa. The homophobia that these religious leaders have deliberately seeded in African churches, with the intent of bolstering the homophobia of Western churches combating the move to affirmation and welcome of gay believers, is expressing itself in the most extreme way possible, through the demand for capital punishment of gay folks. Extreme, but logical: this demand is the ultimate logical outcome of the rhetoric and action of those Christian groups promoting homophobia within the African context in order to strengthen resistance to gay folks in Western churches.

Now that the ultimate goal—the logical goal—of the anti-gay movement in Western churches, which is all about silencing and removing gay people from church and society, has become apparent in Uganda’s extreme proposal for capital punishment, many of those Western Christians who have promoted homophobia in the African context have no choice except to dissociate themselves from what is happening in Uganda. The Ugandan situation exposes the malice at the heart of the anti-gay movement in Western churches—its intent to dehumanize gay persons and make them invisible in church and society.

But it does so in a horrific absolutist way that undercuts the claim to moral validity of the anti-gay movement in Western churches. The Ugandan legislation serves as a salient reminder that you can’t have a modicum of prejudice and discrimination—a modicum of working to dehumanize a minority group and make that group invisible—without setting into motion a chain of events whose ultimate logic will be to try to make the targeted group really invisible, absolutely and completely so. You can’t have a modicum of attempts to dehumanize a group and make it disappear without setting into motion events that will finally seek to imprison and execute the targeted minority group . . . .

The Ugandan development thus forces Western Christians—including Catholic leaders—who have helped set the stage for what is happening in Uganda to make a painful decision. On the one hand, not to repudiate the Ugandan legislation outright, vocally and unambiguously, makes one a party to sheer, obvious evil. It makes one a party to sheer, obvious evil every bit as much as those who remained silent in the face of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany are now considered to have been silent partners in the Nazis’ murder of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, mentally and physically challenged people, homosexuals, and others.

On the other hand, for those Western Christian groups that have played a significant role in creating the situation in Uganda, to speak out is also to admit that the way “traditional family values” are being promoted by many Western Christians has an undeniable diabolical edge, a diabolical potential exposed by the Ugandan legislation. What is happening in Uganda is part and parcel of the rhetoric of “traditional family values” so strongly defended by many Western Christians. It is not an aberration of that rhetoric. It is its logical, ultimate extension.

To speak out strongly, publicly, and unambiguously in condemnation of what is under consideration in Uganda requires those Christian leaders—Benedict included, Benedict notably—who have had a hand in creating the Ugandan situation to admit responsibility for this situation, and to reconsider the rhetoric and ethical teachings that have brought Uganda to this precipice. And that’s the dilemma—the rock and the hard place—with which John Allen’s article about Catholic silence vis-à-vis Uganda seeks to help Catholic leaders deal.

Allen’s Reporting on African Synod as Replication of Neocon Narrative

The dilemma John Allen is now facing is built into his reporting on the African church. Not only does this reporting uncritically incorporate (and therefore replicate, with a leading American Catholic reporter’s stamp of approval) the neocon and religious right narrative about the church in Africa. It also provides abundant evidence of Catholic involvement in and responsibility for developing and spreading that narrative in Africa—and thus, for creating the situation in Uganda, which now demands an outspoken Catholic response.

Allen’s journalistic style consistently embeds prescription within what purports to be value-free description. It is prescriptive in the guise of being descriptive, objective, disinterested. One of Allen’s favorite journalistic ploys is to wear a mask of detached innocence as he “describes” battles between right and left from which he himself is presumably aloof.

But read his narratives carefully, and it becomes immediately apparent that—as with other centrist mainstream political and religious commentators who use a similar journalistic technique—John Allen’s real commitments and unacknowledged interests lean to the center-right. To the center-right (which always discredits the left altogether while finding large room even for extreme positions of the right) that journalists of his ilk like to remind us is normative, the place in which moderation and reason reside as the extreme left and right battle things out. Allen’s right-leaning description of how things supposedly are, when we take off our ideological blinders, is loaded with prescription about how they should be, even as he poses as a disinterested centrist who is merely telling us what he sees.

And, interestingly enough, what Allen sees when he looks at the African church with supposedly unvarnished eyes is very much what the IRD and the American religious right see: a corrective to the Western church, particularly in the area of “traditional family values.” This neocon prescription of African Christianity as a corrective to decadent Western values runs—under the guise of descriptive reporting—all through John Allen’s reporting on the African synod this past fall.

For instance, turn to Allen’s midpoint summary of the synod on 16 October, and you’ll find him declaring (prescription embedded in purported description),

If the first point [i.e., African Christianity is driving Christians in the West to greater social engagement] seems to cut in what Americans might consider a “liberal” direction, the approach of the African bishops to issues of gender, the family, and sexual morality moves decisively in the opposite direction. On that cluster of concerns, forming what Americans know as the “culture wars,” the growing influence of Africa seems likely to steer Catholicism toward a more conservative posture.

Allen follows that observation—which completely ignores any American involvement in exporting Western culture wars to Africa, a theme about which John Allen is always silent when he reports on the African church—with statements by Archbishop Joseph Tlhagale of South Africa and Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Ghana which claim that there is a “second wave of colonization” coming from the West, which represents a “deliberate campaign” to force African Christians to accept abortion and homosexuality. On the basis of these reports, Allen concludes that “the synod will issue a defense of traditional family values.”

Set these seemingly disinterested reports from Africa side by side with the religious right and neocon narrative about the African church developed by groups like IRD, and what’s striking is how uncannily close they are to each other: what John Allen is “reporting” about the church in Africa, a purportedly disinterested description of what Africans believe and think, is precisely what neocon political activists and the American religious right have been prescribing for some time now for the African church. It is precisely what these groups have been working for some decades now, according to Rev. Kapya Kaoma, to effect in the African church.

Again, what is totally lacking in these “disinterested” reports is any recognition at all—any admission at all—that what Allen is reporting about the African church as a prescription for the Western church is something being disseminated to African Christians by strong, well-funded political and religious groups in the West. There’s no recognition at all that a phrase he uses as if it is merely a statement of disinterested reporting—“traditional family values”—was, in fact, invented by the American religious right as a political tool to bash gay folks.

Or that the American religious right has worked for decades now to induce among African Christians the sense that they are being “re-colonized” by Western progressives who want to impose decadent Western sexual values on African Christians. While those Western groups maintaining that such neocolonialism is taking place are themselves spending countless dollars to beam their message of fear and loathing of LGBT people to African churches . . . .

Furthermore, though Allen’s article about the perplexing silence of Ugandan Catholics re: the legislation now under consideration in their country seeks to imply that Catholics would condemn this legislation if they could, if they could only find a voice, his reporting on the African synod demonstrates that not merely highly placed African Catholic officials, but the Vatican itself, has worked very hard to plant the anti-gay narrative of the American religious right in Africa.

Read Allen’s article on the synod entitled “A Consistent Ethic of Life,” for instance, and you’ll find him reporting that at the synod, the conservative half of the African soul “found its voice” when representatives such as Archbishop Robert Sarah of Guinea, secretary of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, informed his brother bishops that pernicious Western progressive groups were promoting a “theory of gender” in Africa that would call for acceptance of gay and lesbian people.

As Allen notes, though, the most forceful statement made at the synod about these themes was made by a non-African Vatican official, Italian Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, who joined Sarah in blasting Western “gender theory,” which, he said, “is starting to infiltrate associations, governments and even some ecclesial environments in the African continent,” often “heavily disguised.” Antonielli stated,

For example, equality of people no longer just means equal dignity and access to fundamental human rights, but also the irrelevance of the natural differences between men and women, the uniformity of all individuals, as though they were sexually undifferentiated, and therefore the equality of all sexual orientations and behavior: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, polymorphous.

This ideology is spread by reproductive health centers, local educational meetings and international TV programs broadcast via satellite. Collaboration of African governments and local groups, including ecclesial groups, is sought, and these groups usually don’t realize the ethically unacceptable anthropological implications of this.

And Benedict himself? Has he remained aloof from this clear, obtrusive attempt of Western Catholic church officials to stir up among African Christians the sense that they are under attack by insidious Western forces trying to re-colonize the continent, infiltrate it, and alter “traditional” African culture by inserting “heavily disguised” messages antithetical to the culture in educational materials, health pamphlets, and so forth?

Unfortunately not. In fact, Cardinal Antonelli appears to be echoing the pope directly in these inflammatory statements that so closely toe the line of American religious right and neocon activist groups. At his opening liturgy for the African synod three days before Antonelli delivered the preceding remarks at the synod, Benedict informed the liturgy’s participants, most of them African bishops, that

The so-called
“first world has exported and is still exporting its toxic spiritual refuse, which infect the populations of other continents, especially in Africa. Colonialism is finished in a political sense, but it’s not completely gone away.

Toxic spiritual refuse, social infection by insidious hidden groups infiltrating the culture, and re-colonization of Africa by such groups: this is dangerous rhetoric. It’s inflammatory rhetoric. It has strong overtones of the very similar Nazi rhetoric about the Jews—a people who “infect” Christian civilization by inserting sneaky “heavily disguised” messages into ordinary-seeming discourse, infectious messages that sap the moral and spiritual vitality of those infected. This is the kind of rhetoric that led to the murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust, and has justified repeated atrocious acts for centuries in which Christian people have rounded up, imprisoned, and then expelled or killed Jews.

There is a direct line between such rhetoric, with its Naziesque overtomes, and what is now taking place in Uganda. The American religious right and its neoconservative political allies have worked for some decades now to induce fear and loathing of gay people in African societies, using language eerily reminiscent of that used to justify the murder of millions of Jews by Christians during the Holocaust. And, to its discredit, rather than challenge that rhetoric, or a political alliance that undercuts the claims of the church to defend human rights and resist destructive forms of capitalism, leading Catholic officials have done all they can to promote the rhetoric. To fan the flames of anti-gay hatred among their co-religionists in Africa.

And Benedict himself is implicated, with his talk about Western groups “infecting” African Christianity, with his counter-factual statement that condom use does not prevent but fosters the spread of AIDS in Africa, and above all, with his designation of gay and lesbian persons as “objectively disordered” in their very nature and personhood, in his 1986 pastoral document on the care of homosexual persons in the church. A document whose very first effect was to produce the expulsion (the disappearance) of gay and lesbian Catholic groups like Dignity from church premises, and thus the disappearance of many gay and lesbian Catholics from parishes in which they suddenly found themselves told they were unwelcome . . . .

You cannot designate a group of human beings as “objectively disordered” without dehumanizing that group of human beings. You cannot suggest that a group of human beings is subhuman without inviting violence against them. As the example of Nazi Germany demonstrates, you cannot then speak of a minority group whom you have defined as subhuman as an “infection” without inviting the permanent removal of that group from society, through acts of unspeakable violence.

It is not to Benedict’s credit that he continues refusing to speak out about Uganda. On 17 December—last Thursday—Benedict met with Francis K. Butagira, the new Ugandan ambassador to the Holy See. And what did the pope, the moral voice of an influential and vast religious group, say to this dignitary on this occasion that cried out for a statement about a situation in which that ambassador’s nation is mulling over the death penalty for gay citizens?

Not a word. Not a word about the pending legislation that may make being gay susceptible to the death penalty. Not a word about human rights.

Instead, Benedict used the occasion to praise Uganda for the “respect” it shows the church. He stated, “Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Republic of Uganda continue to offer many opportunities for mutual assistance and cooperation for the spiritual good and welfare of the people of your nation.”

Not a single word about, not even an allusion to, legislation that may set into motion capital punishment for people who happen to be gay. Benedict’s continued silence is scandalous in the extreme.

John Allen knows this. And that’s why he seeks to give Benedict cover, as he puzzles over the strange Catholic silence about Uganda. The longer the silence goes on, the more strongly it calls into question the religious right and neocon narrative that Allen and others have promoted about the African church. And the more it points to the role that Catholic leaders, including the pope himself, have played in creating and reinforcing that narrative. And to the connections between the indefensible magisterial teaching that gay human beings are objectively disordered and acts of violence against LGBT people . . . .

Benedict’s continued silence points to connections between a destructive narrative he has helped design, to justify the disappearance of LGBT persons from church and society, and similar narratives about the Jews through Christian history that also eventually pointed to extermination of a despised minority group. A narrative regarding which a previous pope was also silent as millions of Jews were murdered . . . .