“If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” Pope Francis told reporters in July 2013. In January 2015, Pope Francis reportedly met with a transgender person, winning praises across the world for his openness. In February, however, the Pope erased any hope of a more progressive Catholic position when he compared gender theory (often used to defend and advocate for transgender rights) to nuclear weapons.
“Let’s think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings,” he was quoted as saying. “Let’s think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation. … God has placed man and woman and the summit of creation and has entrusted them with the earth. The design of the Creator is written in nature.”
The Pope’s words and actions carry tremendous weight, and with them he has the power to either sanction or condemn the ongoing persecution or LGBTQI people around the world. Unfortunately, Pope Francis continues to play hide and seek on this issue—something his predecessor did, too.
Pope Francis ought to realize that U.S. Roman Catholic leaders and organizations are equally responsible for the fire of homophobia and sexism that is raging in Africa and elsewhere. In 2009, the Vatican came out strongly against the criminalization of sexual minorities. This followed the introduction of Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill in Parliament. Then little-known U.S. evangelical Scott Lively traveled to Uganda for an anti-homosexuality conference in March 2009. The very next month, the Ugandan Parliament drafted and introduced one of the most extreme anti-LGBTI laws in the world—the Anti-Homosexuality Act, as it was officially known, called for the death penalty for LGBTI people. Africans such as Pastor Martin Ssempa (for whom megachurch Pastor Rick Warren was a mentor), Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network, and Uganda’s Joint Christian Council (which includes several Roman Catholic Bishops among its members) ensured the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in February 2014. The law was struck down by the Constitutional Court of Uganda on purely technical reasons later that same year, but it still has the potential to pass again—another reason why the Pope’s voice is so desperately needed in the struggle for sexual rights.
On December 10, 2009, the Holy See released a little-known historic statement that opposed “all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation which undermines the inherent dignity of the human person.” With this statement, the Vatican seemed to establish a position in firm opposition to the (not yet extant) “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda and similar laws elsewhere.
The human rights world applauded the Vatican’s position—but the above words were never uttered by the Pontiff himself or inserted into the Encyclical (the official document of Roman Catholic positions on various issues). Rather than making a bold statement affirming and defending LGBTQI peoples, the Vatican’s posturing outsmarted human rights advocates around the world. By denouncing criminalization of sexual minorities, the Vatican was able to evade responsibility for human rights abuses (laying the blame solely on U.S. conservative evangelicals), while still endorsing the work of U.S.-based Catholic groups such The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, Human Life International, and Priests for Life, as well as bishops and other church leaders guilty of campaigning for the criminalization of sexual minorities. In Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and many other African countries, Roman Catholic bishops and priests—with the support of their colleagues in the U.S. and at the Vatican—have been at the forefront of anti-LGBTI campaigns.
Much blame has been placed on the shoulders of conservative American evangelicals, but U.S. Roman Catholic right-wing groups are equally guilty of exporting homophobia and sexism to Africa. This was illustrated in February 2015, when Roman Catholic Bishop Emmanuel Badejo of the Diocese of Oyo in Nigeria claimed that Nigeria’s failure to rescue the kidnapped girls (the Chibok girls taken by the Islamist group Boko Haram) was due to lack of support from the Obama administration, resulting from its opposition to an anti-LGBTI law passed in Nigeria in 2014. While the media cited Bishop Badejo for this statement, the claim was originally made by a U.S. conservative: Rep. Steve Stockman, who in August 2014 argued, “We have information that would help the Nigerian military take back their country and get back those girls. The mistake on our side—the United States’ side—is that we have laws preventing us from sharing that information with the Nigerian military. And one of the reasons is that we don’t like some of the social policy of the Nigerian government.”
The passage of Nigeria’s 2014 anti-LGBTQI law, which applies a 14-year jail sentence for same-sex marriages and prohibits advocacy of sexual minorities’ rights, was celebrated by Nigerian Roman Catholic Bishops. The bishops commended the government for its “courageous and wise decision” to fight “the conspiracy of the developed world to make our country and continent the dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices that have continued to debase the purpose of God for man in the area of creation and morality, in their own countries.” Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama went as far as saying “thank God that this bill was passed.” The failure of the Vatican to oppose or counter such statements implies approval; its hide-and-seek game essentially sanctions the persecution of sexual minorities in Africa and other parts of the world.
Pope Francis is continually credited as being a much more “progressive” leader than many of his predecessors, but he has done nothing to oppose anti-LGBTQI laws in Africa, Russia, and Asia. Though celebrated as a champion of people’s rights, Pope Francis is following in the footsteps of his conservative predecessor Benedict XVI, who condemned criminalization and dehumanization of sexual minorities while simultaneously blessing the Ugandan Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga in 2012—knowing that she had promised to pass the “Kill the Gays” bill into law.
As the World Meeting of Families draws near in Philadelphia, human rights advocates anxiously await a public statement from Pope Francis on human sexuality. If the event centers on the definition of “family values” promoted by U.S. Roman Catholic and evangelical conservatives, then the Pope’s visit will further sanction the demonization, scapegoating, and persecution of LGBTQI individuals around the world. U.S. conservatives—from lesser-known characters like Matt McLaughlin and Scott Lively to big name leaders like Franklin Graham and Rick Warren—are awaiting the Pope’s visit to advance their global anti-human rights agenda.
The Pope’s upcoming visit to the U.S. provides another opportunity for the advancement of human rights for all people. The persecution, violence, and trauma caused by religiously sanctioned homophobia demands a statement from Pope Francis on LGBTQI rights. His words have the potential to either sanction continuous violence, rape, criminalization, persecution, and killings—or bring long-awaited and desperately needed acceptance of sexual minorities across the globe.
We will be watching!