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We need more than warm words from Vatican on homosexuality

by Nicholas Opiyo
Special for CNN

Editor’s note: Nicholas Opiyo is a human rights and constitutional lawyer and the founding Executive Director of Chapter Four Uganda, a civil liberties organization based in Kampala. He is the former secretary-general of the Uganda Law Society and one of the lead lawyers who challenged Uganda’s anti-homosexuality act in the Constitutional Court. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Photo: Creative Commons image by Christoph Wagener
Photo: Creative Commons image by Christoph Wagener

The pronouncement by the Roman Catholic Church at its extraordinary synod that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community” has left many pondering if this is a turning point for the LGBTI debate.

I suggest that this is not a turning point particularly for the African Catholic community, but rather the start of an openness in debate that will take a long time to change the Church’s doctrinal teaching.

In a deeply conservative Church that has for a long time viewed homosexuality as “an intrinsically disordered, contrary to natural law and cannot be approved under any circumstances,” it will take more than a Synod statement to arrive at a turning point on the subject of homosexuality. A change in the doctrinal teaching/catechism of the church will take a long time and protracted debate in the Catholic community.

Pope Francis’ papacy has been heavy on symbolism and rhetoric on previously sidelined (and contentious) social justice issues but the jury is still out over whether he will take concrete steps to change the position of the Church on these issues.

In July this year during a flight back to Rome from Rio de Janeiro after World Youth Day celebrations, Pope Francis responded to questions about the Vatican’s alleged gay lobby, by saying: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” signaling an embrace of homosexuality into the Catholic commune. But these pronouncement certainly do not bring the concrete steps to require a shift in position.

There are reasons that explain why the excitement about the apparent change of tone must be tempered. Firstly, the document is only but a preliminary, not final report. It is a summary of closed door debate between the Pope and the prelates.

The document is a working document. It is not a papal decree or a doctrinal position. It is only indicative of the issues that were discussed in the closed door meeting.

That the Synod have been open about their internal debate is admirable and must be lauded. But it will require much more than pronouncements to qualify as a critical departure from the Church’s position on homosexuality.

In its conclusion, the 12-page document notes that the reflections “are intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches.”

Opinions of local churches that are to reflect on this matter are still in sharp contrast with those being expressed in the Vatican especially in Africa. It will also be a tall order to change the hearts and minds of the vast majority of African Catholics.

In Uganda for instance, the Catholic Archbishop Kizito Lwanga is one of the leading proponents of the re-tabling of the country’s expunged anti-homosexuality act, a controversial law that criminalized homosexuality provided for life imprisonment for same sex relations.

It is unclear if such leaders will warm up to the changed tone from the Pope and the Vatican. If recent debates among Christians on the African continent is anything to go by, the turning point will be much more difficult to reach.

The pronouncement sets the parameters for reflection in the form of questions. These questions challenge the church to reflect on whether it can guarantee homosexuals a fraternal space while re-echoing the long-held catechism on the subject.

The world is desperate for new grounds to be broken. The optimism is therefore understandable but we all must receive the pronouncements with caution. Lessons must be taken from the fall-out in the Anglican Church between the global North and South arising from the ordination of openly gay bishops. It will not helpful if this debate only drives further apart rather than unites the Church. This will require patience, and a balancing of the diversities within the Church.

The document, while sounding embracing of persons of different sexualities and children living in such relations, really restates the long-held position of the Church in many respects about homosexuality.

So it is important not to get ahead of ourselves about this minimal but important tone. The drive to push the Church must be not only tolerant and accepting of sexual minorities but an ongoing effort. We must edge the Church along and ensure the momentum is not lost.


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