Can Pope Francis hold the Catholic Church together on the issue of homosexuality? A group of leading African bishops has already begun to organise itself to fight changes to the traditional Catholic stance, which regards the homosexual condition as “disordered” and homosexual acts as gravely sinful. They see the forthcoming bishops’ synod on the family as a battleground. At the same time there has been no apparent weakening in the position of those European church leaders who want to welcome homosexual Catholics into the community of the Church, and oppose disparagement of their relationships. It is plain that Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster is among them. He has signalled that the model he has established at Farm Street, the Jesuit Church in London – of twice-monthly Masses mainly attended by gays and lesbians – is one he favours for other parishes in Westminster diocese and by implication, elsewhere in England and Wales.
Gay marriage is something of a distraction in this debate. It is regarded in some circles – including by President Barack Obama – as signifying the equality in all legal and moral respects of heterosexual and homosexual relationships. It is opposed by others on the grounds that marriage is by definition between a man and a woman. Mr Obama, during his recent visit to Kenya, raised the treatment of gay people there, but Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta dismissed his guest’s remarks, saying gay rights were not an issue in Kenya. There is a subset within this position which goes further, and regards gay relationships of any kind, not just marriage, as a threat to family life. The Archbishop of Nairobi, Cardinal John Njue, said in an interview in The Tablet last week: “When you get ideas like same-sex relationships being supported even by certain people inside the Church, you can imagine what it all means. The family is endangered.”
Treating gays and lesbians with equal dignity and respect does not depend on being for or against gay marriage. Cardinal Nichols is a good example of that position, as is Pope Francis himself. Indeed, the new chief executive of the gay campaigning body Stonewall, Ruth Hunt, who is Catholic, told The Tablet that changing attitudes, not legislation, was now her prime concern. That would be anathema to Cardinal Njue. But he also said in his Tablet interview: “For us to grow, to flourish, there must be recognition that we are each an individual, a unique person, [with] a richness that he or she can share.” The key question for him is why that does not apply equally to homosexuals.
The answer may lie in deep-seated assumptions in African culture, a lingering sense the male is superior. The 2006 synod of African bishops deplored such attitudes, without relating them to homosexuality. If the differences between masculine and feminine identity are crucial to family life, then anything that blurs those differences, which homosexuality is seen as doing, could arguably threaten its stability. What may be at stake here is an African version of manhood and a model of male-female relationships derived from African social custom rather than Gospel values. And it is around those that the Church can unite.
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