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In rare public split, Catholic bishops differ sharply on anti-gay laws

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, pictured in a 2010 file photo. Photo by Nancy Wiechec, courtesy of Catholic News Service

(RNS) The Roman Catholic hierarchy has generally been viewed as a unified bloc in opposition to gay rights, but the emergence of especially punitive measures against gays in various countries has opened unusually stark and public fissures among bishops in different nations.

The divisions are also raising questions about whether Pope Francis, who has struck a charitable tone toward gays and lesbians, needs to take action.

The issue is especially pressing in Africa, where Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, recently adopted a harsh law that imposes a 14-year prison term for anyone entering into a same-sex relationship, as well as a 10-year sentence for anyone found to support gay clubs or meetings. Even public displays of affection by gays and lesbians is considered a crime.

Legislation imposing similarly repressive sanctions on gays has been proposed in Uganda, Cameroon and Tanzania.

In Nigeria the leader of the hierarchy fully supported that country’s new law, which prompted a wave of violence against gays when it passed.

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, pictured in a 2010 file photo. Photo by Nancy Wiechec, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, pictured in a 2010 file photo. Photo by Nancy Wiechec, courtesy of Catholic News Service

In a January letter on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy of Nigeria, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos praised Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan for his “courageous and wise decision” in signing the legislation. Kaigama said it would protect Nigeria “against the conspiracy of the developed world to make our country and continent, the dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices.”

A few days later, however, a strongly worded editorial in the The Southern Cross, a newspaper run jointly by the bishops of South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland, took aim at the new law, calling on the Catholic Church in Africa “to stand with the powerless” and “sound the alarm at the advance throughout Africa of draconian legislation aimed at criminalizing homosexuals.”

The editorial decried the “deep-seated sense of homophobia” in Africa and said the church had too often been “silent, in some cases even quietly complicit” in the face of the new anti-gay measures. It also noted that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2358) explicitly states that gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

The differences are manifesting themselves elsewhere, as well.

For example, the Southern Cross editorial blasted as “astonishing” a claim last month by a retired Spanish bishop, Fernando Sebastian Aguilar, who said that homosexuality is a “defect” comparable to his own high blood pressure. Pope Francis is set to make Aguilar a cardinal later this month.

And in Poland, the hierarchy has launched a full-scale assault on what it calls the “ideology of gender,” a vague term it says is aimed at promoting homosexuality, among other things. The bishops’ campaign has prompted a strong backlash from many in the Polish church.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, is pictured during a Mass with other Indian prelates at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, in this Sept. 2, 2011, file photo. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, is pictured during a Mass with other Indian prelates at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, in this Sept. 2, 2011, file photo. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

In India, on the other hand, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, the leader of Indian Catholicism and one of Pope Francis’ top advisers, last month came out strongly against a decision by the nation’s high court to reinstate a ban on gay sex, which includes penalties of 10 years to life in prison.

“The Catholic Church does not want homosexuals to be treated as criminals,” Gracias said, and cited the pope’s words when asked about his approach to gay people. “The church stand is, ‘Who am I to judge them?’ as the Holy Father has said.”

And this week in Ireland, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin reacted to concerns over anti-gay comments in the media by saying that “anybody who doesn’t show love towards gay and lesbian people is insulting God. They are not just homophobic if they do that — they are actually Godophobic because God loves every one of those people.”

Martin also lamented that church teaching can sometimes be used “in a homophobic way.”

What’s behind these high-level disagreements?

Church observers say part of it is a backlash against the new visibility of gay people in society and the corresponding push to grant them legal protections and rights they never had before.

But opposition to the legalization of some rights, such as gay marriage, has at times turned into support for criminalization, which Catholic teaching does not condone. In fact, during a 2009 debate over an earlier version of a Ugandan anti-gay bill, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI was “opposed to ‘unjust discrimination’ against gay men and lesbians,” a statement apparently aimed at the Ugandan bill.

Similarly, the new criminalization measures have brought calls for Pope Francis to go beyond his supportive comments about gays and lesbians and directly condemn anti-gay laws. The most popular effort is a Twitter campaign that goes by the hashtag #PopeSpeakOut. Church observers wonder whether the pope’s inclination to allow disputes to be settled locally may incline him to let the debate continue without his intervention.

The controversy over the anti-gay laws is most intense in Asia and especially Africa, where culture can trump theology when it comes to dealing with gay people, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and columnist for National Catholic Reporter and author of “Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.”

But Reese said regional political realities can play a key role, too: Church leaders who support anti-gay laws often come from countries with large Muslim populations that also tend to support measures against homosexuality. The bishops may not want to do anything that would inflame tensions between the communities.

“I think they’re afraid of the Muslim reaction, and I think they’re afraid of the reaction of many of their own people,” Reese said.

On the other hand, Reese added, at least the bishops are facing criticism from within their own ranks — a benefit of the more free-wheeling style that Francis has brought to the papacy.

“This is progress,” he said. “In the old days, bishops wouldn’t criticize each other. Now we have the bishops talking to each other and some are saying, ‘No, this isn’t the direction the church ought to go.'”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Consider such laws are only an invitation to human rights abuse, even the most homophobic bishop SHOULD be opposing such measures.

    The reasoning used in their support of such laws smacks of the kind of assent they gave to governments who wanted to persecute other faiths and various ethnic groups.

  • the ban on homosexuality was in the old testament under the law of Moses and Jesus has repealed it and established Grace Hebrews 10:9 , secondly the buggery act of 1533 which was brought in by Henry 8th and the basis of all the anti gay laws which was passed down to the colonies was actually passed as a wicked act by Henry in a bid to get rid of the Catholics who as you know he was trying to break away from. Manyof the priests were gays and so he wanted to nabb them with this law , the bible writers of course obeyed the King and followed suit in the bible versions from the time of Henry. True. The church of England of which he was head over too preached it as their king stated it.

    Secondly practically Nigerian stance from a Christian point of view is not a Love your neighbour stance which it must stand under , as homosexuality is not a crime against another it should not warrant a punishment as it is not breaking the law of Love which Jesus established.

    Thirdly practically those that are affected with HIV AIDS will not be able to go and get treatment whether they are gays or heterosexuals as they will be given over to the police.

    many will should have a second thought on it

  • The new law in Nigeria does not punish anyone entering into a same-sex relationship : it punishes PUBLIC relationship, assimilating it to propaganda.
    It condemns also the (commercial) attitude targeting specifically (exclusively…) gays and lesbians.

    This is not against homosexuality per se, but against propaganda and proselytism.
    Any discrimination against gays and lesbians is, at least, not allowed, nor encouraged, by this law.

  • So in other words gays have to keep their personal lives secret at all costs under penalty of imprisonment and possible execution. Any kind of expression of what they are and who they are is criminal.

    Kind of like how Jews under the Spanish Inquisition had to keep their faith secret from the public under the threat of torture and burning at the stake. Another more ironic example would be Christians under Nero facing similar situations.

    There is no way you can possibly spin these laws into anything less than gross violations of human rights. I don’t have to care whether you consider homosexuality a sin or not. We do not base laws in a civilized society based on religious notions of sin. Criminal penalties for blasphemy, idolatry and adultery have plenty of support from the Bible. But they are also completely at odds with civilized society, rule of law and constitute human rights abuses.

  • No surprise in this episcopal disagreement given all that has been exposed about the natural sexual proclivities of the clergy for the past several decades. For well over 1,000 years, for that matter. Given that so many Catholic clergy are practicing gays in spite of their public celibacy, and given the fact so many bishops as well as priests have found it necessary to hide in closets of varying depths of darkness and cheat and lie and steal regarding their sex lives, this should not be considered news but more an exposure of reality.

    It’s time the church comes to honest terms with this phenomenon. The most psychologically healthy thing it could do would be to eliminate required celibacy and ordain women. That would be natural, right, and corrective. Allow gay clergy, but let it be open and honest.

  • There is no difference in the aspects of your argument. They are all based on ignorance and the hatred of prejudice. You argue that it is just to have a homosexual sex life as long as you hide it, but because heterosexuality is the majority, it is justified to parade that and practice ugly prejudice against homosexuality and homosexuals. In other words, morals and ethics are nothing but the expressions of the majority. To hell with science, sociology, psychology, and even open and honest history. What is the value of knowledge if we do not apply it to our lives?

  • There are a number of errors in all this. The church at large is guilty of unhealthy attitudes toward sex and its orientation in general. The conflict between celibacy and sexual practices on the part of clergy and religious who promise its chastity prove this.

    The continuing, hidden, and unresolved problem of sexual abuse among clergy is a glaring example of that. The bold attitude of celibate clergy to try to dictate to the people in the pews about contraception is outrageous when it is the people in the pews who have to support both the children that result from not using contraception and also support the clergy who preach against contraception The same can be claimed about abortion in very early stages or when a mother’s life is at risk. As was sung in the musical “Kiss Me, Kate,” “…it is he who has the fun and you who has the babies!”

    Why should church decisions coming from one man or even a select group of celibate men be honored when it is the people in the pews who have the life experience and broader knowledge of these matters?

    The attitudes promoted by John Paul II and Benedict betrayed an awful ignorance and disregard for science, sociology, psychology, and history–especially church history. That is the obvious result of too limiting a background in selective philosophy and theology.

    The people in the pews make up the very vast majority of the People of God. Why is it that they have so little say in church matters as when Paul VI ignored the very experienced, select committee that advised him to the contrary of his published, disastrous “Humanae Vitae”?

    It should not be surprising that the clash between the cultures of backward nations like many in Africa and those of the West presents even greater problems, like attitudes about sexual orientation, whether its personal, social, religious, or political. The church has been broadcasting its growth coming from backward, illiterate nations. The shallow and sad results of that enumeration are coming home to roost.

    What is to be said about the literacy of the world’s population in these times when it sadly relies on the words that issue forth from the mind of any one person, be he pope or peasant? This is an illiterate antiquity with which we must be finished. Naturally, bishop do not think alike, even if they don’t dare speak their minds honestly and openly.

  • HrH Elizabeth,

    Jesus “repealed” the old testament laws about homosexuality?

    I guess we can never know what religious people will come up with next. Where is this written? Where is Jesus’ authoritative statement? Why are there millions of Christians who still don’t know for sure?

    If Jesus was a God capable of leaving us with a clear message don’t you think we would all know what that message is?
    Yet we are left wringing our hands in wonder.

    Leviticus clearly states that homosexuals should be killed.
    Yes, Jesus did say “love your neighbor”.
    But all bets are off if that neighbor has been already deemed “unworthy” and their “blessing of peace” has been removed – by your judgement.

    “If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if it is not worthy, take back your blessing of peace.” (Matt 10:14)

    This leaves the whole ball of wax in the reader’s hands!
    It is an injunction to judge others. Harshly.

  • Liz,
    Jesus repealed the Old Testament ban on homosexuality?
    Jesus said “If you won’t believe Moses, you won’t believe me.”
    Liz, self-deception can be self-destructive. Do not fool yourself.

  • Open Letter to the Archbishop of Jos, Ignatius Kaigama.

    Dear Ignatious,

    I read with joy your comments condemning Nigeria’s draconian anti-gay legislation, and the consequent unchristian persecution of gay people (published in the pinknews paper

    You added that there had been a “gross misinterpretation of the law” by the media. This is not true. As a Christian Nigerian man who is openly homosexual, and having lived in Nigeria until 2008 when I was forced to leave, I have been challenging the Nigerian churches over their homophobia for many years, and have seen and experienced the terrible persecutions which gay people face in their homeland. I continue to receive reports from friends and colleagues of what gay people are going through in Nigeria. If anything the media underplays the terrible violence which this legislation has unleashed.

    I strongly believe in family and marriage, but also believe that If two people of the same sex want to make their relationship more stable and commit themselves more deeply to each other, this can only be for the good of Nigeria. It makes no difference whether the couple is gay or straight.
    You said “we are not supporting the criminalisation of people with different sexual orientations,” “We would defend any person with homosexual orientation who is being harassed, who is being imprisoned, who is being punished.”

    Following the passing of the Nigerian anti gay law there was and continues to be wide-spread violent attacks against those suspected of being homosexuals in Nigeria. Indeed, the persecution of gay people in Nigeria is strongly influenced by religious homophobia.

    The Nigerian Christian Association has stood firm in supporting the new laws, and there is no record anywhere to prove that your church or any other church has seriously challenged the persecution of gay people in Nigeria.

    I applaud what you are doing, but for the love of God, please continue to speak out, as strongly as you are able, against the barbaric treatment of gay people in Nigeria. All right thinking Christians throughout the world, including His Holiness, will be listening.

    In Peace,
    Davis Mac-Iyalla