Some journalists are morbidly obsessed with Pope Francis and his views on homosexuality. Perhaps it’s because they might score a juicy soundbite as evidence that the Pope is changing the Catholic Church’s teaching on the subject, whether for good or ill.
On a flight during his recent week-long tour of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, in a joint interview with his co-travellers, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Pope took questions from journalists. He spoke about economic exploitation, the arms trade, the suffering of women, and armed conflicts in the two countries.
Yet the only article about the airborne interview that the New York Times carried on its home page focused squarely on the Pope’s answer to a Radio France journalist’s question, at the tail end of the interview, about the decriminalisation of homosexuality and stigma against homosexuals in Africa.
I have written multiple times about this matter, especially in relation to my own country, Kenya, which has one of these laws on the books. An ancient provision of the Kenyan penal code penalises “carnal knowledge against the order of nature.” A 2019 ruling at the Kenyan high court upheld the law.
It’s hard to fault the Pope’s response, in which he characterised laws criminalising homosexuality as unjust. I have argued for a similar position several times, including in my article about the Kenyan high court ruling. Clearly Pope Francis wants to imitate Christ’s tolerance of sinners and care for those on the margins of society.
Nevertheless, the Pope’s position was nuanced. On the one hand, as he said in another interview before the trip, those who perform homosexual acts do commit sin, since every sexual act outside of marriage is a sin — as Christ himself taught. The Pope was just repeating traditional Catholic teaching.
Additionally, the Pope also emphatically distinguished homosexual people from activist groups, saying, “I am not talking about groups, but about people. Some say: they join in groups that generate noise. I am talking about people; lobbies are something different. I am talking about people.”
The Pope is not in league with homosexual activists.
Besides, to support the decriminalisation of homosexuality is not the same as promoting homosexuality as a way of life and as a healthy variant of human sexuality. It is not inconsistent, as some have tried to argue, for the Pope to simultaneously hold that homosexuality is wrong and that homosexuals do not deserve to be jailed simply for being homosexual.
In fact, the Pope has been quite consistent on this matter pretty much throughout his pontificate, and even before, in Argentina. Unfortunately, the same activist lobbies he decried in the interview, and their media allies like the New York Times, always leverage the Pope’s statements to build up support for their agenda. For a coalition so self-assured of its own position, it is remarkable that the endorsement of the head of the world’s most sexually conservative organisation counts for so much.
Some pundits have said that, given the consistency with which his statements on the subject been misinterpreted, perhaps the Pope should keep shtum. Why? The Pope is the world’s pre-eminent moral leader; in times of confusion, it is his job to provide clarity. It is the job of journalists to provide context and accuracy.
And they failed. To centre the Pope’s visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan on the issue on homosexuality is a gross display of Western navel-gazing. In neither country is the issue of homosexuality even remotely relevant right now.
Even were all anti-homosexuality laws scrubbed from the laws of these two countries, it is highly unlikely that anyone’s life would improve. Rebel groups would continue to rampage through the eastern DRC; foreign countries would continue plundering its riches; and South Sudan would still be careening towards governmental collapse.
To gaze upon this panorama of human suffering, and then pontificate in Western media about the marginal, the inconsequential, issue of homosexuality, is to spit in the face of all these suffering people. To ask the Pope about it and then to mischaracterise his balanced response, is to play fast and loose with the truth.
But then again, this isn’t exactly news either.