Catholic Sex Teaching is No Laughing Matter

 It happens a lot these days. I get together with some other post-Vatican II Catholics and we start joking about the stupid things the Vatican or the bishops have done lately. For a while, my favorite contribution was the title of Andrew Rosenthal’s New York Times blog piece, “First Nuns and Girl Scouts, Next Dora the Explorer.” Now I’ve added Archbishop Sean O’Malley’s observation at last week’s meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that the group may need some help with public relations. Ya think???

Trouble is, this stuff really isn’t funny. In point of fact, a number of official Catholic statements on sexuality—it’s invariably sexuality and gender they’re riled up about—are downright dangerous.

Take, for example, the Ugandan Catholic bishops. As Peter Montgomery reported in RD this week, they joined recently with Anglican and Orthodox bishops “to speed-up the process of enacting the Anti-Homosexuality Law.” This is the bill which, when it was introduced in 2009, called for capital punishment for homosexual acts.

Some will point out that when this “kill the gays” bill” was introduced, the Archbishop of Kampala, Cyprian Lwanga, opposed it, while the Vatican’s representative read a statement at the UN restating the Holy See’s opposition to “all grave violations of human rights against homosexual persons, such as the use of the death penalty, torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.” And there is some possibility that the latest version of the bill does not include the capital punishment provision, though Peter Montgomery’s sources indicate that it does. As Timothy Kincaid notes on Box Turtle Bulletin, however, none of this means that the Vatican opposes criminalizing homosexuality, only “cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment” for same; indeed, it opposed an earlier European Union move to decriminalize homosexuality.

And even if the Vatican were to oppose the criminalization of homosexuality, it’s still hard to argue that the language it uses doesn’t encourage violence against LGBT people.

A good example is the 1995 document Persona Humana: Declaration On Certain Questions 
Concerning Sexual Ethics, issued by the same Vatican office that recently condemned the US Catholic sisters’ organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Persona Humana suggests, for example, that “homosexuals…are definitively such because of some kind of…pathological constitution,” and that they suffer from an “inability to fit into society.” It also asserts that “in Sacred Scripture (homosexual acts) are condemned as a serious depravity and even presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God,” thus attesting to the fact that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved of.” 

The Vatican is, however, “masterful at crafting language,” as Timothy Kincaid has observed, and so might well respond that statements about homosexuality used in Persona Humana are those of psychologists and biblical writers, not its own. But no amount of indirection can obscure the Vatican’s decision to use this vilifying language and not some other, in Persona Humana as well as in the much more widely read Catechism of the Catholic Church.

And have no doubt, such language has serious effects. Here in the US, the media regularly covers incidents of bullying and harassment leading to gay self-hatred and suicide, as in the 2010 case of Tyler Clementi. But in Africa, anti-LGBT violence is skyrocketing. As Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports in the May 28th issue of the New Yorker, more than two-thirds of African countries criminalize consensual acts between persons of the same sex. Even in South Africa, the first country in the world to constitutionally ban discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, anti-LGBT violence is a major problem, with “corrective rape” and murder of lesbians on the upsurge.

At the same time that anti-gay violence is growing in Africa, the number of African Christians, including Roman Catholics, continues to increase. Catholics now comprise twenty percent of the population of the entire continent, or 185 million people. 

It would, of course, be unfair to blame increasing anti-gay violence in Africa entirely, or even primarily, on the Roman Catholic Church, given the pivotal roles played in this crisis by some African Anglican leaders and right-wing American evangelical groups.

But does anybody doubt that the Vatican’s characterization of gay sex as pathological, depraved, and intrinsically disordered encourages African Catholics to collude in anti-gay violence? I certainly don’t.

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