Nigerian Catholic bishops defy Vatican on human rights

Nigerian bishops have abandoned Catholic social teaching by backing a new law which severely violates human rights. By supporting the misleadingly-named Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, they have also distanced themselves from Pope Francis, who has called for a more pastoral approach to gays.

When this was signed into law by president Goodluck Jonathan in January 2014, the suffering of an already vulnerable minority intensified. Gay sex had been criminalised in Nigeria since the days of British rule, and harassment and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people was already common, but hostility and repression got worse.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that he “fears that the law may fuel prejudice and violence, and notes with alarm reports that police in northern Nigeria have arrested individuals believed by the authorities to be homosexuals, and may even have tortured them. As UNAIDS and the Global Fund noted in a statement yesterday, the law also risks obstructing effective responses to HIV/AIDS.”

“Rarely have I seen a piece of legislation that in so few paragraphs directly violates so many basic, universal human rights,” remarked UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay. “Rights to privacy and non-discrimination, rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention: this law undermines all of them.” She pointed out that ““It purports to ban same-sex marriage ceremonies but in reality does much more.”

Love and justice are at the heart of the Gospel and, for many years, Catholic social teaching has emphasised the importance of human rights for all, despite an official stance that marriage should only be for opposite-sex couples. “The Church believes that human rights express the transcendent dignity of the person, the only creature that God has willed for himself as an end and never a means, and she believes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was a moment of fundamental importance in the development, of humanity as a whole, of a moral conscience in conformity with the dignity of the human person," said Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, at a sixtieth anniversary celebration of the Declaration in 2008.

"If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" said Pope Francis in 2013. "Ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all," he later told an interviewer. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he used to receive letters from gays and lesbians who said they were "socially wounded" because they felt the church condemned them, but “The church does not want to do this." He asked, “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?"

So it was not surprising that the official Vatican news agency published extracts from an editorial criticising the new law, which had appeared in Southern Cross, a weekly supported by the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

"Recently the Ugandan and Nigerian parliaments both passed severe anti-gay legislation. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has vetoed it; Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan signed it into law. Other countries, such as Cameroon and Tanzania, are proposing to pass similar legislation", the editorial recalled, pointing out that these laws aimed “to persecute people on the basis of their sexual orientation". Such laws “are not only unjust, but they also have the potential to tear at the fabric of society if they are misused to facilitate false denunciations for gain, advancement or vengeance, much as what Christians are exposed to in Pakistan under that country’s intolerable blasphemy law".

The agency reported that “In the light of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which prescribes to ‘avoid every sign of unjust discrimination’ against homosexuals and even recommends to accept them ‘with respect , compassion and sensitivity’, the editorial asks the Church in Africa to raise its voice ‘against discriminatory laws and violence against homosexuals, many of whom are Catholics’.”

However, in defiance of the Vatican, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) described the signing of the bill into law as “a right step in the right direction for the protection of the dignity of the human person and commended the president for the courageous act, in spite of pressures from some international communities.” The president of the Conference, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, praised the president “for this courageous and wise decision and pray that God will continue to bless, guide and protect you and your administration against the conspiracy of the developed world to make our country and continent, the dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices”.

The Roman Catholic Church appears to be shifting towards a less centralised approach, and heavy-handed imposition of discipline on national churches can be counter-productive. However the international leadership might want, at least, to make it clear that the Nigerian bishops’ stance is contrary to that of the church overall, and ask them to explain why they believe that scapegoating minorities and victimising the marginalised is morally right. Even if they are not disciplined for rebelling against church teaching, it is reasonable to expect these bishops to account for why they are promoting hatred, repression and violence instead of the good news of Christ.

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© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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