Believers and non-believers the world over had their eyes on the Catholic Church’s recent Synod on the Family, which initially promised to be a landmark shift in perspective in the history of the Church. In the end, despite the progressive leadership of Pope Francis, the latest document released by the Synod opted for relatively conservative wording on the key issue of homosexuality. But signs suggest that the Church is facing deep divisions, and South African Catholics are not necessarily immune. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.
Archbishop Stephen Brislin, President of the Southern African Bishops’ Conference, tweeted on 4 October: “Pray for the Synod on the Family: that it may seek to heal those who are hurt, unite the faithful, and seek those estranged from the Church.” The first draft of a document – or relatio – summarising Synod proceedings seemed as though it might begin to achieve that: it stated that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community,” and asked – which was progress – whether the Church was capable of “welcoming” them.
But “unite the faithful” remains the operative phrase. Because although the Church is diplomatic in its dealings with the press, the division between traditionalists and progressives appears to be deepening. And the recent Synod on the Family has thrown the fault lines into relief.
International media have reported on deepening divisions in Church leadership, and Pope Francis acknowledged the friction following the recent Synod on the Family. While closer to home, South African cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and Archbishop of Durban Cardinal Wilfrid Napier has said that the more progressive prelates’ stance on homosexuality initially left “people very angry”.
He continued that the key problem was at first “presenting homosexual unions as if they were a very positive thing” and the suggestion that divorced and remarried Catholics should be able to receive Communion without an annulment.
He complained that the first draft only represented the views of “one or two people.” But when each point of the report was put to the vote, the paragraph on gays narrowly missed the two-thirds required under Synod rules, with 118 for and 62 against.
Napier didn’t stop there, though. His anger evidently dried up when the relatio was revised and more conservative wording on homosexuality was passed, and he later tweeted:
Co-incidence or act of God? 18th October Uganda Martyrs canonised by Bl Paul VI! Reason for martyrdom? Issue still being debated in Uganda!
— Cardinal Napier (@CardinalNapier) October 19, 2014
By the way 18th October = day when Synod14 voted against suggested approach to homosexuality. I wonder did Uganda Martyrs intervene?
— Cardinal Napier (@CardinalNapier) October 20, 2014
With these comments, in terms of South Africa, Napier has drawn a line in the sand. For those who don’t have their calendar of saints handy, the Ugandan Martyrs were canonised exactly 50 years ago on 18 October. They were executed by King Mwanga, who ordered them to choose either their faith, and death, or complete obedience to his orders – the first of which had been to participate in homosexual acts against their will. Napier is therefore apparently suggesting that the martyrs gave the Synod a nudge from above, urging them to opt for a more conservative stance on homosexuality in deference to their own close shave with either anal rape or other atrocities.
Forgive a small digression here. You may remember Cardinal Napier as the same Christian leader who infamously told the BBC that paedophiles in the Church were not criminals, so it is interesting that in this case, his defence of the sexual abuser is absent (and, disturbingly, the focus is on the homosexuality rather than the use of force, when the latter is surely the issue at hand. Would it not be equally abhorrent – and un-Christian – if the king had murdered young women for refusing to comply in heterosexual acts?).
Napier is no stranger to homophobia, although he has categorically denied all allegations of it, claiming that could not be homophobic because he did not know any homosexuals. He did, however, definitely know at least one: Bishop Reginald Cawcutt, who was openly gay, ministered to homosexuals, was instrumental in the fight against AIDS and ran a gay support group, but resigned from the church after a controversial and painful scandal on the internet. Ironically, back then Cawcutt gave as the reason for his resignation that he did not want to cause division in the Church via a battle over his morality: a battle, it seems, that was merely deferred rather than avoided.
You may also remember that Napier previously said that the fight for gay rights was subjecting Christians to a “new kind of slavery” and recently suggested an app for mucus-testing as an alternative to contraception (an improvement on an earlier suggestion of abstinence even for married couples). He’s additionally been the recipient of some typed bullets from Daily Maverick columnist Pierre de Vos.
What may at first appear to be a throwaway Twitter comment on Napier’s part has, in fact, many layers and implications – not just for South Africa but Africa as a whole. Uganda ties with Lesotho as Africa’s most Catholic country. Its population is over 85% Christian and nearly half of these Christians are Catholic. Uganda, which has some of the most homophobic laws on the continent, originally proposed the death sentence for homosexuals in its latest Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014, which was originally dubbed the “Kill the Gays Bill”. (It has recently been downgraded to life in prison for certain homosexual “offences”.) By siding against homosexuals in the “debate” in a Ugandan context, Napier is implicitly choosing cruelty and gross human rights abuses. Certainly one can argue that the tweet could also be referring to the debate around the canonisation of the Ugandan Martyrs, which has been cause for discussion in the Catholic Church. But the ambiguity is there.
To add to the significance of his comments, Cardinal Napier is arguably one of the most prominent African faces of Catholicism – widely acknowledged, on the positive side, as fighting hard to place Africa on the map where the Church is concerned. His influence, therefore, is massive, and he has the power to drive change – if he so wishes.
Napier is a force to be reckoned with, partly because of his senior position and ambitious nature – he told a local radio station at an earlier Papal Conclave that it had been exciting not only to vote for the next Pope, but to contemplate the possibility of actually being the next Pope – but also because the combination of his charisma and frequently controversial statements often places him in the headlines.
What makes Napier’s conservatism so toxic is also, sadly, that it is not actually reflective of the entire Church in South Africa. The Catholic Church has in fact taken a more progressive stance on some key issues and is delivering some much-needed progress during a time when debates are rife over its relevance.
Fr S’milo Mngadi, assistant spokesperson for the Southern African Bishops’ Conference, told Daily Maverick that “that law of love is our identity as Christians” and stated categorically that “we are totally, totally against homophobia”. He added that “everyone should be accepted” and “nobody should be discriminated against or targeted because of their genuine human experience”, emphasising that the Catechism demanded that homosexuals be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity” (Article 2357 – 2359).
Fr Mngadi said he felt there was no conflict between the Catholic Church in South Africa and the country’s liberal Constitution, although he did acknowledge that more conservative individual priests were entitled to live, and preach, their beliefs (the Catholic Church does expressly make provision for the individual’s conscience to reign supreme, using a principle known as the primacy of conscience, which allows a fair amount of wiggle room for individual morals to apply to each unique situation, provided people have formed and informed their conscience). He stressed, however, that in this instance the Constitution’s provision for religious freedom would allow the priest to do so. This does also apply conversely, should the priest be more liberally minded.
Mngadi, however, would not be drawn on the subject of Napier or his tweets. “He will have to speak for himself,” he said. This was not possible, though, since Napier could not be reached on his office phone and did not respond to an email enquiry within the space of six days.
Archbishop Stephen Brislin, too, was reticent on the subject of Napier and declined to comment on the tweets. However, Brislin is widely recognised as a moderate, peaceful voice within the Church. For starters, his tweets about the Synod have been somewhat gentler, frequently quoting St. Francis and notably directing followers to an article in the magazine Crux about a return to gradualism – a decidedly moderate concept whereby the soul is considered to be on a gradual journey towards holiness or enlightenment rather than a black-and-white scale of sinner or saint. He also pointed out recently on Vatican Radio that there was no such thing as the “typical family” and that the Church should be “a Church that is not judging or condemning people, [my emphasis] but a Church that is welcoming and accepting”.
Speaking to Daily Maverick, Brislin condemned homophobia, although more generally than Fr Mngadi. “Any attack or abuse of a human being must be condemned by the Church and that includes homophobic attacks,” he said. “There is no justification for violence against a person just because of his or her sexual orientation.
“It is a sad fact that in South Africa we have witnessed not only violence against homosexuals but also murder.”
He added a strong word regarding the dignity and rights to equality of homosexuals, too. “The dignity of each and every person, as being a creature made in the image of God, is to be respected,” he said. “Homosexuals should be treated as any other person, and this applies to the Church as well in respect to its teaching of sexuality and its expression in marriage.”
Does this speak, then, of a division in leadership in the Church? The Church leaders Daily Maverick spoke to were adamant that the Church was not facing a serious breach and that the Synod had fostered healthy, lively debate. Asked whether the Church would weather the current storm, Fr Mngadi merely asked: “What storm?”
Archbishop Brislin added: “The Synod…was a positive and interesting experience. I do understand that some may have had very high expectations of the outcome of the Synod but I do think that some of those expectations were unrealistic.
“I think labelling people ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ is counter-productive. People come with their different perspectives and this was the case at the Synod as well. It would have been unhealthy if it were not so. But I firmly believe that all members of the Synod were trying to listen to others and to find appropriate responses to the pastoral challenges.”
Fr Mngadi summed it up: “I don’t think there has ever been unilateral leadership [in the Church]. There has always been diversity. There was always room to speak frankly and to listen with humility. I don’t think there is polarity now, even though these times are quite charged. The core challenge is pastoral.”
A source close to the Church who asked not to be identified, however, told Daily Maverick that there was some distance between the more progressive and more conservative leaders – such as Napier – in the Church.
This has been picked up by international media, and globally, the major players are well-known. In the conservative camp is Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, who has more than once expressed views which are in sync with those of Napier. Cardinal Raymond Burke, meanwhile, is one of the strongest known opponents to Francis’ tolerant attitude towards gay rights, and was previously a guest of Napier in South Africa. (He has, however, admitted that he is to be demoted by Francis to a less important position in the Vatican.)
Change agent Pope Francis is a on the progressive side, albeit widely respected. Then there is leading liberal Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who has been vocal about even the early version of the relatio, saying during a BBC Radio 4 interview that he was looking for the words ‘respect’, ‘welcome’ and ‘value,’ and did not find them.
Francis, as Cardinal Nichols put it, has been a breath of fresh air who has “torn up the rule book”. Although it’s fair to say that the Church was already on a certain trajectory and his election was a function of change – Fr Mngadi confirms this – certainly in the eyes of the media he’s a juggernaut of sorts. He’s come in with a fresh perspective, met people on the ground, abandoned draconian security measures, and famously asked, regarding gay people, “Who am I to judge?” He’s been perceived by many to be moving the Church with the times, something that has been long overdue. (In the immortal words of a well-known Stellenbosch theologian who did not want to be named, “Christianity has survived for 2000 years, despite the Church.”)
Francis is perceived by many as pushing the relevance of the Church at a time when the views of more conservative prelates, serving under or appointed by Pope Benedict XVI or (like Napier) John Paul II, are being criticised as obsolete. Add leaders like Nichols – who fought staunchly for six years to keep open masses for gay, lesbian and transsexual Catholics in Soho, before they were shut down owing to residual pressure from the Vatican – and you have a recipe for difference.
Although, Mngadi says, it’s also a case of the friction being out in the open now. “The Synod brought to the fore issues on the ground,” he told Daily Maverick. “Previously, Synods were very closed. This one was very honest and open. People had the chance to address the Synod.”
Was Francis the driver behind this? “To an extent, yes, that is his personality. But before the Papal Conclave, the cardinals also sit down and map a new direction. There is reflection from all the cardinals who are there and from the time he is elected, the Pope knows what is expected of him and what direction he will be taking. But certainly the personal charisma he has is helping a lot.”
Judging by Napier’s tweets, however, there are limits to how far change can go. He recently tweeted his preference for tradition, saying of the Synod: “[F]all in with world’s agenda, abandon the Gospel & its 2000 years tradition? Or will it choose Christ & his way of Truth & the Cross?” and later adding: “Many seem to expect Synod to change Gospel message to suit today’s culture. Have they forgotten Church christianised (sic) European pagan customs?” He also added a number of tweets about the nature of development versus the nature of change, emphasising the difference.
The question, really, is how much room there will be in future for conservatism within the Church. For those in Napier’s mould, undoubtedly there is – tradition is, in their view, the very foundation of the Church. In the more moderate camp, there appears to be frustration with traditional views that are perceived to be holding the Church back, although some hold out hope that this will not be the case for long. In the words of Rev. James Martin, SJ, for example, to the Huffington Post, there is perhaps “hope that the next [Synod] session might find a pastoral way to express a real welcome to LGBT Catholics”.
A bright spot that emerged from the Daily Maverick’s local interviews was the reminder that this was the Extraordinary Synod. The Ordinary Synod only takes place in October 2015. This means, from a procedural perspective, that the discussion will be re-opened next year after considerable reflection on the document that was released summarising the procedure. “It is premature to say now that a more conservative stance was taken,” says Fr Mngadi. “All the matters are still open for discussion, including, of course, the one of homosexuality.”
This was echoed by Archbishop Brislin. “The final synod document is not, in my opinion, more ‘conservative’, but it is more defined,” he said. “The mere fact that the reality of homosexuality was in the document is indicative that there will be further discussion – it is clearly a pastoral issue.”
All the clergy Daily Maverick spoke to were at pains to emphasise that homosexuality was far from the only issue discussed at the Synod. That’s fair enough, but it is still the one that seems to get people the hottest under the collar – and it’s the one that the public, at least, seems to disagree on the most strongly. Therefore it’s also the one with the power to cause the most division. If someone doesn’t come up with an inclusive solution soon, there might be trouble on the road to paradise. DM
Photo: Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa leaves the Vatican after the general congregation meeting April 12, 2005. REUTERS/Max Rossi
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- The Southern African Bishops’ Conference http://www.sacbc.org.za/about-us/cardinal-wilfrid/