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FIDUCIA SUPPLICANS OP-ED

Southern African Catholic Bishops — we will implement same-sex blessings

Southern African Catholic Bishops — we will implement same-sex blessings
On 18 December 2023, the Vatican released a declaration — Fiducia Supplicans — that allowed Catholic clergy to bless couples who were not married according to the teachings of the Catholic Church. (Photo: Spotlight)

Even though many African Catholic bishops aggressively rejected Pope Francis’ declaration allowing for same-sex blessings, this week, the Southern African bishops have courageously announced their decision to implement it and its recommendations. 

On 18 December 2023, the Vatican released a declaration — Fiducia Supplicans — that allowed Catholic clergy to bless couples who were not married according to the teachings of the Catholic Church. This included same-sex couples. The document, approved by Pope Francis, triggered a ferocious debate in the global Catholic Church.

Days after the release of the text, many African Catholic bishops reacted by saying that it should be rejected, forgotten and ignored in its totality.

Bishop Paul Kariuki Njiru of Kenya’s Wote diocese said the document “should be rejected in totality, and we faithfully uphold the Gospel teachings and Catholic traditional teachings on marriage and sexuality”.

Bishop Martin Mtumbuka of Karonga Diocese in Malawi told the people of his jurisdiction to “forget and ignore this controversial and apparently blasphemous declaration in its entirety”. The Malawian bishop angrily asked: “Was this letter written to please homosexuals and their promoters? We don’t know. Can the Church depart from its rightful path simply to please certain people who live in immoral unions?”

Mtumbuka speculated that the pope’s advisors did not want to stop him because they feared him. “It’s very sad for me that for the first time in the history of the church, a document released from the Holy See, signed by the Holy Father, is rejected by his fellow bishops and publicly rejected,” he said.

Less than a month later, on 11 January 2024, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, the archbishop of Kinshasa in the DRC and president of a body that represents the bishops of the continent (The Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar — Secam), publicly said that he signed a document on behalf of the entire Catholic Church in Africa rejecting Fiducia Supplicans.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Vatican approves blessings for same-sex couples in landmark ruling

Besengu explained how he had synthesised the African responses before going to Rome to present them to Pope Francis. He insisted that Pope Francis was “very sad” but understood the African position and that although the bishops rejected the document, they were still in communion with the pope.

‘African’ position

“We, the African bishops, do not consider it appropriate for Africa to bless homosexual unions or same-sex couples because, in our context, this would cause confusion and would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities,” Besengu said.

“Our culture in Africa is not like that. Yes, we have many defects, but we cannot be reproached for homosexuality. You can find isolated cases,” he said, but “society doesn’t work that way. That practice does not exist among us.”

Besengu also lashed out at the Vatican’s timing of the document, saying that it was “damaging” to the synodal process convened by Pope Francis.

The pope has been leading a three-year process of listening and dialogue in the Catholic Church about all aspects of the Church’s life.

Days after Besengu’s statement of defiance, the bishops of the Maghreb region announced they would not be following this position. After their plenary session, they said: “When people in an irregular situation come together to ask for a blessing, it may be given provided this does not cause confusion for them or for others.”

SACBC conference

On 30 January 2024, the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) had a press conference at the end of their biannual plenary. At the conference, Cardinal Stephen Brislin, Archbishop of Cape Town and spokesperson for the bishops, announced that the local bishops would be implementing the Vatican document on blessings.

Like the Maghreb region, the Southern African Conference has not taken SECAM’s position.

A bishop, who chose not to be named publicly because of his position on the continent, explained how Besengu had spoken in the name of a continent he had never consulted.

“It is interesting how he blames others for damaging the synodal process but sees no wrong by behaving like a monarch speaking in the name of hundreds of bishops who were never consulted,” he said.

Brislin said the SACBC’s position is “certainly not a criticism of them [other African bishops].” He said, “They [bishops] are fully entitled to do that as they are looking at their own particular situations and their own particular pastoral concerns”.

“Each bishop has to assess the particular needs of his diocese and the particular impact this would have. And we in South Africa felt that, obviously, it is up to each local bishop, but that we would implement the document and its recommendations with blessings, prudently,” the cardinal said.

The president of the Bishop’s conference, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha, was also present. He affirmed Catholic Church teaching, saying that the Catholic Church still holds to the fact that “same-sex unions, according to the teaching of the church, are not in accordance with the will of God”.

Brislin agreed, stating: “The declaration very clearly reaffirms the doctrine of the Catholic church about marriage, a lifelong commitment between a man and woman”.

He went on to say: “It is really a document that is talking about a pastoral practice, for example, for people who are in other irregular situations — like people who are divorced and remarried and haven’t managed to have an annulment and young people perhaps who are living together without any marriage or commitment — are not excluded from the pastoral care of the Church.

The Cape Town prelate continued: “What this document is saying is that if such people come for a blessing, that blessing should not be denied to them because a blessing is not a reward for perfection”.

Brislin said that the fact that people come for a blessing means that they are open to God’s grace; they are seeking God’s grace, and this should be remembered. “The difficulty that the church has is not that somebody is gay or even that they live together; it is the sexual expression that is not in accordance with God’s will”.

“We don’t want to be prescriptive, but on the other hand, we are clear about when that act [blessing] is done, [it] should not give an impression that the Church is approving same-sex marriage,” Sipuka said. He emphasised the need for prudence, saying, “We don’t know what concrete expression that prudence would take; it will depend on the circumstances.” He cautioned: “An impression should not be given both to those asking for a blessing that by blessing them you are legitimising what they are doing.”

The differing views on the Vatican declaration highlight a difficulty: Africa is not a homogenous place. The continent is diverse — culturally and religiously. The Catholic Church on the continent is also diverse; therefore, there is no one African position — despite those who insist there is. The bishops of the Maghreb and their Southern African counterparts have shown that one prelate cannot speak (and should not) for the whole continent.

It is also interesting to note the aggressive resistance to the document by some bishops who do not address other problems — like clergy who mismanage finances or have children out of wedlock. The impression created is that this is somehow culturally more ‘morally’ acceptable than being a gay person.

At the press conference, the Cardinal said that the bishops commended the government for its principled approach to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) — for the protection of innocent lives in the current conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.

The bishops appealed to those involved in the conflict and those supporting each side to honour the decisions of the ICJ. They insisted that peace could only be established with the cessation of hostilities and a just settlement for all the region’s peoples.

Brislin was asked to address the phenomena of fake news and disinformation. He warned people that they ought to be cautious of anything that sows division or suggests that, for example, the pope is “the anti-Christ or the devil incarnate.” He said that this should not be given attention.

The SACBC gave an update on the Church’s class action case against mining giants who have abandoned people who have suffered poor labour and safety practices in mines. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • James Webster says:

    Homophobic and insolent African Catholic bishops would do well to remember they are only bishops by virtue of mother Church and its papacy. The arrogance so common in African politicians seems to have tainted the African Catholic hierarchy as well. Bishops serve at the pleasure of Rome and they need to remember it. Some of them have let their lofty titles go to their head, they forget their place, both in the world and in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The pope considers himself to be the SERVANT of the SERVANTS of God, contrary to what these arrogant upstarts think of themselves. The Holy Father is too tolerant of this dissent, he should give these troublesome rebels a lesson in discipline and humility, if they don’t want to acknowledge his bulls and encyclicals, discipline or even excommunicate them, they forget the Church is not a Protestant democracy.

  • James Webster says:

    It’s hypocritical that African culture, which complains so vigorously and so often of prejudice embodies prejudice against homosexuals and justifies it as a cultural norm. If you condemn homosexuals for a condition they had no choice in, for something that is mostly genetic, why then shouldn’t Africans be condemned for being black, which is also something they had no choice in and is genetic in nature. There is no difference, prejudice is prejudice and once again, Africa reinforces the primitive and savage nature of its culture and mores.

  • peter selwaski says:

    Blessing a person who has rejected a sinful state, whether heterosexual or homosexual is a good thing. However, blessing someone in a continuing sinful relationship is contrary to church teaching. Even if homosexuality is a result of genetic factors, having self control should prevent sinful activity and it’s no different for we heterosexual Catholics. Sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful and we are expected to abstain.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Important article to publish. Thanks.
    I’m glad that the Pope has provided the church’s backing to priests to bless anyone, – this has always been the unique aspect of Christianity.
    I had an amazing discussion with my priest more than twenty years ago about being gay. He then already had the same approach to what the Pope has now stated.
    He said that while he cannot condone “other” sexualities, the Church’s Christian teachings will always welcome everyone and bless them. Which he did.
    He said that he had never and would never give a Sunday sermon denouncing anyone for their lived experience, he always focused on the positive teachings and how these could guide us in our present lives to be better persons.

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