Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 18 April 2013

The Cardinal’s sins of reason and revelation

It would be convenient to dismiss the comments on homosexuality of Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, head of the Catholic Church in South Africa, as the last gasp efforts of a member of a dying (albeit still powerful) breed. The inconvenient truth, however, is that that violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people is intensifying.

With the same-sex marriages, we are carrying out someone else’s agenda. It’s a new kind of slavery, with America saying you won’t get aid unless you distribute condoms, legalise homosexuality…”

The recent Mail & Guardian interview with Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, head of the Catholic Church in South Africa, must have had Fatima Asmal flummoxed. She must have careened between mirthless laughter and groaning delight. The article was so rich in quotable quotes that I found it difficult to know where to begin.

But begin we must.

Let’s start with the notion that the Americans are somehow behind the gay agenda, that homosexuality is a Western disease and that the US in particular has been at the forefront of promoting it. This is absurd. It is does a disservice to the many activists from around the world who have championed gay rights and finally shamed Americans into recognising how far behind they are, legislatively speaking.

The fact that gay marriage is only now reaching the US Supreme Court for adjudication speaks to the slow progress of US public opinion on this issue. This is a clear example of the US following rather than leading on a human rights issue.

But make no mistake, homophobia is alive and well. Indeed, in some ways – as a response to the gains that have been made activists – homophobic expression is becoming more virulent in some parts of our continent. Uganda and Cameroon are examples of places where life is getting harder for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

South Africa falls firmly into this camp: across South Africa hate crimes against lesbians have been committed with impunity, and attacks against transgender people and gay men continue to be proof positive of the low-grade war on homosexuals in our country.

In a 2009 article, the BBC quoted a young South African man as saying, “If there is someone who is trying to rape a lesbian, I can appreciate their thing. It’s just to let them know that they must be straight. For me, I have no time to rape them but if another guy wants to teach them the way, they must rape them, they must rock them. Once she gets raped, I think she’ll know which way is nice.”

Cardinal Napier’s notion that “Our reason says men and women were made differently, they were made to complement each other… the basic fact of life is that men and women were made to create life together. There’s something radically wrong with the thinking that marriage can be devoid of the concept of bringing life into earth,” embodies the same ideas.
It would be easy to dismiss Napier as part of a dying (albeit still powerful) breed. It would be nice to suggest that he is just being belligerent. He certainly comes across as an old man who is past his prime and is clinging to old ways. Old men sometimes display a kind of certain bravado to demonstrate that they are still in charge and Napier certainly seems to fall into this category.

The trouble is that the cardinal’s comments are irresponsible. I would argue that they are the equivalent of screaming “fire!” in a darkened theatre. I find it odd that he thinks it is okay to make these kinds of comments in a society that has demonstrated its capacity for violence against those who do not conform to “traditional” (whatever that means anymore) gender stereotypes.

Napier has the right to think what he likes about gay people – much as I wish he wouldn’t. And he may just barely slide in under the right to express himself, and therefore he may have the right to talk about his views about gay people. But when you are a leader, you have an additional responsibility. Just because you have the right to say something, doesn’t mean you should.

Here’s to hoping this is the good cardinal’s last media interview for a while. DM


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