The People’s Pope?
How the Vatican's Position on Gender Threatens Human Rights
In September 2016, Sharon Slater of the U.S.-based Christian Right group Family Watch International issued a special appeal to a crowd of African conservatives, including Kenya’s Catholic Conference of Bishops, which was sponsoring the gathering. Making reference to a documentary her group had produced, The War on Children—a jeremiad against LGBTQ rights and sexuality education—Slater suggested that African conservatives were the key to halting global advancements in sexual and reproductive rights at the United Nations and across Africa.
The event was the African Conference of Families, an anti-LGBTQ, anti-sexual and reproductive health summit in Nairobi, co-sponsored by the World Congress of Families (WCF), the Kenyan Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, and Kenya’s Catholic hierarchy. It was promoted on the website of Vatican Radio, and brought together African culture warriors like Stephen Langa, the infamous architect of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality (or “Kill the Gays”) bill; WCF African representative Theresa Okarfor of Nigeria; and U.S. right-wing activists like WCF spokesperson Don Feder and the anti-abortion Lepanto Institute’s Michael Hichborn.
Many speakers at the conference relayed a familiar message, warning that the Global North is engaged in a new form of colonialism, imposing liberal norms of sexual rights on African nations. To Feder, the 1960s sexual revolution in the U.S. and Europe profoundly destabilized marriage and gender roles in the West, and unless contained, he warned, it would wreak havoc on Africa as well.
Kenyan Catholic Bishop Alfred Rotich blamed the Anglican Church’s 1930 decision to allow contraception as responsible for not just abortion but “other accompanying vices such as necrophilia, bestiality, paedophilia, same-sex relationships as well as calls for free sex and reproductive health services for children!”
The argument that the Global North is exporting immorality has helped further numerous conservative campaigns in African countries—against homosexuality, reproductive healthcare, and comprehensive sexuality education for youth. The role of the U.S. Christian Right in fostering this rhetoric has become well known. But less recognized is the involvement of the Catholic Church—including the leader touted for ushering in an era of modernization and tolerance, Pope Francis.
Since his election in 2013, Francis has become a beloved symbol of progress in the Catholic Church. In 2013, TIME magazine declared him its “person of the year” and anointed him with a new title, “the People’s Pope,” in recognition of his championship of those on the margins of society—the poor, immigrants, and refugees. His outspokenness on issues of income inequality, the environment, and corruption suggested a shift from his predecessor’s conservative views. But perhaps most surprising was his efforts to reach out to the LGBTQ community.
Shortly after his election, he surprised many by asking, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” On a 2015 visit to the U.S., he met with a gay couple (one member of which was his former student).1 In 2016, he called upon Christians, and Catholics in particular, to ask forgiveness from gay people “for the way they had treated them.”2 He even formalized the Vatican’s new attitude of tolerance in 2016, when he wrote in his book, Amoris Laetitia:
…every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while “every sign of unjust discrimination” is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence.3
But while Pope Francis’s statements were widely hailed as the evolution of the Church, his actions have been more telling. On the same trip wherein Francis publicly met a gay couple, he also privately met with and embraced Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite a court order. Davis told journalists that the Pope had thanked her for her courage, told her to be strong, and presented her with two rosaries. Initially, the Vatican denied Davis’ claim but finally admitted to it under media pressure.4
The Vatican’s attempt to conceal the meeting casts Pope Francis as double-faced: publicly courting progressives on one hand, and privately supporting the Christian Right’s anti-sexual rights agenda on the other. On Francis’ 2015 official tour of Kenya and Uganda—two countries where LGBTQ people have been particularly targeted—he never uttered a word on the persecution of sexual and gender minorities, although Roman Catholic bishops and priests have worked alongside Christian pastors and African politicians to systematically undermine LGBTQ rights. When it comes to African homophobia in particular, the “People’s Pope” has been silent.
Just as U.S. evangelicals worked with politicians in Uganda on the “Kill the Gays” bill,5 the Vatican and its clergy have strongly influenced African anti-sexual and -gender rights legislation. In 2016, for example, several Roman Catholic clergy sat on the drafting committee of a major piece of Kenyan legislation that undercut reproductive and LGBTQ rights, as Rev. Fr. Lucas Ongesa Manwa of the Kenyan Conference of Bishops told me at the September 2016 Nairobi conference.
Proposed by the Kenyan Ministry of Labor and Social Protection in 2016, the National Family Promotion and Protection Policy (NFPPP) was an addendum to the Kenyan 2010 Constitution. The Constitution, along with the 2015 Anti-Domestic Violence Act, had enshrined progressive gender equality principles into law. The NFPPP was intended to undo some of that work, by repealing two articles of the Constitution that had been particularly hard-fought: one allowing for legal abortion,6 and one providing anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people.7
The initial fight over the Constitution had been fierce, drawing international advocates on both sides. U.S. anti-LGBTQ groups such as the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and Human Life International (HLI),8 funded their African allies to oppose the Constitution. In partnership with the Kenya Christian Professionals Forum (an offshoot of ACLJ) and WCF,9 U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) traveled to Kenya and campaigned against the new Constitution legalizing abortion. Nonetheless, in a national referendum Kenyans ultimately approved it by 67 percent.10
The movement to roll back the Constitution’s progressive clauses, however, began almost immediately. The NFPPP is a key weapon in that fight, and its proponents are transparent about their aims.
“Our Constitution protects homosexuals and allows abortion—we are working to change this,” Ann Kioko, a campaign manager for CitizenGO and organizer of the 2016 WCF conference in Nairobi, told me. Fr. Manwa also confirmed that the NFPPP was an effort to conservatize the document. Fr. Prof. Richard N. Rwiza, another priest who sat on the drafting committee, was even blunter: “The current Constitution is too liberal,” he told me. “It allows abortion and homosexuality… Definitely, the policy will rectify this shortfall.”
Although scholars have found conclusive evidence that homosexuality and abortion existed in pre-colonial Africa, Kioko, Fr. Rwiza, and other conference participants repeated a common argument: that homosexuality and abortion were against Kenyan “traditional culture.” But their arguments read less as a defense of traditional Kenyan values than a barely-disguised recapitulation of Catholic doctrine. In fact, this was so much the case that, in many instances, the draft NFPPP contains language nearly identical to official Vatican publications, including writings by Pope Francis himself. The NFPPP reads:
The challenge is posed by the various forms of the ideology of gender that denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female.11
Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, published in 2016, is an almost perfect match:
Yet another challenge is posed by the various forms of an ideology of gender that denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female.12
The document employed other Vatican writings as well. On religion and culture, the Kenyan draft policy states:
Throughout the centuries, different religions maintain their constant teaching on marriage and family by promoting the dignity of marriage and family and defining marriage as a community of life and love.13
This is a neat echo of the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops, which reads:
Throughout the centuries, the Church has maintained her constant teaching on marriage and family…promoting the dignity of marriage and the family.14
A section in the NFPPP dedicated to the media also repeated Pope John Paul II’s message for the 2004 World Communications Day, in which he warned about the press’s “capacity to do grave harm to families by presenting an inadequate or even deformed outlook on life, on the family, on religion and on morality.”15
The similarities in these statements are no coincidence. The Roman Catholic Church is one of the most influential and intellectually organized civil society institutions in Africa. Thus Catholic bishops, priests and laity—helped along by U.S. Catholic groups such as Human Life International (HLI) and the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM, formerly the Center for Family and Human Rights) and the U.S. Christian Right—are strategically employing the Vatican’s ideas in policy development in Africa.16
As Professor Mary Anne Case of the University of Chicago Law School argues, “whether speaking as an ‘expert on humanity’…or as a state actor...[the Vatican’s] emphasis is on the imperative to influence secular law and policy in line with the Vatican vision.”17 The Vatican doctrine of “complementarity”—the idea that men and women have distinct, complementary roles—Case notes, is the foundation of its ideological opposition to sexual liberation and LGBTQ rights. When the Vatican takes on the role of a state actor, Case continues, its bishops act as Vatican ambassadors. And the Vatican’s foreign policy agenda becomes visible in its advocacy to ensure that its religious views are integrated into secular law and policy. And that agenda, overseen by Pope Francis, is at clear odds with the progressive image he’s cultivated.
The Vatican and Gender Theory
The Vatican’s opposition to "gender theory" is a reaction to the argument, best articulated by feminist theorist Judith Butler, that sex, gender, and sexuality are historical social constructs that have been instead cast as immutable facts of nature. Butler’s analysis contradicts conservative views of gender as biologically determined, and also opposes “compulsory heterosexuality,” as well as the social “cultivation of discrete sexes with ‘natural’ appearances and ‘natural’ heterosexual dispositions.”18
By contrast, conservative Catholic ideas of complementarity view sex as biological and God-given. By permitting diverse gender identities and conceptions of what constitutes family and marriage, Butler’s work threatened Catholic orthodoxy. As Paris-based feminist scholar Sara Garbagnoli writes in Religion and Gender, the Vatican saw “gender as the Trojan horse of ‘ideological colonization’ denying a biological truth and produced by a powerful lobby.”19
The Vatican responded, in various statements and pronouncements. As Cynthia Weber of the University of Sussex notes, “Butler’s book Gender Trouble was critiqued in the theological writings of Cardinal Ratzinger, heavily implied in his 2008 address to the Roman Curia once he became Pope Benedict XVI, and lingers in Pope Francis’s concerns about ‘gender indoctrination.’”20
The Pontifical Council for the Family’s Lexicon: Ambiguous and Debatable Terms Regarding Family Life and Ethical Questions, published in 2003, also helped spread anti-LGBTQ sentiment in Europe. As Garbagnoli writes, “‘gender ideology’ became a useful political category used by different groups and activists to block social and legal reforms that affected LGBTQ people.”21 In Italy, she argues, the influence of the Roman Catholic hierarchy on politics has undermined LGBTQ rights in Parliament,22 as in 2007, when the Italian Conference of Bishops organized a “Family Day” that led to the defeat of the “governmental bill that would have granted a limited form of legal protection for same-sex couples.”23 In France in 2011, she continued, “the expressions ‘gender theory’ and ‘sexual gender theory’ entered the French Parliament,” and the Vatican and its French bishops provided “rhetoric and organizational resources” to anti-“gender ideology” protestors: casting gender theory as responsible for same-sex marriage, and thus a threat to children.24
But the true origins of this anti-gender activism, Garbagnoli finds, are within the U.S. Right, which, like the Vatican, views feminist deconstruction of gender as a threat to the future of the human family.25 In 1995, the U.S. right-wing Catholic writer Dale O’Leary presented to the Vatican her position paper, “The Deconstruction of Women: Analysis of the Gender Perspective in Preparation for the Fourth World Conference (in Beijing, China) on Women,” which later became the basis for her book, The Gender Agenda, in which she advocates a “new feminism” grounded in complementarity.26 (Although O’Leary’s work drew on Pope John Paul II’s earlier pronouncements about gender and feminism, it was The Gender Agenda that popularized this strategic frame.) Her book was translated into Italian and presented at the Library of the Italian Senate in 2006. It was O’Leary’s analysis, Garbagnoli argues, that shaped the Vatican’s ideological arguments on homosexuality.27
But the opposition to LGBTQ rights didn’t end with Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Mario Pecheny, professor of political science at the University of Buenos Aires, documents Pope Francis’s opposition to sexual and gender equality in Argentina. In 2010, Pope Francis—then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio and President of the Argentine Episcopal Conference—strongly opposed same-sex marriage in words that mirror the U.S. Christian Right. Legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption, he argued, would “seriously damage the family.” He warned:
Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a “move” of the father of lies (Satan) who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.28
In 2010, after Argentina legalized same-sex marriage, he wrote that the new law was “a tool of the ‘destructive pretension against the plan of God’” as well as “the Demon’s envy, by which sin entered the world, and which slyly aims to destroy God’s image: man and woman.”29
Contrary to his public statements, Pope Francis’s anti-LGBTQ actions have been consistent. For instance, during the November 2014 Vatican-organized interfaith Colloquium Humanum (attended by U.S. Christian Right leaders such as Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren30), Francis argued that the family “can’t be qualified by ideological notions” and “complementarity is a root of marriage and family.”31 He’s made similar statements in his writings.32
While Pope Francis’s second encyclical, Laudato Si’,33 which focused on environmental justice, is widely celebrated for highlighting the realities of ecological challenges, its opposition to gender theory is apparent:
Valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.34
The concept of complementarity informs his opposition to sexual health and reproductive rights, as he writes, “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.”35
Unlike in Laudato Si’, where complementarity is a relatively minor point, Amoris Laetitia36 dedicates various sections to the “ideology of gender.” To Pope Francis, the family is built around a heteronormative couple—male and female. Since developments in gender studies challenge this assumption, he writes:
The weakening of this maternal presence with its feminine qualities poses a grave risk to our world. I certainly value feminism, but one that does not demand uniformity or negate motherhood. For the grandeur of women includes all the rights derived from their inalienable human dignity but also from their feminine genius, which is essential to society. Their specifically feminine abilities—motherhood in particular—also grant duties, because womanhood also entails a specific mission in this world, a mission that society needs to protect and preserve for the good of all.37
And his opposition extends to other issues of LGBTQ rights. While Francis has been praised by progressives for a line in Amoris Laetitia that many interpreted as an endorsement of same-sex relationships—“We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability”—that isn’t his full meaning. In the same document, he writes, same-sex unions “may not simply be equated with marriage”; that only the “union between a man and a woman” has a critical “role to play in society”; and that “No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.”38
Contradictory Vatican positions on LGBTQ issues
In the wake of Uganda’s 2009 Anti-Homosexuality bill, which sought the death penalty for homosexuality, international outcry was intense. The Holy See at the United Nations joined the condemnation, releasing a statement to the UN General Assembly declaring its opposition to “all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation which undermines the inherent dignity of the human person.”39 The statement further opposed “the murder and abuse of sexual minorities,” and called “on all States and individuals to respect the rights of all persons and to work to promote their inherent dignity and worth.”
The human rights community applauded the Vatican statement, and it seemed that the Vatican had successfully deflected responsibility for anti-LGBTQ movements in African countries onto U.S. conservative evangelicals, who had strongly influenced Uganda’s bill. All the while, however, the Church was endorsing similar anti-LGBTQ campaigns led by U.S.-based Catholic groups such C-FAM and HLI.
The 2009 statement followed the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church (the official Roman Catholic doctrine), which acknowledges the existence of same-gender loving people “through the centuries.”40 While the Catechism views LGBTQ persons as deserving of respect and compassion,41 it also views their sexual acts as “intrinsically disordered,” since they do not lead to procreation, and holds that, “Under no circumstances can they be approved.”42
Other Vatican writings, such as the 2003 Considerations written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict), call on Roman Catholic politicians to oppose same-sex unions and the adoption of children by same-sex couples, and to protect “young people [from] erroneous ideas about sexuality and marriage that would deprive them of their necessary defenses and contribute to the spread of the phenomenon.”
Thus the Vatican, like the Christian Right, justifies the creation of new anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion legislation by presenting gender and sexual minorities as threats to traditional family values, providing a rationale for discrimination and violence against them. Notably, since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has been silent on discrimination against African LGBTQ people. On his 2015 African tour, for example, he condemned corruption and demonstrated solidarity with Muslims in the Central African Republic, but said nothing about the killings and human rights violations against LGBTQ individuals across the continent.
The pontiff’s visit followed years of persecution and demonization of gender and sexual minorities in various African countries, as well as the expansion of anti-homosexuality laws and arrests of LGBTQ people in many nations. In 2014, bishops in Uganda and Nigeria praised their countries’ chief executives for signing anti-LGBTQ bills. (In Nigeria, they further commended President Goodluck Jonathan for courageously fighting the Western conspiracy to make Africa “the dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices that have continued to debase the purpose of God for man in the area of creation and morality, in their own countries.”) The same year, despite the Vatican’s opposition to criminalization and violence against LGBTQ people, bishops from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia jointly advocated for the criminalization of same-sex unions that they cast as unnatural and alien to African cultures.43 Additionally, as political science professor Meredith Weiss has noted, some African countries began a trend of “anticipatory” or “pre-emptive” legislation,44 passing anti-LGBTQ marriage and adoption laws even while it’s still a crime in these nations to be openly LGBTQ.
This climate compelled the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to pass a resolution to protect sexual minorities. The resolution spoke against “acts of violence, discrimination, and other human rights violations; ‘corrective’ rape, physical assaults, torture, murder, arbitrary arrests, detentions, extra-judicial killings, and executions, forced disappearances, extortion, and blackmail.”45 It also forced President Obama to publicly back LGBTQ rights during his Africa tours.
But rather than adding his voice to the Commission’s and President Obama’s, Francis used similar rhetoric as the Christian Right and the World Congress of Families to inveigh against the “colonial” spread of “gender theory” around the world, including in African countries, during a 2016 meeting with bishops from Poland:46
In Europe, America, Latin America, Africa, and in some countries of Asia, there are genuine forms of ideological colonization taking place. And one of these—I will call it clearly by its name—is [the ideology of] “gender.” Today children—children!—are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex. Why are they teaching this? Because the books are provided by the persons and institutions that give you money. These forms of ideological colonization are also supported by influential countries. And this [is] terrible!47
A similar argument is made in Amoris Laetitia, where he denounced Global North countries for linking financial aid to the acceptance of same-sex marriage.48
Pope Francis’s characterization of sexual rights as a form of “colonization” had wide impact. His words were part of the theme for the November-December 2017 WCF-sponsored anti-LGBTQ conference in Lilongwe, Malawi. As was the case in Kenya, Archbishop Thomas Luke Msusa of Malawi’s Roman Catholic Episcopal Conference was among the speakers—testifying to the growing partnership between U.S. conservatives and African Roman Catholicism.
The previous May, the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary of Denver held its own anti-LGBTQ summit, Framing a Catholic Response to Gender Ideology, which was advertised by a pamphlet that read, “The Church faces a serious challenge from an organized and sweeping agenda... which Pope Francis has characterized as ‘ideological colonization.’” The pamphlet further paraphrased Francis as saying that gender theory:
…is having a devastating impact on children and teens; ignore [sic] God as Creator and promotes a view of individual autonomy which is simply sinful; redefines the parent-child relationship, casting parents as “oppressing” children by raising them as boys or girls; and undermines basic Christian anthropology by defining the person as a disembodied mind and the body as a mere instrument.49
For Christian Right activists who have long argued against sexual liberation, the pope’s comments are a reason to celebrate. As the embattled former county clerk Kim Davis told ABC News, after meeting with Francis in 2015, “Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we’re doing and agreeing, you know, it kind of validates everything.”50
Not Yet the People’s Pope
Pope Francis has been celebrated for his progressive views on various issues. But on sexuality and gender identity, he is as conservative as his predecessors. His opposition to gender theory is an even greater threat to LGBTQ human rights than the U.S. Christian Right he has made common cause with, given the size and scope of the faith he represents.
Pope Francis’s compassion for the poor, refugees, and immigrants, and his defense of the environment, all deserve applause. However, Christian solidarity demands he visits LGBTQ refugees in South Africa or Kenya, who have fled repression in other African nations. He needs to hear their stories of persecution, violence, corrective rape, and murder—and to act on that knowledge—if he is truly to become the people’s pope.⬛