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To Africans, homosexuality a mystery to be understood

  • October 22, 2015

In light of the debates at the Synod on the Family in Rome, it is relevant to reflect on marriage from an African Christian perspective at a time when many Catholic homosexuals are suffering due to disagreement on their place in the  Church.

When it comes to marriage, there is general support in Africa among Catholics, Protestants, African traditional religionists and Muslims for heterosexual marriage and opposition to same-sex unions. In Catholicism, marriage is embraced as a cultural institution which, in the light of Christian revelation, has been elevated to the level of a sacrament. It is one channel through which God wishes to bring human beings to the fulfilment of their human vocation and their ultimate salvation.

But Christianity must respect the cultural traditions through which people embrace marriage. When these are not respected, confusion and crisis can occur. The division between the Anglican Communions in Africa and the Anglican Churches in the West is partly the result of disagreement on the definition of marriage. This would also occur in the Catholic Church if the Synod led to same-sex marriage being sanctioned.  

Synod delegates need to engage in discernment and examine the cultural factors behind the advocacy for same-sex marriage. It would be wrong for the  Church or Western governments to foist on Africans something which their cultures reject, or to judge African values negatively because  Africans reject certain values embraced in Western constitutions. As many African bishops have argued, this would amount to a spiritual imperialism and cultural colonization that Africa would strongly resist.

Africa’s opposition to same-sex marriage is cited by some as an example of African backwardness when it comes to social progress. That is unfair. Almost a century ago American sociologist Wilfred Ogburn warned of culture lag, when the symbols of culture move faster than the values and ethical considerations by which they should be governed. People, he said, make life choices and embrace innovation without first framing these new choices with a relevant value. Due to this lag, people often only learn if they’ve made a good or bad choice after they experience the consequence of their choice.

When it comes to the debate on same-sex relations, one cannot simply conclude that a value preference made by one culture, religion or nation is better without first applying a range of value judgments. These judgments should consider how a particular choice will further the ultimate and long-term good of individuals and society. And that calls for thorough and open dialogue, rather than simply choosing what is convenient and expedient.

 For that reason African bishops are calling for a greater examination of the situations of people with same-sex attraction. This is a first step towards developing a respectful, loving and holistic response short of hastily conferring marriage rights, which many African theologians regard as a quick-and-easy solution.

The Church needs to step back from the secular arguments that are driving this advocacy and regard the issue in the light of revelation and the cultural traditions of Catholicism. Many African Christian leaders believe homosexuality is not a problem to be solved. It is a mystery to be understood in light of our human limitations and imperfections. It is not an orientation for which rights should be conferred but a human condition which requires involvement of the community to develop a response which respects the good of both the individual and the community.

In African thinking, marriage and family life are not rights to be conferred by the state or the Church.  The Church and state have no such authority. What they can do is recognize the gifts which individuals bring to the community and create structures so these gifts can lead to the fulfilment of the individual. The rights of the individual cannot stand above the community but are the necessary consequence of belonging to a community.

What African society needs to work out is how to respect and embrace the homosexual person, especially where there is prejudice, discrimination and abuse. But this is not just an African issue; it is a global issue because recognizing the rights of gays has not stopped discriminatory practices against them, even in the West.

How can the Church accompany those who are struggling with their sexual identity? How can it become a non-judgmental Church where all people can find a home? What kind of pastoral ministry can be developed to ensure an open and respectful space where people of all sexual orientations can experience love, acceptance, healing and a sense of inclusion?

These are questions the Synod should be addressing, rather than getting caught up in a divisive marriage-rights discourse.

(Fr. Chu Ilo is a research professor at the Centre for World Catholicism and Intercultural theology at DePaul University in Chicago.)