There have been suggestions in the recent past criticizing the communiqué that was produced at the end of the AMECEA (Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa) plenary assembly and insinuating that in matters dealing with homosexual unions, what the Church in this region has said is at variance with indications from His Holiness Pope Francis and the teachings of the Catholic Church contained in its own catechism.
Although it’s not within the tradition of the Catholic Church in Malawi to be engaging people in the media over misrepresentations of the Church’s doctrine (there are many of those, by the way!), the levels of interest generated by this accusation and the potential this line of thinking has in misleading and confusing people is such that I have been compelled to put a few thoughts together and situate the matter raised in the communiqué in its rightful context. I will do so by situating the homosexual union issue within the context of the communiqué, secondly, within the wider teachings and indications of the Catholic Church.
Homosexual Unions and the AMECEA Communiqué
It is important to understand that every time the Bishops within the AMECEA region meet (and that is once every three years and from now it will be once every four years), their discussions are guided by a theme that they carefully choose for themselves. This time around, for the meeting that was held in Malawi, the guiding theme was “New Evangelization through True Conversion and Witnessing to Christian Faith”.
The theme was chosen to reflect and explore the linkages between the Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus, the Synod on Evangelization and the just-ended Year of Faith. Recurrent in this theme are issues of (i) New Evangelization; (ii) true conversion, and (iii) witnessing to the Christian faith.
For the practical purposes of discussing this theme, as is the case in many such meetings, the theme was subdivided in seven subthemes, one of which focused on the role of the family and Small Christian Communities. It is in this context, and after thorough discussions, that the Bishops sought to defend the role of the family against all kinds of threats, including the very definition of family. It is in this defense that the Bishops mentioned the issue of homosexual unions, and this is what they said:
The threat to the family in our region is now more real than ever before . . . We affirm institution of marriage as an indissoluble union of love between a man and a woman open to procreation and denounce any attempt to redefine this institution. Family life must be promoted and protected so that it can provide men and women who can weave a social fabric of peace and harmony. We strongly condemn same sex unions and other deviations that go against human nature and natural law. (see point no. 3 of the Communiqué)
So what the one hundred Bishops (including Archbishops and Cardinals) from the eight countries did was simply in this regard to affirm the definition of marriage as an indissoluble (that is, life long and therefore no divorce!) union of love between a man and a woman (that is, not people of the same sex nor with species other that human beings!) open to procreation (that is, with an inherent readiness to have children). This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches and this is what the Church has held and passed on for centuries (see, the Catechism of the Catholic Church No.1601 and The Code of Canon Law, canon 1055). In the communiqué, the Bishops are not talking about homosexuality per se – no – the Bishops are talking about homosexual unions prompted by what they see as misguided efforts to redefine marriage and family to include homosexual unions.
Homosexual Unions and the wider teachings and indications of the Catholic Church
Understanding the difference between homosexuality and homosexual unions is key to comprehending and appreciating the various pronouncements and teachings of the Catholic Church in these matters. Homosexuality as a sexual orientation or a tendency is different from a homosexual action or even union. When one is a homosexual, it does not mean that he or she will actively indulge in homosexual acts just like when one is heterosexual it does not mean that he or she will actively indulge in heterosexual activities. One may be homosexual in orientation and not engage in homosexual acts, and one may not be a homosexual and nevertheless indulge in homosexual acts (as is the case with heterosexuals living in the limited conditions in of prisons).
Following this distinction, the teaching of the Catholic Church has always been that the homosexual condition is disordered, but not sinful in itself. It is in line with this teaching that His Holiness Pope Francis in July 2013 said that he would not judge anyone for their sexual orientation. However, once a person with this orientation or indeed a person without this orientation indulges in homosexual acts, the Church has always taught that such acts must always be judged as objectively evil and totally unacceptable. The homosexual unions that the AMECEA communiqué condemns are but homosexual actualizations and not homosexual condition or orientation! A homosexual union is not on the level of sexual tendency or orientation, it is on the level of sexual act!
So it is indeed that in the same one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, when we are dealing with homosexual acts and unions, the Church does not miss its words: these are objectively evil and totally unacceptable; but in front of the homosexual orientation and homosexual persons, the attitude of the Church is non judgmental; yes their condition is disordered but not sinful in itself.
So, for those who understand the teachings of the Catholic Church and the inherent truth in them, there is no contradiction in substance, meaning or direction between what the AMECEA Bishops have said in their communiqué and what Pope Francis and the Catechism of the Catholic Church say on the same!
The moral dialectic employed by the Catholic Church in its teachings where certain actions are judged to be objectively right or wrong while at the same time refraining from judging the actual persons is in line with and stems from Jesus’ own ethical indications: condemn sin but love the sinner! What the Episcopal Conference of Malawi Bishops wrote in their Pastoral letter, Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality, Abortion, Population and Birth control, underscores this dialectic:
The Church’s ministers must ensure that homosexual persons and those indulging in homosexual acts, if any exist in their care will not be misled to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is morally acceptable option. It is not. (However) as a loving mother and reflecting the unconditional love of God, the Church understands that for most of the homosexual persons, their condition is a trial. As such, they must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. (see 3.1.3 page 8)
So what the AMECEA Communiqué, the Pope and the Catechism of the Catholic Church say on this matter belong to the teaching heritage of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church! No contradictions at all!
- Fr. George Buleya is Secretary General of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi.